The start of something big

A look at the plans for Abu Dhabi's capital district

James Reed of the Urban Planning Council (UPC).
James Reed of the Urban Planning Council (UPC).

Abu Dhabi’s capital district is taking sustainability as far as it will go, as the emirate’s star internationally continues to rise.

Abu Dhabi’s landmark plans for its capital district will be driven by a dual effort towards both environmental and ‘cultural sustainability’, combining local and international knowledge, says James Reed of the Urban Planning Council (UPC).

The development manager for the district, said in an interview on the second day of Cityscape Abu Dhabi that the UPC’s 20-year plans and assistance for the implementation of those plans will provide a ‘model for how master plans are executed’.

“UPC is taking a central role regarding planning and assisting in the implementation. We’re not the developer but assembling planners property owners and facilitating executors.”

On the other side of the UPC’s stand from the big screen that relayed to onlookers at regular intervals a video feature of the project, the Texan-bred manager said his recent entrance into Middle East development presented familiar fundamentals as working in the US – except for the double-speed of execution.

“I didn’t really have a ‘transition’,” he explained. “The basic project assembly, land, money and buildings are the same. Then at the next level it becomes ‘real estate’ – from non-market issues to market issues. Then you are asking ‘will this building do what we want it to do?’

“We’re combining all these things through the Urban Planning Council and the Abu Dhabi government. We’re taking the energy, money and leadership of the government, of where it wants to go, to
create a sustainable city that is also culturally sustainable.”

He added that although the drive to be green ‘will always be a big part’, the project must keep its focus on the end users of the retail, commercial and residential developments. This is what is meant by culturally sustainable. “If people don’t want to be there, if no-one lives there, then it’s just a series of buildings.”

Reed’s experience arguably leaves him well-placed to help with the implementation of the project and fit the holistic ‘macro scale’ of the government’s plans.

He has worked in all three main elements of construction – design, development and finance. Most recently this has been in project finance for a hedge fund, where he essentially provided the bridge between investors and the asset management division – ‘neither of these two are real estate experts’. This role, he says, ended last year when commercial development was waning in the US and Europe.

Private finance, muted recently in the latest stage of the downturn, may grow again through further public-private partnerships for the right investor.

“There’s a conservative outlook as to how outside investment is approached and rightly so. How you leverage real estate has become an important question. Traditionally finance has been government backed, and perhaps Dubai was an example of a change in
that process.

The figures for the capital district are extensive. “The capital covers 45km2, or 45 million m2. There will be 370,000 permanent residents and 450,000 workers and visitors per day on top of that, meaning that the capital district alone could have 820,000 people. We forecast the 1.4 million current population to be as high as three million by 2030.”

The statistics are compiled from several government departments as private research. “This also includes real estate companies and management consultants, asking questions such as ‘how many use the high-speed rail; how many people can be absorbed through retail?”

The capital district will have approximately 3000 villas on plots, single family plots, adjacent to the Khalifa ‘A’ neighbourhood. “Many homes will be for first time buyers,” he said. The infrastructure is to be completed by the end of 2015. “We can factor it so that we can start some areas immediately. The capital district will serve as the home of the central government, municipalities, as well as many of the
larger embassies.”

The development will be subjected to the Estidama system, which is based on LEED criteria but more specifically suited to the Middle Eastern climate.

At the core of Estidama – whose code book is now in full effect – is its Pearl Rating system, which Reed says is more detailed ‘and includes a few more things’ than LEED. Compared to the US, where sustainability is assessed on a project-by-project basis, Reed said it would apply to fundamental underliers, such as water sustainability.

“We’re looking on a macro scale; so for example,
how does Reem Island and Downtown work together?”

He added that the UPC continues to drive for the Estidama system to be mandatory. “Currently, the LEED system is voluntary; the Estidama system needs to be regulatory. It needs to be part of the approval process, just to encourage developers to ‘build a better building’.

“We’ll apply the most sustainable measures in our land development; not just in the GCC but in the world, everything we do is measured through the Estidama system.

“We’ll have requirements for investors and governments and encourage the utilization of pearl as much as possible. The UPC is taking sustainability as far as we can take it.”

Reed added that this includes where materials are sourced. He said plans for a concrete plant nearby are in the pipeline, as well as a plant to source steel. “We can call our buildings sustainable, but if we’re flying the materials from half-way around the world then it nullifies that carbon offset.”

With such a diverse scheme of projects for the capital district, Reed acknowledges that the price of materials will always be a concern, particularly for steel and cement.

“Steel was up by around 36% for months, and that’s not even the biggest impact. Most of the villas will be in concrete frameworks with concrete blocks, so they’re very
solid constructions.”

These prices will be factored in over the many years of financial monitoring, however. You’ve got to remember that this is 45 km2 over the next 20 years, so [today’s price] cannot be too much of a concern.”

Sustainability will also be represented in the capital district at a human level. The Emirati population of the upcoming villas will continue to develop their skills and this combination with foreign expertise will cement Abu Dhabi on the world stage. Eventually, Emirati building expertise will be a key export.

“Part of economic and sustainability is the transfer of knowledge – the skills that the expatriate community can pass on to the next generation. Most of the construction work will still be carried out by other nations – that will perhaps always be the case – with the Emiratis looking to fulfill analytical positions.

“What’s happening among the Emiratis is a concerted effort to have an impact at all levels. The UPC is a great example of how people can work together – it’s not just talking the talk.”

Despite seeing the similarities between the GCC and the US, he is still impressed by the speed from drawing board to construction, adding that in other countries a project might be restructured a few times in the space between these two stages. And this is clearly a special project overall at a timely Cityscape.

“It’s a very interesting convention – well represented by local developers. People who attend come from all walks of life, so it’s very interesting from an attendee standpoint. Abu Dhabi should be the focus of every consultant out there.

“For me, what’s most it’s the sheer impact of what is planned. Nowhere else in the world is this being repeated.”

Capital district

  • Location - seven kilometres inland south of Abu Dhabi island, between Mohammed bin Zayed City and Abu Dhabi International Airport
  • Land space - 45 km2
  • Residents – 370,000
  • Workers – 450,000
  • Infrastructure project manager
  • (Capital District) - AECOM

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