Paced and purposeful, Nabil Al Kendi has the look of a happily busied man. In the role of chief development officer, he was, until last month, responsible for overseeing the development of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, which is arguably the most extensive single masterplan ever witnessed by the emirate.
The name of the island is associated a sense of well-being in Arabic, and as Al Kendi explains, there is plenty of Saadiyat to share with those willing to participate.
However, while Saadiyat Cultural District — with its dramatic triumvirate of museums — may well be the lynchpin of the 24km2 island’s blueprint, the truer aspiration of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) is to develop Saadiyat into a thriving and lasting community that will ultimately hold some 145,000 people. With this vision in mind, TDIC is extending a hand to one and every sound investor with an eye for the future.
“Saadiyat is a huge island and it has a variety of districts. Our role as the master developer of Saadiyat, as well as other projects, is to encourage and welcome investors and other developers,” he explains. “Most of the masterplan is done, and we have planned out the land uses, for instance, the beach district for residential and hospitality projects.
“Here, along with the St. Regis hotel we have the Park Hyatt, which is not a TDIC development — it was done by Abu Dhabi National Hotels — this was the first. But for other partners to invest in the island, they need to make money, so we are making sure to integrate the right infrastructure to encourage this and bring the island up.”
In the varied role as not just a master developer but also the developer on individual projects, TDIC is in a position to optimally align its real estate interests with the interests of the community.
Setting TDIC’s benchmark on standards in this field are the various villas and apartments on Saadiyat, which flow in a swathe of residential space along the spine of the beach district and golf course. Al Kendi notes: “421 villas have been stretched over five kilometres, all along the golf course. They are a really special touch — you hardly see these types of development in Abu Dhabi. There are a good number: neither too many nor too few, and Saadiyat is becoming a top address in the capital.”
On the Saadiyat Beach Villas, Al Jaber Building as the main contractor, together with Hilalco on infrastructure, have presently completed two phases, and a third is well on its way, while at the same time TDIC also has an apartment option.
“The Saadiyat Beach Residences comprise six buildings and almost 500 units. Three of those have been handed over and the overall development is doing fantastically — most of the units released have gone,” notes Al Kendi. “Our developments are among projects setting the tone and prices in Abu Dhabi. Before we had all the visionary projects, but right now we have more than 1,000 families living in Saadiyat — it has become a community.”
Dhabi Contracting, in its lead role on this project, noted TDIC’s crisp team work, and drive for quality transformed a potentially unremarkable half-dozen five-storey structures.
Al Kendi confirms: “On our projects all over Saadiyat, quality is something that we don’t sacrifice. If you go to our apartments, the size, the quality, the finish — it is all high-end and we have spent extra on it. The regular customer maybe doesn’t see it as they come in, but as they live in it they will really understand the value of all of these extra elements.”
On top of this intrinsic emphasis quality, Saadiyat’s masterplan also makes provision for community infrastructure like a public beach inaugurated earlier this year. In a vindicatory measure of the demand, the new facility received 6,000 visitors in the first couple of weeks. Through such successes TDIC has demonstrated the clear, even avid, demand for its end result.
This attention to detail will also play an important role in determining the fate of the next stage in the evolution of Saadiyat in 2014, when a branch of New York University open its doors to 2,500 students. In a telling indicator of promise, the anchor institution has already in turn lured in Abu Dhabi’s own rendition of the UK’s Cranleigh School, with which Saadiyat will be able to provide education from pre-school to university.
Al Kendi notes: “The university neighbourhood is a unique masterplan that we have come up with. We don’t want to do everything ourselves — we have released 38 plots to open the door for investors to develop. The university will involve numerous faculties and administrative people, and there are lots of things we could do to make it a community and to generate these opportunities. It is going to be one of the most active areas within both Saadiyat and all of Abu Dhabi.”
In terms of this community development approach it is worth mentioning Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. TDIC was tasked in 2006 by the government to developed the masterplan.
“We are supporting the nature-based tourism vision and we began by upgrading some of the infrastructure that was already there. For example, there was a small runway that we fixed up, and we’re working with Abu Dhabi Civil Aviation to turn that into an international airport, so that we can receive customers from within the region directly. So, in future, people coming from Qatar or Saudi Arabia might potentially be able to go through immigration there — that’s a process that we are working on,” says Al Kendi.
“One of our main focuses is Sir Bani Yas Island, though the Western Region authorities have a vision for other areas as well. We are not part of this, but we are open for any discussion — we are here to assist, and as part of the government we are proud to serve and share our knowledge and experience.”
Another major project on the island is an Anantara hotel complex, the main hotel of which has around 80 rooms. “We have just completed 30 villas that are also being managed by Anantara but addressing a different market,” he says. “Many of them have their own swimming pool, so it’s more luxury, it’s more privacy, it’s all of that, so in terms of product line I think we have quite a good mix. The construction faced challenges, but so far the delivery is going extermely well, and I hope we continue this good story.”
TDIC also has the Eastern Mangroves development near Abu Dhabi’s business airport, and which is now in the last stages with the handover of its final apartments. Al Kendi comments: “I see this year as a successful year for TDIC and as a year of delivery, where we have kept our promises and delivered the projects that we were mandated to do. Honestly, when I look at Sir Bani Yas, it’s different from what we’re doing in Eastern Mangroves or what we’re doing in Abu Dhabi. Each is different, but all have been delivered to the level of quality TDIC is known for.”
Overall, however, TDIC’s attention has already shifted squarely to Saadiyat. Al Kendi highlights: “We also have the construction of the museums, with the contracts signed for the Louvre at the beginning of this year, and it is moving ahead as per the schedule to finish in end of 2015. We are also going ahead with the Zayed National Museum, finalising all of the design and the geography and everything related to getting things built, and the Guggenheim is going ahead at full speed on the construction design.”
Inter-linking these structural megaliths into a contiguous cultural district will be a mall area for which a number of design proposals are circulating, including one for an open-air high-street. “We need to make sure that this zone is not dead at night. We have the museums, and we will have something in between so that it’s active all the time. We don’t want to do a typical mall here, but a mall that really suits the cultural district and the three amazing museums surrounding it, so whatever development goes in there has to be something special to be sat there — that is what we are thinking.”
Whatever the outcome of this proces, it is expected to, in some way, incorporate both open space and also closed space. “We have five or six of months in the year when it is quite dependable good weather. For the other six months, I know, but we are working on new technologies to go around it. We cannot drop the temperature to the 20°C indoors, but we are working towards making it better than other areas — that is our vision.”
An emphasis on the great outdoors is a strong theme across the whole of Saadiyat, and there are plans for running and cycling tracks on the island as part of the extensive landscaping. “One of our main pillars within Saadiyat is the lavish landscape. As you come through the express highway you will see our landscape is great, and as you come through the community you will see that it is fully landscaped and nicely done — that’s what we are after,” Al Kendi explains.
Keeping it green, talks are also underway with the Department of Transport, with remarkable foresight, for various mass-transport systems, including on the possibility of a light rail transit system.
Al Kendi highlights: “We have provisioned everything for it, so if you go to Khalifa Bridge, there is a provision in the middle for such things in the future, so we have provided the infrastructure for that. It is the same whenever we go about our development — we make sure to always keep the right of way or access for such things.” Bus and taxi infrastructure has also been built in, and the services are already running in the communities.
“It’s a huge development, and there’s lots of work to be done,” says Al Kendi. “Perhaps we will receive other mandates from the government, and that’s our job, but for right now we have plenty to do.” Looking beyond this, perhaps to 2018, by which point all major works should be complete, the hope is for Saadiyat Island to be realised as the downtown of Abu Dhabi. But for now, he says: “The aim of the game is to get Saadiyat developed.
“The museums are the talk of the town, and they are the jewel for our developments, because they’re not something that’s frequent in this region, and we are doing three — but while they are amazing projects, we have more to offer.”
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