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Sat 21 Jul 2007 12:00 AM

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Dubai goes downtown

Christopher Sell pays a visit to Downtown Jebel Ali to see how Dubai's boundaries continue to expand.

With land being consumed at an ever-increasing rate, it is inevitable that the traditional boundaries of the city will become less defined. Projects such as Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Lake Towers and Dubai Waterfront, with their own residential and social centres ensure the heart of Dubai is being stretched further along the Arabian Gulf.

Buoyed by a burgeoning infrastructure, Limitless, the real estate development arm of Dubai World, is the latest developer to take a chance and develop away from recognised areas, anticipating Dubai's continued growth.

Stretching 11km down Sheikh Zayed Road, Downtown Jebel Ali will be a 2 million m2 urban centre situated between Jebel Ali Free Zone, Techno Park and Dubai Waterfront. It is being developed according to ‘human scale', emphasising community and sustainable standards of living, and underpinned by a concept that disregards the ubiquitous car and the avoidance of ‘dead space' between buildings.

Downtown Jebel Ali consists of four quarters - East Quarter, East Central, West Central and West Quarter. They will comprise 326 buildings, of which 237 will be residential. The masterplan has adopted a holistic approach, which ensures space in between buildings and pedestrianised, congestion-free zones. It is estimated to house 235,000 people, with 70,000 residents.

Each quarter will be divided into three specific zones: the Urban Centre will feature modern tower blocks and will be the commercial and social hub; the Trellis District will feature trellises projecting from buildings providing shaded, pedestrian-friendly environments; and the Medina District will host mid-to-low rise residential neighbourhoods as well as small plazas to encourage an intimate, family-friendly environment, where people can spill out onto the street, rather than cars occupying all the space.

According to Peter Bisley, development manager, the signature to the Downtown Jebel Ali development is its transport infrastructure. Positioned parallel to Sheikh Zayed Road, and Dubai Metro, the site will capitalise on these links to offer a development that nullifies the need for a car.

"We focused our development on being transport rich. Our development is not based around the car, it is based around sustainable development. That is one of the big issues for us, because our site is very long and linear; how do you get people in there when Salik is installed and operational?"

It's not only the existing toll system that concerns Bisley, rather the expected extension of Salik or equivalent financial charges such as VAT on cars or road taxes, he believes will be introduced in the future that makes an independent transport link essential.

Pivotal to the success of the development is the plan for a Metro station to connect with each zone in Downtown Jebel Ali. Fortunately, Bisley (who admits there had been no guarantee they would obtain it before they set out on the development) says confirmation was given by the RTA that every zone will host a station and will be operational by 2011.

The first zone - the East Quarter - will have its station operational, however, by September 2009.

Bisley also adds credence to the widely held view that the Dubai Metro will eventually link up with Abu Dhabi to ensure a seamless transport link between the two emirates. "We know the line is going to be linked with the Abu Dhabi side as well. That is our understanding; we have had confirmation from the RTA that the remaining stretch to the Abu Dhabi border will be operational in 2011."

Not only will the Dubai Metro provide an invaluable link to the rest of Dubai, the concept sees the station act as the main focus in terms of massing as well, and will be central in the plans of the urban centre in the form of a plaza. Within the East Quarter, four towers have already been constructed by Al Habtoor, and will be ready for occupancy by October. It is currently 75% let. With a waiting list for Jebel Ali Free Zone of two years, Bisley initially expects tenants for Downtown Jebel Ali to stem from companies looking to expand, and is clear that Limitless is not positioning the buildings for transient investors looking for a quick turnaround.

Within each zone, an internal people mover is planned to ensure ease of transportation within zones and alleviate any demand for cars. Two options are currently being considered; one with a driver that runs along a series of magnets in the ground or a driverless one that integrates with pedestrians and drivers. Limitless is currently in discussion with the RTA about a one-ticket system that would operate on the Metro and an internal people mover thereby connecting all of Dubai under one ticketing system, much like London's Oyster system. Negotiations are also taking place with Techno Park to integrate the people mover with its overall development.

Rail links aside, it is also pivotal that road networks are sufficient for the development once it is running at full capacity. For this, a number of key interchanges, between each of the zones, will be built. Bisley explains this requires close negotiation with neighbouring projects Dubai Waterfront and Techno Park to ensure the overall masterplan coordinates with their masterplan, and there is no conflict of uses.

The first interchange - number 8 on Sheikh Zayed Road - is out to tender at the moment with the RTA and should be signed within the next four to six weeks. The construction programme is expected to be around 18 months. The fifth interchange is still undergoing primary discussions, as it will serve not just Downtown Jebel Ali but also Dubai Waterfront.

"Basically, we have our trip numbers, Dubai Waterfront has its trip numbers. We need to ensure we have very good access in and out of each of the zones - that is our specific requirement. We have to achieve that, otherwise the development will not work."

Shaped as it is, in very narrow fashion, skirting the Sheikh Zayed Road for almost 12km, Bisley says the project was not straightforward to plan. "It was a very difficult site to actually masterplan, but it has actually forced us down a route that meets all of our requirements, in terms of sustainable development. Because it is only 350-450m deep, trying to masterplan and integrate that over 12km was difficult. If you get a square area, it is a lot easier to masterplan since you have certain districts whereas here, you have to distribute people around, but I think it has worked quite well." The masterplan was carried out by urban planner, Peter Calthorpe.

It also had to factor in the soon-to-be-opened airport at Dubai World Central, which will be operational by March next year for cargo and cheap-haul flights. This meant there was a ceiling on how high the buildings could go. However, this has meant that architects and designers have had to deliver more innovative designs, rather than relying on height for impact.

With all third-party developers given clear timeline deliveries, work is scheduled to be completed within seven years, although Bisley is hopeful that the majority of work will be completed by 2012. Infrastructure work for zones one and two is expected to begin this week and will take 18 months to complete. The infrastructure contract for zones three and four will be awarded in the next 12 weeks, once the tendering documentation has been finalised.

Certainly, it was a risk to plan a transport-dependent development before receiving confirmation from the RTA that Metro stations will link up with every zone, but it is a gamble that has seemingly paid off. Downtown Jebel Ali, when open, will have in place a comprehensive transport network, which achieves what few other developers can offer - little or even no reliance on a car. With an emphasis on pedestrian channels, plazas and community that is often promised but rarely delivered, and with 95% of zones one, two and three already sold-off, Limitless may well have got itself a masterplan that could reap dividends if - as is likely - it is rolled out across the Middle East and Asia.

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