Patrick Bannon, BDA Communications Manager
In the BDA’s daily pursuit of building a great downtown, it’s our nature to draw inspiration from cities around the world. We look to Paris, New York, Tokyo or San Francisco and other world locales for those defining qualities of greatness.
So, when BDA members travel abroad, we welcome their stories, observations and impressions about what makes a place truly great.
BDA Board Member Kemper Freeman, Jr., provides the most recent set of observations. He made two trips to the coastal Emirate of Dubai in 2007, the first in March for an International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) conference and then a visit six months later with his family to share the Dubai experience. He was amazed how much had changed just in that short time.
“The boom in Dubai is unlike anything you can imagine,” said Freeman. “And it has happened pretty much overnight.”
The pace of development in Dubai is staggering. Hundreds of millions of square feet in office, residential and retail have been built and are underway. Rising from the desert are multiple residential resort complexes easily the size of the Las Vegas “Strip” – or bigger. Development has literally surfaced in the water as well.
Giant artificial palm-shaped islands offer waterfront opportunities for investors and residents. You can still purchase – for $15-45 million – one of the islands that now make up the waterborne development project simply called “The World.”
“You can’t believe how big the palm islands are. You look at pictures, and it seems like fantasy. One of them is at least big enough to house over a million and a quarter people.”
Then there’s the construction of the world’s tallest structure, the towering Burj Dubai, a multi-use project in every sense of the term on its way to more than 2,600 feet when finished in 2008.
Freeman has met Mohammed Ali Alabbar and other members of his leadership team. Ali Alabbar is both Chairman of Emaar Properties - the firm behind the Burj Dubai project - and Director General of Dubai’s Department of Economic Development. He is also very familiar with the Northwest and Downtown Bellevue, Freeman said. Alabbar is a 1981 graduate of Seattle University and received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater last June.
“It’s difficult to imagine the magnitude of the projects," added Freeman. "For example, Alabbar is building a water feature much like the large Bellagio water feature (about 10 acres) in Las Vegas, but his is 36 acres. That’s a water feature the size of all of Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square put together.”
A natural question for Freeman during his visits was about demand. Who’s buying there? Where’s the demand coming from? The answer was pretty clear – from all over.
“Today, the office building vacancy rate is below one percent, and they’re asking for over $100 a foot in average gross rent.
“One of the Dubai hotels is the second most expensive in the world. A shopping center can get $1,200 a foot. If you’re looking for a place to live, say a new condo, you will be standing in line with international investors interested in buying four – four 60-story condo buildings that is. That’s because condo developments are going up in value nearly 30 percent a year.”
Overseeing Dubai’s explosive growth is its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He is also an investor in many of the projects and steward of the vision behind Dubai's transformation as a world capital for commerce, recreation and tourism. And if you want to build a significant project in Dubai, you must present your plans to the Sheikh.
Freeman related the story of a developer who is building one of the world’s largest shopping centers.
“He went to Sheik Mohammed and asked for permission to build his project. The Sheikh said he could build anything he liked as long as he built a huge indoor ski facility. He followed through and ended up selling over $9 million in lift tickets in the first year.”
Freeman admitted a direct comparison to Downtown Bellevue is a stretch. Dubai is Sheikh-ruled with seemingly unlimited resources and ample land to build. There are fewer regulations, though Freeman said they believe their permitting and inspection process to be the best in the world, "not because it's easy, but because it's focused on the legitimate things they should be focused on - making sure it's safe and built well."
Freeman was also struck by the high quality of building design, and the emphasis on comfort for an international clientele. “The growth of Dubai is a truly global effort. People from all over the world are coming to build there. They’re bringing in the best architects, the best contractors, and the best developers.”
Moving people to and through the Emirate is another top priority. Freeman noted the efficient use of the Dubai Creek, a large dredged-out waterway coming in from the Arabian Sea used as a transportation corridor by ships.
“They quickly realized there wasn’t enough capacity on the existing bridge structures, so they built a floating bridge that looks like the 520 bridge in only a few months," said Freeman. "They are also busy building from scratch the transportation infrastructure, including light rail. They’re building an entire light rail system from start to finish in four years.”
A highlight from Freeman’s first Dubai trip was an invitation to meet Sheikh Mohammed in one of his palaces, along with a colleague from the ICSC.
“Sheikh Mohammed has plans to build more than 400 shopping centers throughout the Middle East. So he asked for ICSC’s help to build an educational center and school at his cost. ICSC would supply instructors and curriculum to teach anyone who wanted to come to Dubai and learn the business. It was hard not to say yes to that.”
When asked if he has plans to go back to Dubai, Freeman quickly answered, “You know, I never had any plans go there in the first place, but now I’ve been there twice in one year. I have several friends there. It will always be interesting to see how it’s all working out. It would be fun to go back when the school opens.”
Would Freeman ever consider joining in the Dubai development boom?
“I’m not about to leave here to go there,” he said. “But if I was younger and more adventurous, Dubai is a place you could really fly.”