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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Downtown Dubai: the best of everywhere
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Downtown Dubai: the best of everywhere

The happy cycle of iconic design leading to desirable lifestyles leading to fat property values

Fireworks at the Burj Khalifa. Photo: Mohammed Omar/ReutersPremium
Fireworks at the Burj Khalifa. Photo: Mohammed Omar/Reuters

I am sitting at Kino café, part of the massive Kinokuniya book store in Dubai Mall. It is a lovely spot to work out of—laptop plugged into the sofa (yes sofa), fast Internet, an endless supply of teas, and my favourite snack, edamame. The view is a heart-stopper. The Burj Khalifa soars up like a rocket on pause. The lake sprawls out in front, bursting into a musical fountain show every now and then. The Souk al Bahar, with its Arabic arches, skirts the lake. Work on the new Opera House is in full swing. Beyond are residences, hotels, offices, all within walking distance. You are in the heart of Downtown Dubai. And honestly, it doesn’t get much better.

It all looks so well-oiled and lived in—The Dubai Mall alone welcomed 65 million visitors last year—that it is hard to believe that the Downtown Dubai district opened up just five years ago. An unfair comparison perhaps, but I have watched neighbourhoods come up in Gurgaon—also from scratch—and what a tangled mess it is versus the beauty and ease here. What is it that they do so right? There may be some lessons for us.

I had the opportunity to meet Robert Booth, the CEO of Emaar, the property development company behind Downtown Dubai. What struck me was the vision: The aim is to create one of the world’s great urban destinations. He name-drops deftly—Covent Garden, London (at 500 acres, Downtown Dubai is much bigger), Lincoln Center, New York (he’s just back after studying it), the Ginza, Tokyo (his personal favourite street), Sydney Opera House—until I realize that these are indeed the natural peers and global siblings of Downtown Dubai.

That Emaar is here to make money goes without saying—last year’s revenue $2.5 billion (around 15,575 crore), profit, $600 million—but they believe they can drive value by creating highly desirable lifestyles. This shows in the thinking behind the creation of Downtown Dubai.

Iconic architecture

The first thing they did was to conceive of the Burj Khalifa and place it smack in the centre of Downtown Dubai. It was designed to be an icon—not just the tallest building, but a stunning, enduring visual symbol for the city. There is not just architectural thinking behind it; there is strong-headed commercial thinking too. “If you are in Paris, and your apartment overlooks the Eiffel Tower, there is a value associated with it," Booth says. “Icons create value beyond themselves; they have a ripple effect."

Emaar has fashioned its own Eiffel Tower equivalent, and then built a whole district around it. They spent $1.5 billion making the Burj Khalifa, and it seems unlikely they made money on it directly. But the real estate around it commands a 40% view premium, and it has “paid for the Burj by its placement and planning five times over," says Booth.

The ripple effect? He sees the Downtown district as three concentric circles. The real estate in the uber prime space—the core area around the Burj Khalifa—has a value of $60 billion. Properties in the next circle along the Boulevard are worth $40 billion. And real estate in the outer ring tots up to $25 billion.

Mixed-use communities

Mixed-use communities—where you live, work and play—are nothing new, but Downtown Dubai does it exceptionally well. Take Dubai Mall: It offers a sumptuous mix of retail (a mind-boggling 1,200 tenants) and entertainment. It is different in that the mall isn’t anchored by major retailers, but by the entertainment attractions—the aquarium, the ice rink, the waterfalls, all of which have photo-clicking crowds milling around. The annual retail spending here is $4 billion. 50% of all luxury sales in Dubai happen here. Luxury brand tenants say their Dubai Mall store is No.1, 2 or 3 for them in terms of global sales.

“When we built the biggest mall in the world, our biggest mistake was that we made it too small," says Booth. So they are expanding by another million square feet, and adding 150 tenants.

Place making

Think about the Champs Élysées—it’s a great street to walk on. You may not remember the buildings, but you will cherish the experience of being there. That’s what “place making" is about— creating beautiful spaces where people gather and share unique experiences.

In Downtown Dubai, people collect around the fountains, they hang out in the outdoor cafés around the lake. The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard is coming alive with new eateries, notable among them is the trendy French restaurant La Serre (always packed, book ahead) and the Italian landmark Cipriani, which is constructing a mega-sized property.

Like New York’s Times Square, this has become the place to ring in the New Year in Dubai. Last year, an estimated one million people saw the celebrations, including yours truly. It was spectacular—a multimedia dazzler, the fountains spewing not just water but also fire, live performances, a real orchestra, and the finale at midnight: fireworks flying from the Burj Khalifa, like a mammoth Christmas tree emitting volleys of high-tech sparklers.

Investing in the public realm

I can see our Gurgaon developers baulking at this one—throwing money at the broader community—but here, it seems to make economic sense too. They have invested a huge amount on the musical fountains to provide a public performance “for free". But the crowds that view the show tend to linger for a meal, and invariably shop.

Similarly, for the Boulevard, they spent AED 100 million (around 169 crore) extra on “details" like granite pavements and stainless steel light posts, so that it feels beautiful. They have invested in art pieces that dot the Boulevard—my favourite is the sculpture of a couple in traditional dishdasha and abaya, the man’s statue in pristine white marble, the woman in ebony black stone.

These are the four principles—iconic architecture, mixed-use communities, place making, public realm investments—around which Downtown Dubai was built.

But it doesn’t seem to end there. They are now upping the cultural quotient by building the 2,000-seat Opera House—a dhow-shaped glass building, likely to become another visual icon for Dubai—which can host a Broadway play or the London symphony. A multi-purpose hall, it is so technologically advanced that almost everything moves, including the seats, which can be lifted and stored, and reconfigured to suit the occasion.

And the happy cycle of “iconic design" leading to “desirable lifestyles" leading to “fat property values" will likely continue.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also Read | Radha’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 07 Dec 2013, 12:08 AM IST
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