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From old districts to emerging freehold master developments, wasl is leaving its unmistakable imprint on Dubai’s evolving urban landscape. One of the largest real estate management companies in the country, the firm is now making a name for itself as a high-stakes developer with projects all over Dubai. The leasehold pioneer has also entered the freehold market, establishing its brand with innovative projects such as wasl trio and wasl Park. PW catches up with Hesham Al Qassim, CEO of wasl Asset Management Group, to talk about the company’s development philosophy and new projects.
The completion of wasl trio in Muraqqabat, Deira, is a milestone in transforming the area. You seem to re-energise traditional areas, which sets you apart from other developers solely focused on freehold areas. What drove wasl to add a new residential development to this old district?
The wasl trio project comprises unfurnished apartments, the Hyatt Place hotel, serviced apartments operated by Hyatt Place and a retail component on the ground floor. The project is, therefore, more than just apartments. Before commencing a project, wasl undertakes thorough research of the neighbourhood to identify demand patterns. The above-mentioned asset classes were shown to be the optimum mix for the wasl trio project. The site was previously occupied by unused office buildings, which were demolished to make way for the project.
Rents are said to be adjusting downwards. Does the old part of the city remain a more affordable option, or are rents in your buildings higher?
wasl monitors rents on a regular basis and makes adjustments based on a variety of factors such as the condition of the building, the market and occupancy levels. Currently, our occupancy level is above 99 per cent and tenants are more than happy with our products and services. We have not witnessed any rent reduction in the areas where we operate.
You’re changing the face of Karama with a modern wasl hub. Why this move?
Karama is a popular and vibrant residential community and one of the most established districts in Dubai. Demand in the area is very high and development opportunities are at a premium. When the opportunity arose to regenerate part of this older section of the community, we jumped at the chance to create a new residential and commercial heart for it. wasl’s new Karama buildings feature clean and modern designs that emphasise this rejuvenation, elevating the standard of the neighbourhood, but not at the expense of the neighbours.
The project’s cooling sikkas are an interesting design feature. Will you use them in other projects?
We always look to incorporate new and sustainable ways to improve the usability and comfort of our developments for wasl customers. The sikka cooling system is based on the country’s heritage technology. It is both extremely effective and reflective of the UAE’s innovative culture. As such, it has proven popular in previous projects and is being considered for future developments.
Can we expect more projects of this style in Deira and Karama?
wasl developments are formulated not only to meet but to exceed the expectations of our customers. The design styles themselves reflect those expectations and the surrounding architectural context. Modern and contemporary designs will be incorporated in some of wasl’s future projects. We will also continue to develop properties with a strong local design heritage, which reflect our core corporate values.
We hear the charming, Andalusian-style dar wasl close to Safa Park in Jumeirah is nearing completion. When will you hand over the units and what rent levels will they attract?
dar wasl comprises villas, apartments and a retail component. Construction is completed for some of the villas and these have been released for leasing, with a great response recorded. The rent for the villas starts at Dh250,555. The development’s apartments and retail block is expected to be finalised towards the end of 2015.
wasl vita, which you have already delivered in Jumeirah, has a contemporary Californian look. When do you go for a more traditional or modern design?
A part of our market research and in-depth studies involves assessing the character of each location. We then decide on whether a traditional, contemporary or mixed design would be best to enhance and reinvigorate its environs.
You support the Dubai 2021 plan with projects for future generations. One of them is Jebel Ali’s wasl Gate. What kind of feel will it have?
We want to evoke a welcome feeling and a strong sense of community for wasl Gate. Whether living in, working at or shopping within the development, we want to make it easy for visitors and residents to get where they want to be. Connectivity is an important element of our design philosophy.
The project at the same time has a specific purpose: attract artists and inventors. Is this because we don’t have such a district in Dubai yet?
Dubai is a city that is in a constant state of innovation. Our goal with wasl Gate is to leverage the emirate’s position as a global gateway hub, creating a development that encourages people to come together, connect and collaborate. This is the essence of innovation, where a meeting of minds fosters the creation of new ideas, products and services.
The development is like a city within a city, spread across 15 million sq ft with around 20 million sq ft of built-up space, parks and various facilities. What type of architecture are you looking at?
wasl Gate is a balanced, low-mid density development. Low-density buildings are concentrated on the project’s hillside and centre, while mid-rise buildings are positioned along the Shaikh Zayed Road corridor, which has a direct connection to the Dubai Metro.
What are you planning in the residential segment for wasl Gate?
There are various residential products planned at wasl Gate, including town houses, hillside apartments and courtyard residential buildings. Phase one will be predominantly residential, supported by community retail with an emphasis on contemporary design and good ergonomics. Our design approach is striving to be both contemporary and elegant, within a neo-village context.
What is the timeline of the project?
wasl Gate will be a freehold project with a development horizon of 15-plus years. We will be providing a phasing timeline in the near future. We are working to kick off the detail design of phase one at the moment and are evaluating our delivery dates concurrently with respect to market conditions.
Moving on to wasl Park 1, which is yet another fascinating project. Could you explain the design elements?
Our initial design vision incorporates two towers connected at their apex, which depicts the outline of the number one from the Dubai Frame viewing deck. We will be looking to enhance the design in the near future to see how we can strengthen the visual appearance of the numerical aspect of the design. All towers in the development will have their own unique identity, while sharing a similar architectural language.
Number one sounds like it would become a very prestigious address to live at. What types of residential properties are you planning there?
We are building upmarket and contemporary high-rise building towers that will sit on top of a podium structure. The podiums will contain retail at the ground level with residential and office space at upper podium levels. The residential towers are distributed throughout the entire development.
What will the 1.3-millionsq-ft master-plan development contain?
One key principle of the master plan was to bring Zabeel Park into the development by establishing a lush gardenscape leading into a central plaza. More than 10 per cent of the project’s land area is dedicated to landscape, which is quite significant for a city centre urban development. This is a major freehold project in the city centre that will transform urban living in Dubai through its park-side amenities, direct connections to the metro and pedestrian-friendly environment. It will feature all the facilities and services required for a high-quality, comfortable lifestyle.
Tell us about the snow fountain you plan to include in this project.
We are working on evaluating the technology behind the snow geyser with various parties. The idea is to provide a temporary cooling effect when the snow is released. Our landscape philosophy is one of creating immersive experiences for visitors as they sit in the gardens in the central plaza or walk through the water feature. One particularly exciting immersive experience given Dubai’s renowned heat would be to feel the cool of snow flakes landing on your arm — this is just one of the advanced features we are currently working on.
Who are the consultants of this fascinating project?
Martha Schwartz helped to develop our landscape vision. We are working with various reputable local and international parties to turn this vision into a reality.
On the hospitality side, wasl is said to open 14 hotels by 2020. You seem to focus on filling the midmarket gap. What do you have in store?
For some time now we have focused much of our hospitality developments towards meeting the growing demand for mid-range hotel rooms. The Hilton Garden Inn at Al Mina will be the fourth hotel that has opened in this segment in the past 18 months. We currently have a further six mid-range hotel projects under development, including two more Hilton Garden Inns scheduled for completion within the next 36 months.
We will continue to compare market demand with our expanding portfolio to satisfy future customer trends and capture potential investment opportunities.
Source: Nicole Walter, Special to Property Weekly