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The latest UAE mega residential development, Town Square, rolled out by new kids on the block Nshama, might have affordable initial price tags of Dh1 million for a three-bedroom villa and Dh1.5 million for a four-bedroom villa (under the affordability threshold of Dh600 per square foot), but its top brass insist it is not a cheap imitation of any of Dubai's other luxury projects, rather a distinctive, quality development in its own right.
Spanning an area equivalent to more than 16 football fields, the central town square of this 3,000-town house, 18,000-apartment behemoth is certainly imposing enough to underscore its importance. As Nshama COO Abubakr Sidahmed explains, the central town square is ''indeed the heart of the development''.
Town squares, particularly in Europe, have been a vital part of the civic life of all sizeable towns for centuries, operating as a democratic space for everything from town meetings to artistic performances and crisis response. ''We envisage our central town square to have a vibrant cultural context too, as a range of arts and cultural activities can be enjoyed in one of the most pristine and positive settings in the city.''
Sidahmed, an architect, expects the Town Square residences, the first of which are due to come online by the end of 2017, to appeal to singles, couples and families ''who wish to build their future in one of Dubai's stylish, vibrant and youthful neighbourhoods''.
Town square, nestled among pockets of greenery, will include an open-air cinema, Vida Town Square Dubai hotel and will be surrounded by cycling tracks, outdoor sports courts, green trails and more than 600 shops and restaurants. ''With Town Square... we are bringing a brand-new lifestyle concept to Dubai,'' Sidahmed says.
Quality made affordable
It's not easy to do anything new in Dubai's property development market these days. But an enthusiastic credo is repeated by people involved in the project and is either reflective of a good marketing job or emblematic of the genuine belief in the originality of Nshama.
The entire project, to be built on 750 acres of land next to Dubailand, will accommodate more than 1.3km of retail mileage, indoor and outdoor Reel cinemas, in addition to plazas, extensive green belts, mosques, schools and health care centres.
But more than just bringing people together in the central square, Nshama CEO and veteran Gulf engineer Fred Durie says the development is about making home ownership a realistic goal for many of Dubai's middle income earners.
The former CEO of Emaar's international arm insists this isn't budget accommodation but quality housing made affordable through economies of scale, targeted at people on an income between Dh20,000 and Dh35,000. Almost all in this group are trapped in Dubai's rental market, unable to get into the notoriously high-end buyer's market. He is hoping the project will primarily be invested in by end users.
''It makes simple logic to invest in an end-use home for less than the money that is paid on rent. And moreover, with Dubai on the positive growth track, with further investment in modern infrastructure, the city is a magnet for talent and capital. The professionals who come to Dubai seek a sense of belonging and we fulfil that.''
New growth corridor
Town Square will be part of a ''new growth corridor'' of Dubai, Durie says. ''(This) part of a future of the city. Town Square brings diversity and maturity to Dubai's property market; it gives customers an additional and reliable choice to own homes in the city.''
Affordable housing has long been a concern in Dubai, something the government is increasingly taking steps to rectify. Dubai Municipality has just brought out a proposal on mandatory affordable housing and has earmarked three separate areas around Dubai for such housing to be built, which could accommodate 52,000 people.
The vast swathes of lower-income Dubai workers who commute from the more affordable northern emirates such as Sharjah are clogging up an already choked commuter belt.
Dubai Statistics Centre figures show that more than one million of Dubai's 3.4 million ''active population'' commute into the emirate. Durie is hoping projects such as Town Square will help to change this. Not only will cheaper houses hopefully lead to lower rents, but they will also open up the Town Square area to commerce, drawing more commuters out of the current bottlenecks. Durie estimates that within a few years the community will house a sizeable 85,000 residents and workers. Isn't there a danger that such affordable prospects won't remain so for long, once buyers get their hands on the units? ''We will be taking measures to ensure that people can only buy single units to prevent flipping,'' Durie says.
He concedes there are no guarantees and Nshama will be powerless after handover. But he is confident such practice can be minimised if the development attracts the right clientele from the outset, which he believes exists in Dubai.
Durie says the decision to build the development was a result of market research that identified the need for home ownership opportunities for people in the designated income bracket. But why bother with the lower rung of the market? ''We're still a company and we're looking to make profits, but this isn't about huge margins.''
For the long haul
As opposed to so many other developers that see Dubai as an opportunity to make a quick buck, Durie says Nshama is here for the long haul and will remain involved with the project as its developer as well as retaining a number of units. He says the firm has a sincere interest in a quality development that remains profitable and attractive for the long haul. But the company also wants to see the city grow, he says. The benefits of the affordable housing market to Dubai include reduced traffic, greater efficiency and new economic growth, but it would also add a ''sense of well-being to the people''.
Durie is a long-time UAE resident and has been working in the region for almost 20 years. The transience of the UAE's population has certainly not escaped him. Does he think that having more expatriates owning property in their adopted home country would give the society more permanence?
''Expatriate homeowners have been part of the freehold era of Dubai, which was the game changer of the industry. It brought in more foreign investment and supported the growth of the property sector, as well as economic sectors such as retail, hospitality and aviation.
''Bringing more people to the end-use homeowner bracket will only add to the cosmopolitan outlook of the city.''
Source: Amanda Fisher, Special to Property Weekly