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Mohamed Al Khadar, Executive Director of Urban Development and Estidama at the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC), explains UPC’s thrust this year.
What is UPC?
UPC was established in 2007. Our main mandate is to manage the urban growth of the emirate, particularly the three regions: Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the Western Region. UPC is directly responsible for providing [master plans] to these regions.
Why does UPC participate in events such as Cityscape Abu Dhabi?
This is our eighth year of participation in Cityscape. We are always keen to participate in events like this because this is our market. Here, we interact directly with the developers, the people, and we are able to respond to them directly.
You announced a new vision and mission this year.
This is a breakthrough for UPC. One of the [important] messages in our vision is that we will be going international. That’s the key change. Internationally, UPC would like to become a benchmark in urban planning.
Can you talk about the projects UPC approved in the first quarter?
These are very promising projects. In terms of project flow, we are comfortable with the number [of projects approved] so far this year.
How are projects approved or rejected?
You can get a concept approval today and it can take up to two years to get the detail approval, which counts as final. The key things that we look at when we review a project are the population, transportation and — most importantly if it’s a residential project — community facilities. Based on the population, we will determine the required facilities, transportation, parking, etc. We are trying to balance and synergise the population with the facilities in the plan.
Why are some projects denied approval?
First of all, if they are not in compliance with our regulations [they will be rejected]. We have nine manuals — including street, mosque regulation and community facilities manuals — and if a project is not in compliance with these, we will reject it.
What are the usual reasons a project is denied approval by UPC?
[It is usually] the community facilities that are not up to standard. Developers usually try to avoid creating facilities because they cost money and they cannot generate money out of these. The mosque, for example, they cannot generate money from. Or service centres and parks. Another reason for a project to be denied is the quality of the master plan. The quality should be of very high standard. The third reason is with regard to the height, gross floor area (GFA) and land use limitations, which developers sometimes exceed.
Is UPC also involved in granting a project freehold or non-freehold status?
We are not involved in this. UPC only approves the planning. We don’t categorise projects as freehold or non-freehold. That is a matter between the developer and the government.
What is UPC’s affordable housing strategy?
We will start with the major developers to agree on a feasible percentage. It will be on a case-to-case basis. We will look at each project, its population and how many low-income residents live there. The developers will have to come up with a genuine justification why they have to allocate, say 5 per cent of the total GFA in a master-planned development for affordable housing.
But there are good examples right now in the market. Manazel, for example, is specialising in middle-income houses, while Tamouh has low-income housing on Al Reem Island.
Will a lot more residential projects be approved this year?
It’s not just residential. It’s a good balance between residential and commercial projects. For example, the major projects we announced in the first quarter included residential, education and retail developments. We also look at the supply and demand when assessing any project.
What are the projects in the pipeline this year?
There are three major amusement projects, but I cannot disclose the details. I will leave it to the developers to announce them. One of them is in the final stage of approval and two are in the concept stage. I think they will be complementary to the Ferrari World. There are also eight other major projects in the pipeline.
What are Abu Dhabi’s development hotspots?
The investors themselves are not doing anything on Abu Dhabi island. They’re pushing their investment outside the island because they are seeing a lot of the population moving to the mainland. If a developer wants to make good money, he has to go where the population is. However, island development is also very attractive, so that will not stop.
What’s the latest on the Estidama programme?
Since 2010 there are now 15.5 million sq m of buildings that are rated by the Estidama (Pearl Rating System for sustainable design, construction and operation), or 921 buildings so far. Any individual commercial project has to have one pearl, any government project has to have two pearls. For individual residential projects, there are no pearl requirements. But a government housing project has to have two pearls. We have around 12,000 villas rated by Estidama. The more pearls you get, the more energy and water you will be saving and the more alternative energy you are producing.
If you get two or three more pearls, it means you’re incentivising yourself on water, energy and alternative energy faster.
What are the big challenges when implementing Estidama?
The first year was very difficult. There was so much resistance from the market. This was in April 2010. In 2012, we implemented training programmes, qualifications, we made it very understandable. In 2013, it started to take off and last year it was flying smoothly. Now it’s become the norm. Everybody wants to do Estidama because they found out that they can use it as a marketing tool. They can market buildings better — they can sell more and increase the value of the property.
We are now working on a programme on conducting Estidama on existing buildings. That’s the biggest challenge. The exercise is huge and we need to plan it well.
Can you talk about international collaborations?
We are [making a] master plan [for] the Seychelles Strategic Plan. We are also collaborating with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for master plan work. In the UAE there’s a collaboration with Sharjah for the Estidama programme, Fujairah for a master-planned development and Ajman also for Estidama.
Where will UPC be in the next five years?
I think within five years UPC will be an international brand, which means it will be a benchmark for urban planning. Today there are five or six leading international organisations that do urban planning benchmarking, including the Urban Redevelopment Authority in Singapore, American Planning Association and some European organisations.
We want to be on that level in the next five years. Right now we are 70 per cent of achieving that target.
Source: Jobannie Tabada, Features Editor, Property Weekly