DUBAI // Sabrina Hammoud's European-style bistro seemed a risky venture when it opened three months ago. The 30-year-old French-Italian opened Sucre Sale in New Dubai's Jumeirah Lake Towers, known locally as JLT, a sprawling construction site that resembled little more than a jumbled, dusty collection of half-built residential and commercial office towers.
Now, as one of the development's two Metro stations prepares to open next month, she and other tenants are seeing signs of life amid the area's chronically congested roads and ubiquitous construction debris. "It's been a good start," said Mrs Hammoud, sitting in the cafe's orange chairs. "We have a lot of loyal customers, and not because they don't have much choice in JLT. "They like the food, the atmosphere, the restaurant. We're next to offices, so we get a lot of business people and their clients for lunch."
She has observed a recent influx of people moving into Al Shera, a residential tower next to her cafe. Construction work on the promenade encircling the area's empty lakes, seemingly stalled a few months back, has resumed, as evidenced by scores of toiling labourers. "There's progress again," said Mrs Hammoud. "And the Metro will help us bring in people from other areas. At the moment, there are not many customers from outside JLT."
Relatively slow progress has kept some prominent retail businesses from opening in JLT. Danil Bornventure, the Kenyan operations manager of Lake City Cafe and Restaurant, which opened over the New Year on the roof of Lake City Tower, also said business had been slow to take off. "Business could be more," he said. "If I want to come from another cluster, I have to get out and drive all the way around JLT to get here. And people don't walk here," because pavements were not in place, he said.
Most of the towers in JLT are grouped in clusters of three, and it is awkward to get from one to another on foot. Despite the slow start, there are plans for another restaurant on the ground floor of the same building to open in a month, as well as a beauty salon next to it. "When the Metro opens, that's when this place will start moving," said Mr Bornventure. "In terms of business, people can just drop by. Once the JLT is completed, believe me, it will be better than the [Jumeirah Beach Residence]."
For now, he said: "I would say we're doing medium to good. It's a young business, you know." Others have seen business tail off after an initial flurry of curious customers. Fourways Laundromat, in Lake Terrace tower, which opened on January 7, had "maybe 40 customers a day on weekends", according to Eileen, one of its employees. But since then, she said, it had declined to around half that. She, too, suspected that the lack of pavements between clusters was part of the problem.
Management at both Boots, a British chain of chemists, and Emarat, a local petrol station company that owns several convenience store brands, said although they were looking closely at the area, it was not yet viable to open businesses. The supermarket chain Spinneys has signed up for a small unit - a "risk I was willing to take", said Johannes Holtzhausen, the general chain manager for Spinneys UAE and Oman. "I have no doubt it will become a viable place," he said.
However, he said, the time was not yet right to open a store. "When will we open it? I really don't know. There are infrastructure problems, access problems, a number of reasons why we couldn't have opened yet." For Nahed el Ali, 23, a Briton of Lebanese descent who rents in the Lake Terrace tower, the allure of JLT has become abundantly clear in her year and a half of living in the area - massively discounted prices.
"My studio was Dh85,000 (US$23,000) last year. Now it's Dh40,000," said Ms el Ali, who works at a hair transplant clinic in Dubai. The building was not without its faults, she said. "When I first came here, they told me we'd have internet in two months. It took nine, and the Jacuzzi still doesn't work." Lack of access to telecommunications, in particular, has been a longstanding issue. But many of her friends have moved recently into nearby towers, along with others relocating from such areas as Bur Dubai and Deira, giving the community a more organic feel, she said. "I wouldn't consider leaving."
Blair Hagkull, the Middle East and North Africa managing director for Jones Lang Lasalle, an international property firm, said the development appeared to be gathering momentum. "There are key advantages to it, such as affordability and proximity to the Metro," he said. That is a starkly different assessment from only a year, or even a few months, ago. Back then, JLT's main ring road, which still inconveniently flows in one direction around the development, lacked street lighting.
An almost total lack of amenities - cafes, supermarkets, retail outlets - forced residents to commute to malls for food and shopping, or rely on restaurant delivery people who found difficulty in navigating the towers, some of which were bereft of signs indicating their addresses. This time last year, construction seemed to progressing at a snail's pace - only 30 of the area's 87 towers had received occupancy permits, or were in the process of applying for one.
JLT's master developer, Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), did not respond to questions on the subject. DMCC confirmed in January that it had been negotiating with the Roads and Transport Authority on traffic-related issues, but added that the process "could take another six months to resolve". Meanwhile, those with and without vehicles did, and still, feel stranded because of difficulties getting to and from the rest of the city.
"It was difficult living here two years ago," said Mohsin Khanji, 66, an Indian who lives in a flat with his wife, son and daughter-in-law in the Green Lakes S-3 tower. "And construction progress was, well, it is slow." Now, however, he said there were rumours of new supermarkets and retail outlets opening, such as a Subway restaurant. The Metro will help, too. Mr Khanji currently drives himself to work in Deira, as well as his son and daughter-in-law to offices near the Dubai International Financial Centre and Emaar Square.
"I'm spending every day Dh16 on Salik [Dubai's electronic toll collection system]," he said. "The Metro's much cheaper." Not only will the Metro provide access to central Dubai, its elevated, air-conditioned walkways will allow pedestrians to cross Sheikh Zayed Road, giving much easier access to the restaurants and other entertainment venues in Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Beach Residence. "On that side, there's a Waitrose and Spinneys," said Chris Smerdon, 29, a Briton who lives near Mr Khanji, in Green Lakes.
He has to drive to do his shopping. But "with the footbridges you can cross over easily to the Marina. It is coming together, slowly but surely," said Mr Smerdon. Mukesh Moorjann, the joint owner of Design Werks, a contracting and interior design company that is working on a beauty salon due to open in the next few weeks in Lake Terrace, has also noticed a distinct change of pace in recent months.
"I think more and more people are moving in," he said. "It started a couple months back. The place is attractive - big rooms, parking. They're coming in from Bur Dubai, Satwa. It's right opposite Media City, so it's connected. "The business is getting better here. There are a few small groceries and a restaurant." The area would become far more attractive, he said, once the lakes had been filled. "If you have these high rises right next to the lake, it will be beautiful. It will take time, but it will be nice."