Al Bandar development takes a people-first approach to living
The short-term "build it, sell it, bank it" philosophy of the residential development world is often at odds with the longer-term and possibly more sustainable "community-first" approach promoted by urban planners. At one recently completed development in Abu Dhabi the two camps seem to have found common ground - and the place is a hit.
The joint developments of Al Bandar, Al Muneera and Al Zeina are located at the eastern end of Al Raha Beach and have views across a narrow stretch of turquoise water to Yas Island. When they went to market off the plan three or four years ago they were Aldar's first freehold development for expatriates as well as Emiratis.
The first neighbourhood to be handed over was Al Bandar, in September, and more than 60 per cent of the 511 units are already occupied, of which 70 per cent are leased and 30 per cent owner-occupied. Al Bandar's waterfront location, low-rise style, generous balconies and proximity to Abu Dhabi International Airport, Etihad's headquarters and the main Abu Dhabi-Dubai road have all added to its appeal.
The most popular of Al Bandar's five buildings so far is Naseem C (the most westerly), which provides sunset views to the predominantly young professionals who have taken up residence. The red-brick Barza (or Loft) building has also been sought after, partly because it offers the largest number of two-bedroom apartments (approximate rent: Dh150,000 to Dh170,000) and the only studio apartments in the development (approximate rent: Dh85,000).
There is another element that has drawn buyers and renters, one that until now has not really been seen in the capital: a growing community focus, which is a source of some considerable pride to Aldar because, according to the company's deputy CEO and chief commercial officer, Mohamed al Mubarak, the idea of building a community was included in the concept plan for Al Raha Beach.
"It was always Aldar's intention to create a living community at Al Raha Beach and for it to become a city within a city," he says. "Al Bandar's popularity and the fact that we are fostering a multicultural community here is healthy for everyone; it's good financially and socially and it helps to build a sense of belonging among residents.
"Al Bandar can be seen as a beacon for other developments as Abu Dhabi grows and expands and starts to create identifiable and attractive neighbourhoods, and our future projects like Al Muneera and Al Zeina will follow this model."
Regardless of good intentions, socially sustainable ideas for communities rarely survive the (largely financial) revisions that most developments go through en route to completion, but the ones at Al Bandar look like they have.
There is already a Spinneys supermarket, beverage store, laundry, tennis court, a main swimming pool, two lap pools, a jacuzzi and a shaded children's pool. To come are four dining areas including a South Seas-influenced restaurant called Pacifico, an optician, pharmacy, nail salon and other retail offerings, plus a residents' clubhouse scheduled to contain a gym, creche, play area, yoga and Pilates studios, squash courts, a roof terrace for social gatherings and barbecues, changing rooms, saunas and a juice bar.
The 131-berth full-service marina is due to open in April with preferential mooring rates available to owners and residents and a reciprocal arrangement with Yas Marina. It is thought to be the first marina in the UAE to allow residents direct walking access from apartment to boat.
Aldar's on-site community management team is developing a series of free events such as neighbourhood parties, soft-drink happy hours and concerts that will take place either "at home" or on nearby Yas Island (an events deal has already been struck with Stars 'n' Bars at Yas Marina Yacht Club).
To keep the community spirit alive, the team prepares and delivers to residents a quarterly newsletter with details of forthcoming events, and a separate monthly flyer full of "housekeeping" information and announcements. To make sure these added extras are as customer-led as possible, Aldar is planning a customer satisfaction survey that will contain a request for creative ideas from Al Bandar community.
And what a community - Al Bandar can be considered a United Nations of Abu Dhabi real estate, with no fewer than 54 nationalities represented and a board in the management office covered with flags to celebrate the fact.
But as community-focused as Al Bandar is, the range of leisure opportunities can't really compare with living downtown. Are the offerings enough to tempt people to choose this more remote location rather than the beating heart of the city?
Nick and Emma Whitfield think they are. The couple, originally from Britain, were among the first residents to move in after the handover in September. They own and live in a two-bedroom apartment with their 10-month-old son, Henry.
"We used to live in an apartment on the Corniche and, although the setting was nice, it was a bit chaotic," Nick says. "There are a few things to iron out here, of course, as with any new development in Abu Dhabi, but generally we are very happy with where we are now.
"Our apartment looks out over the marina and the water, and we really don't miss very much about living downtown. Our social life is just as active but we go more to Yas Island and the area around the Shangri-La Hotel. And with the TransAD 800 number it's easy to get anywhere by taxi - most drivers know Al Bandar by now."
According to head of investment sales at LLJ Property, Andrew Covill, the "absolute seafront" found at Al Bandar is surprisingly hard to find in the capital. "The real question that some people living in the older city-centre blocks are now asking themselves is: why should we stay here when we can live on the beach in new places for the same or less cost?
"People bought Al Bandar three or four years ago as investments but today the majority of sales we are undertaking are to owner-occupiers, and most of them are expatriates. This is a bit of a shift in buying philosophy in Abu Dhabi."
This shift is backed up by a recent report from the UAE property management company Asteco, which claims Abu Dhabi tenants are "relocating in search of quality and value" in response to a drop of between five per cent and seven per cent in rents.
Asteco's chief executive, Elaine Jones, says many new opportunities will arise in 2011. "Buyers and tenants will have a wide range of choices shortly, as the long-awaited first phases at Reem Island come on to the market together with new supply at Al Raha Beach."
The test will be whether Aldar can keep up this community-led philosophy when the considerably larger neighbourhoods of Al Muneera (1,445 units) and Al Zeina (1,221 units) are handed over this year. It's a hard act to follow.
Al Bandar prices currently listed at LLJproperty.com
Studios from Dh85,000
One-bedrooms from Dh120,000
Two-bedrooms from Dh140,000
Three-bedrooms from Dh200,000
Studios start at Dh850,000
One-bedrooms from Dh1.3m
Two-bedrooms from Dh1.6m
Three-bedrooms from Dh3.295m