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Site Visit: Gate Avenue at DIFC

Big Project ME visits the ongoing works at Gate Avenue at DIFC, the new spine of the financial centre set to become a retail, leisure and dining hub for workers, residents and visitors

“You will find design inspiration from New York, London and Hong Kong linking together the fabric of our community and stitching the masterplan of DIFC together as one integrated destination”

As the heart of the financial district, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) has long been considered a vital cog in the city’s infrastructure. Home to banking and capital market firms, wealth and asset management companies, and other professional services providers, the DIFC is an ecosystem of its own, with even its own courts to provide independent administration and enforcement of justice.

While it caters primarily to the financial services sector, the DIFC area has also grown to be recognised as a hub for art, culture and cuisine. However, these outlets were very much a secondary feature to the overall master plan for the development, which remained focused on its core offering of being an intermediary between the Middle East markets and the world’s economies.

This is all about to change, though, with the imminent opening of The Gate Avenue at DIFC, a new urban retail, leisure and cultural development currently in the final stages of construction at the centre of the district. Built up over 61,316sqm and running a total of 880m in length, the project will link the podium levels of all the buildings located in the Centre, from the Gate Building through to Central Park Towers. Divided into three zones – North, South and Central – The Gate Avenue will be connected via an outdoor promenade level that will also serve as a community hub for professionals, residents and visitors.

This expansion comes at a time when the free zone is pursuing a strategy that will see the number of registered firms double by 2024, compared to 2014. Along with the $49 million Exchange Building, also under construction, the $133 million Gate Avenue will be the cornerstone of these efforts.

During a media tour of the project, Nabil AlKindi, chief real estate officer of DIFC Authority, says there has been substantial completion of the project’s first phase, and it is on track to be finished in the first half of 2018. A significant number of retail units have been handed over to tenants for design and fit-out works, he adds.

Once complete, the flagship development will enhance DIFC’s position as a destination for more than just financial services, offering more than 200 dining, boutique, retail and entertainment options, along with a mosque that AlKindi calls “state-of-the-art”. Following the completion of the tour, AlKindi sat down exclusively with Big Project ME to discuss the project in greater detail, starting with an update on the current status of construction works.

“We have phased the work on Gate Avenue at DIFC, one of the biggest property projects in Dubai, into four main areas of work. We are now into the final finishing stages of the first phase, with the marble installation and final MEP fixing underway, as part of our planning for the first authority inspections.

“Furthermore, the concrete structure is now more than 95%, with 40,000m3 of concrete poured to date. Blockwork installation on the project is 80% complete, with 45,000m3 of concrete blocks installed; meanwhile, stone paving and planting of the soft cape is also well underway, while 140,000 linear metres of cables, wires and trays have already been put into place.

“The concrete and structural steel work is also ongoing at the DIFC mosque. It’s an exciting time in the construction phase, as we get to witness the full process of such complex projects in a single status snapshot.”

The plan is that Gate Avenue will not be a standard retail mall development, but rather a “premium urban retail, leisure and cultural development”, he says, will “aesthetically and artistically link with all building podiums within the DIFC”.

“When designed, we needed to ensure that the external oasis of greenery was captured, in order to bring life to the urban context and also benefit and recognise the multinational partners and firms we have within the greater DIFC area. So you will find design inspiration from New York, London and Hong Kong linking together the fabric of our community and stitching the masterplan of DIFC together as one integrated destination.”

Given the lofty aims, the DIFC Authority team knew it had to have the right main contractor. To that end, following a lengthy tendering process, Dubai contractor HLG was brought on board.

“Gate Avenue was competitively tendered to the market place in 2016, involving all the region’s grade A contractors. Following months of negotiations and evaluations, DIFC was given the chance to partner with HLG in delivering this extremely significant development,” AlKindi relates.

“HLG’s performance speaks for itself when we look back at photos from just one year ago, when we only had concrete columns standing in a place where we recently witnessed the planting of our first trees on the development.”

Despite having such an accomplished contractor leading the project, the various challenges it posed meant the DIFC Authority had to also play an important leadership role during day-to-day operations.

“DIFC Authority has managed and been an integral part of every decision and direction on the project, helping to ensure that not only our financial interests were met, but also that the overall vision of the Centre [was followed]. DIFC has built an international name as a sophisticated high-end financial district, and it is vital that this development and all future development contribute in the same manner and maintain DIFC as the place to be for businesses around the world,” he asserts, pointing out that the DIFC Real Estate and Development team comprises a strong group of market experts with a wealth of experience in developing master plans and mega projects for the UAE.

“From its original inception, Gate Avenue was always seen as the link for the DIFC master development and a thread of greenery that will serve the synergy of such an ambitious financial district. As the market and workplace has changed over the past 15 years, it is really a testament to the original designers that they were so forward thinking in having the integration of a green oasis and offering more than 21,000 professionals who work in the district a space where they can step away and enjoy a walk along our planted podium, or a stroll through the highly-appointed interior,” he continues.

HLG was awarded the contract in 2016, with works programmed to be completed within 18 months, plus a 12-month maintenance period. However, it soon became apparent that this project would be a distinctive challenge for the contractor, due to the pre-existing infrastructure around the project.

Tasked with building on the existing DIFC Truck and Service Tunnel, the contractor faced several engineering problems right off the bat, AlKindi recollects.

“Due to the fact of the existing truck tunnel being fully operational below the project and servicing the whole of DIFC, it presented many engineering challenges in how the new concrete structure would be built without impact on any of the DIFC’s built assets, and just as important, all of the MEP interfaces and integration that has been required throughout the duration of the works.

“Since Gate Avenue at DIFC is not only servicing its own retail needs but also assisting in linking all of the greater DIFC master plan, the integration of systems, security and building management has been vital in order to achieve a development that enhances the entire development.”

He adds that because the development is being built on a narrow slice of land that cuts through the backyard of all the DIFC’s important partners, construction needed to be extremely wary of the logistical issues that could be raised.

“This was and continues to be the main challenge for us, especially when it comes to servicing the project with materials, machines and, most importantly, the 1,600 construction workers that are on the site every day. Nevertheless, thanks to our logistics team, the work is progressing smoothly and well on schedule. When your development is 850 metres in length, there is a great need for a highly engaged logistics team that is orchestrating the daily activities.”

Given the scale of the development, having a fully engaged and organised logistics team as well as a thorough plan for all the construction and logistical work has been crucial, he explains.

“We have developed this prior to the project even starting, and we have also tested and assessed the plans over a period of two months to ensure accuracy. I must say that our DIFC Authority Property Management team and DIFC Authority Partners were of great support from the initial planning stages, allowing us to put on an orchestra of construction activities. At the peak of the concrete works and when the project peaked at just over 2,000 construction workers effective on-site, this is when for me the show was in perfect harmony.”

A major reason for the smooth operation over the course of the project was HLG’s use of BIM, AlKindi says, pointing out that the technology has played a vital role in ensuring that all stakeholders know exactly what is happening at all times.

“From day one of appointing HLG as our contractor for the project, they have worked tirelessly on building the BIM model from scratch. This involved the 3D scanning of existing services and spaces within the truck tunnel, deciphering and piecing together the thousands of structural, architectural and MEP drawings, and all the while still ensuring that the tight deadlines of the project were maintained. The outcome will be a fully modelled development within BIM which will, at the end, be transferred and used by our DIFC Authority Facilities Management team.”

Now that retailers are moving into their spaces, having a clear and organised plan for the project is increasingly crucial, given that retailers will be bringing in their own fit-out teams and designers. As such, work has already begun to ensure that all the teams maintain a clear channel of communication and coordination with the DFIC and HLG teams.

“With any retail development, the true importance and measure of success is the final retail and F&B tenants and the respective fit-outs,” AlKindi says. “With this, we have already begun the close coordination meetings and designs for a large number of our leased units, in order to guarantee a smooth transition from the main construction into the fit-out works.”

“Another important point is to also ensure that each and every brand present in at Gate Avenue is also of the same quality and sophistication as the DIFC brand. Our first tenants are planned to commence their fit-out in January 2018, in anticipation of our upcoming opening in 2018,” he concludes.

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