Site Visit: The Waterfront

S&T Real Estate’s flagship development which aims to provide grade A office, retail and hospitality space to the sultanate’s capital

One of the biggest frustrations facing commercial renters in Muscat is the lack of grade A office space in the city. While there are plenty of B and C grade options to choose from, there is significant lack of availability when it comes to high-end office space in the Omani capital.

As a result of the country’s distinctive economic make-up, there hasn’t always been a demand for top-quality office space, as there might be in neighbouring Dubai or Abu Dhabi, for example. However, as the sultanate looks to diversify its economy, there has been a noticeable increase in demand for these types of offices, especially as corporations look to further their reach or set up shop within the country.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that developers in Oman are now looking to capitalise on the growing demand and deliver projects that measure up to the highest international standards. One developer was quicker than others to recognise the opportunity in the market and corner a prime spot of Muscat real estate for a mixed-use project that has the potential to redefine the sultanate’s commercial and office space market.

Located in the heart of the international district of Muscat, The Waterfront is part of a thriving hub of the city, home to its diplomatic quarter and blue-chip businesses. Situated along the seashore, the 25,000sqm property is a leading example of a contemporary and sustainable world-class project, with prestige office space, fine dining restaurants and luxury retail outlets spread across five storeys (the top three levels will house business and corporate headquarters, while the ground and first-floor levels will contain the retail and F&B outlets).

December 2018 saw the project become ready for take-off. With the transition phase of handover to tenants for fit-out works ongoing, Big Project ME was invited by S&T Real Estate, the project’s owner and developer, to tour the development and see first-hand the work that has gone into creating an instant destination for Muscat residents and visitors.

“This was something we wanted to capitalise on when we acquired the property,” says Waqas Al Adawi, vice chairman of S&T Group, the parent company of S&T Real Estate. “The traditional offering in Oman is either a community mall, which is of a certain size, or the ‘spaceship mall’, which you are familiar with from Dubai. This is a model that has now been replicated across the region.

“We were very specific that we did not want to do either. We don’t have the size to do the spaceship mall, while our location differentiates us from other community malls. It was important to bring something different to the table, and that was to marry the seaside, and the experience it can bring, with the actual property. If you see our property from a footprint point of view, it’s only 5,039sqm. But we have taken it upon ourselves, at our own cost, to develop more than 17,000sqm of area around us.

“To answer the question of how we are different from everybody else, we are different in many ways. In terms of design, in terms of architecture and quality of construction, but also from an experience point of view, we are different. We want our customers to come and enjoy the seaside, the landscape that we have created and the experience, while at the same time spending their money at the traditional community mall. We’re not a community mall in that sense, but we are in a very affluent community which needs something that reflects this historic area,” Al Adawi says.

Often referred to as the Hyde Park of Muscat, the Shatti Al Qurum area of Muscat is home to numerous embassies and consulates, while the Royal Opera House is nearby. Being in such a high-end district means The Waterfront needs to measure up to its illustrious neighbours. Therefore, it needed to be conceptualised and designed to exacting standards, says RP Ranganatha, executive director, General Contracting, S&T Interiors and Contracting – the main contractor on the project.

“The project has been conceptualised by renowned architects Douglas Wallace, from Dublin, Ireland. From day one, the client has been continuously involved in brainstorming sessions with the architect to ensure that the end product will be a contemporary design, without compromising on traditional Omani styles and values,” he explains during a tour of the site.

“The architectural façade and interiors were designed with cultural considerations which were to be strictly followed, from composition to division, with simplifications made to the detailing to ensure that the project met the requirements of the modern age and the commercialisation aspect, as well as respecting local culture in relation to materials, detailing and design, while at the same time enhancing customer experiences and reinforcing the waterfront destination.”

He adds that while the location of the project is one of its biggest attractions, it also presented several challenges, particularly from a logistical point of view. With the site in a very congested diplomatic area, managing the movement and storage of materials, personnel and equipment was no easy task. Furthermore, having such sensitive neighbours meant the project team had very limited working hours. As a result, it had to maintain just-in-time deliveries of materials, while also accommodating workers in comfort in on-site facilities.

“The diversion of live services such as water, power, drainage, telecom lines, etc was a herculean task with no as-built drawings available,” Ranganatha reveals, though he is quick to add that the task was handled efficiently by the team without any major hinderances or delays. This was due to the introduction of retractable anchors during the piling stage, which helped in a big way to ensure the safety of neighbouring structures without disturbing existing service lines that could not be diverted, he explains.

“Furthermore, due to the sensitivity of location for the project site, the height of the structure was restricted by the municipality. To achieve the required number of floors, the required clear heights, modern construction techniques like CFS slabs were deployed. These CFS slabs help in minimising the roof slab cycle time, reduce the amount of manpower required and achieve cost savings too.”

As the main contractor on the project, S&T Interiors and Contracting worked with the concept architect, as well as with specialist consultants, right from the conception stage all the way through to design development and on towards execution.

Ranganatha says that being involved in all stages of the project, from civil works through to architectural, MEP and interior design, allowed the contractor to develop a better understanding of the project and ensured efficient realisation of concept, schematic and final design, all without too many “to and fros” and “ifs and buts”.

In addition, the project team was backed by an excellent back office team with a wealth of experience and efficiencies, allowing them to achieve project excellence and deliver the first sustainable project of its kind in Oman – a LEED Gold pre-certified building.

“The Waterfront project has implemented sustainable design measures from day one by using the LEED rating system from the US Green Building Council,” he says, adding that the project has 74 points from the USGBC, which makes it the highest rated LEED Gold project so far in Oman.

“The key sustainability measures implemented on the project were achieved by designing and positioning the building to receive maximum sunlight from dawn to dusk, thereby saving energy on lighting the entire property. Secondly, the use of treated water (grey water) for landscaping, flushing and other uses helped increase the water efficiency of the project. Thirdly, FSC-certified wood has been used for the interior architectural pattern.”

In addition, he says the project team made maximum use of recycled and regional materials in building construction and used low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) materials in building interior spaces, to maintain a healthy indoor environment for tenants and visitors, while the design & build criterion has been benchmarked to meet international standards.

When it comes to connectivity and space for tenants and visitors, Ranganatha says extensive planning went into accessibility, with three basement levels holding more than 350 car parking spaces. The basement parking will use an intelligent car parking system to ensure easy ingress and egress, to avoid extended waiting times and traffic congestion.

In addition, the development team has worked out a joint venture with Muscat municipality whereby 500 additional car parking systems have been envisaged, he adds. (should this be spaces?)

“The Waterfront is located with a superlative road network, while robust public transport systems connect to the main highways and expressways, which in turn spools the community from the neighbourhood to visit this destination project, without any congestion. All while being hardly half an hour’s drive from the Muscat International Airport.”

As the project gears up for tenants to move in, the focus of the tour turns towards the commercial prospects of the project, with Waqas Al Adawi stating that the starting point of the development was research into Muscat’s commercial and office real estate inventory.

“The research said that there was plenty of grade B and C office space in the market, with plenty continuing to come up. There is so much of this space, but a lot of it doesn’t get accompanied by car parking as well. While it may be cheap space, if it’s not functional, then it’s not really space.

“There was an obvious opportunity to create grade A office space, and today we can say that we have set the standard for what grade A office space is – in terms of technology, in terms of quality of building, and obviously in terms of the location.

“From that angle, it’s a tough commercial market, a very difficult market, but with a very strong management team in place. I’m very happy and comfortable to sit here and say that our office space in this project has gone before our F&B space. I never thought that this would be the case!

“You usually have tonnes of people who want to open coffee shops and such right on the beach, but this gives us the opportunity to now be even choosier about who comes in. Because now, I’ve got 800 people working upstairs and they’re not going to get into their cars and drive out to the next commercial area, so you better know what you’re doing here, because you have got customers who are sitting here.

“At night, this is a location that is busy, even when there was nothing there. When we were constructing, people come down to the beach to do their exercise, and because it’s at this location and at such an angle, even during the summer, you get days where you get a breeze. So this is where people like to come and sit down,” he stresses confidently.

However, having looked at what others in the market are doing, Al Adawi says he is careful to ensure that there is no “cannibalism” at The Waterfront. By this, he means he is keen to get the right mix of F&B and retail outlets, so that they can all flourish without taking from each other’s customer base.

“It’s a small market and there have been other examples where we can clearly see that although from a physical point of view it’s a discerning space, they have got the mix wrong. You can see that turnover where a restaurant comes in and within 18 months it’s all boarded up, with signs saying something else is coming soon.

“Personally, I believe that’s bad management. The challenge that we have put to the management team is that we want to see complementary services, we want to have conversations with our tenants to tell them how they could do better. It sounds simple, but as a landlord it’s difficult, because if someone comes in and shows you the money, you have to think long-term.

“The point is that for us, this is a long-term investment. I want to make sure that the management creates an environment that is supportive, for the tenants to be comfortable and to make money. I don’t want to contribute to what is already a very competitive market. If I want to control that in my own building, then that means getting the tenant mix right,” he asserts.

To that end, the project assumes a much wider importance to Muscat. If The Waterfront is a success, then other developers will begin to follow suit, creating a culture and economy supportive of crucial market segments, such as tourism, retail and hospitality.

Therefore, Al Adawi says it was crucial for senior government figures to recognise and appreciate what S&T Group was trying to achieve. He is quick to pay tribute to their support and vision.

“We were very fortunate in that sense. When we conceived this project, the chief of the municipality was someone else, and as we were finishing it, there was a change. We are fortunate because in both cases, they were extremely supportive of the vision that we are trying to create.

“It also works in their benefit, because traditionally the developer spends money on his footprint, whereas we have been very forthcoming in engaging with the municipality. All the land outside, especially in the Shatti area, is in a very sensitive diplomatic area and it comes under the jurisdiction of the municipality. You cannot do anything without their consent. However, the leadership was very pragmatic in their approach. One is an architect and one is an engineer. They understood the value of what we were trying to create immediately.

“We know that we are spending more than the average, but at the same time, it’s a negotiation to get the management of the area, the commercialisation of the area, which is what they were very open to. I can say with a lot of confidence now that this experience has given them the opportunity to look at building development differently.

“I’m sure that after this experience, they’re asking other developers, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ On the reverse side, it’s creating an input. They are now approaching us, saying that they have these properties and asking us if we have any ideas for them. For me, that’s a testament that this working relationship between the private and public sector creates real value for both.

“I see that that within the country, public-private partnerships are going to drive this economy. We are very proud that in this sense, we’re ahead of the game,” he concludes.

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