Bringing down the Met

Everyone who goes there has a story about how they remember Dubai when they first saw it. Long-term residents will recall how the Hard Rock Cafe, which is now an empty shell dwarfed by the towers of the Marina and Jumeirah Lake Towers developments, stood alone on the road to Abu Dhabi before the rest […]

Everyone who goes there has a story about how they remember Dubai when they first saw it. Long-term residents will recall how the Hard Rock Cafe, which is now an empty shell dwarfed by the towers of the Marina and Jumeirah Lake Towers developments, stood alone on the road to Abu Dhabi before the rest of the city caught up with it.

Those that go further back will remember the World Trade Centre Building being one of the few tall buildings away from the city’s heart on the Creek. Then there are those that remember the Metropolitan Hotel opening an outpost for expats and locals and bringing glamour to a lonely deserted part of the city.

After that opening in 1968, the Met soon became an institution and its walls the sounding board for the thousands of small stories that form much of Dubai’s early modern history.

Even the names of its drinking holes, the Rattle Snake and The Red Lion, called back to an earlier time before Dubai went up-market and global with boutique bars and multiple-starred Michelin restaurants.

Despite the downturn of recent years, Dubai has retained its appeal as a tourist and business destination, and in an ever-competitive market the venerable hotel has not been able to convert a new generation of punters.

Shielded by the Metro on the Sheikh Zayed Road and lost in the steel and glass landscape of downtown Dubai, the Met had become a dusty relic, long before owners Habtoor Group decided that it was closing time on the hotel earlier this year.

By May demolition work on the hotel had begun in earnest.

“Parting with the Metropolitan Hotel, our first hospitality venture, is not easy as it is filled with great memories, but I always believe in looking forward,” Khalaf Al Habtoor, chairman of Al Habtoor Group, told reporters in January. “The tourism industry in the UAE and Dubai is constantly and steadily growing and we have to be prepared to cater for the growing need of its visitors and residents alike.”

Habtoor have big plans for the old hang-out. In place of the Metropolitan hotel will come three hotels which between them will hold 1,616 rooms, have 50,000 square feet of banqueting and meeting space, a 1,000-seat broadway-style theatre which comes complete with water fountains and a moving stage, a 400,000 square foot landscaped garden, and a sports academy with 12 tennis courts.

Replacing one hotel with three modern venues makes financial sense to Habtoor, but despite an army of machines swarming over its remnants, when CMME visits the site it becomes immediately obvious that the old lady is not prepared to go quietly.

The project site is a noisy, dusty tangle with machines nibbling away at the carcass of what used to be the Met. A lot of it has been flattened, but much remains. Actually ‘remains’ is a good word for it. Looking up from the floor of the site, there’s a massive escarpment of concrete and an excavator busy below its overhanging roof. It looks like something big took a bite out of it.

“That used to be the cinema,” points out project manager Martyn Wild. “It’s 378m by 120m. When we re-open we’ll be able to have a theatre for events like Cirque De Soleil [more on that later].”

The noise of the crew of excavators makes it difficult for us to hear each other and it highlights one of the big challenges of the site, accomodating the residents that still live in the grounds.

In fact the residential buildings currently separate two parts of the site and throughout the four years it will take to build, the company will have to be careful not to cause major disruption to those that are still providing income.

“We built a separate access road for them,” he explains. “There’s a couple of hundred apartments, all let.”

Returning to look at two buildings at the far end of the site, he points to one of them that is still being used as accomodation.

“The distance between the two is about 15m, how are we going to knock it down?” he asks.

It looks close enough to bring both down should somebody get a little over excited in the cabin.

“They’ll form a ramp with the rubble,” he explains. “So that a digger can get high enough. Then they drop a weight over it to about half-way across using a crane.

“Once they get that far they use the ramp and the long arm diggers pull it down so they can pull it towards them, bit-by-bit. The concrete frame and the slabs have to be broken down as well, bit-by-bit.”

As we climb over the rubble of what used to be the Met he reveals that the demolition is 75% done having begun April 29, starting with the Rattle Snake. A crew of  excavators is scratching at the rubble, clearing waste away.

That waste is then separated, so that the steel and metal of the building can be recycled. Much of the hotel’s fixtures and fittings, he explains, have already been recycled elsewhere in the world.

“A lot of the doors and windows have ended up in Afghanistan. We even took out an escalator which is going to go into another building.

“The guys that do the demolition can make money out of it. They knock it down, shatter it and then a guy breaks it up.”

As we walk, Wild runs through the mental images of  what used to be standing in the dust.

“Here is where the Rattle Snake was, some shops here, and other single storey stuff.”

We continue on and up onto a ridge of inexplicable concrete. Once it could have been a lobby or a restaurant, now it is looks like a deconstructed lunar landing site. While it is one development, the work is being split across two sites.

Wild explains the differences.

“One half, the demolition site, is being done by Al Rashid, who are knocking down. And the other half is HLG (Habtoor Leighton Group),” he says.

We drive-by the section that HLG is working on. It used to be a car park but eventually it will house one of the hotels. For the moment piling equipment is in tearing it into shape.

“They started with the piling and now they are driving shoring piles into the ground,” he explains. “We’ve got three basements, so they are going down about 18m. Up until Saturday that had 108 continuous piles in.”

During our tour, he says that there are two piling machines in operation and another will soon be working. As the piling is completed, cranes are used to drop the casings in. Earth is removed by truck to a dumping site.

He adds: “they’ll strip it, and once they get a certain amount of the shoring done then they can start excavating.”

The excavation will drop the level of the area by 2m across the site before dewatering can begin. That work should be completed by early July. “We need to get that in before they can go any deeper.”

He continues: “The digging will be the real show. The whole site, going down 18m, is going to need an army of trucks to keep it clear.”

According to Wild, the development on the Met site is the biggest site on the Sheikh Zayed Road.

“The construction will take place on the old site of the hotel, turning it into three hotels, a St Regis which will overlook the gardens, a W hotel and a Westin Hotel. At 1,600 keys it will be bigger than the Atlantis.”

He adds: “Then we’ve got the 1,000 seat Dragone theatre. It will be like Cirque D’Soleil but with water. It’s outrageous. Google it – it looks amazing.”

As owner and developer, Wild says Habtoor has taken a different approach to the project.

“Usually it is a very inefficient process in the case of hotels because somewhere down the line you are negotiating with an operator who may not like the design. They re-design it and then pass it on to a contractor who will have their own ideas and redesign it again.

“We’ve  got the operator, consultant and contrator (sister company HLG) on board at the design stage. Instead of designing it three times we’re doing it once.

“We’ve closed a revenue generating hotel so we want it done as efficiently as possible. It’s also a buyer’s market and we’ve got some good deals. It may be risky but it is possible to price a concept design as along as you know what you’re doing.”

The three hotels are not the only projects on the go for Habtoor, the Waldorf Astoria on the Dubai Palm is back up and running after the foundations were filled back in after the downturn hit Dubai.

“We’ve brought Hilton in and have redesigned it. That hotel is on ground level now and is 18 months away.”

Looking over the demolition, it is easy to presume that the past is being knocked down and ridden over but Wild says that Habtoor is keen to preserve some of the old Met magic.

He  reveals that a trump card to the resort will be the return of some old favourites.

“We’re taking six or seven outlets from the old hotel,” he says. “The Red Lion, the Rattle Snake, Corleone’s will all be transposed.

“We’ve even saved the bar for the Red Lion and a lot of other stuff. It’s gnarled and marked, it’s been around for 30 years and it looks like it. Perfect! We must have it in the new hotel,” he says. “It’s a good job as it’s a good bar.”

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