Ken Himmel is fond of making big statements.
“I really believe, at the end of the day, this will turn out to be the most extraordinary project ever developed in the Middle East,” he says, leaning forward.
This is some boast, in a part of the globe that has already built the world’s tallest tower, a clutch of manmade islands and some of the planet’s most modern airports, ports and energy installations.
But the co-managing partner of Gulf Related, and the president and CEO of giant American developer Related Urban, is sticking to his guns. The project Himmel is discussing is Al Maryah Central, a new shopping and entertainment centre that is currently being built on Abu Dhabi’s Al Maryah Island.
Himmel knows the site well; after all, Gulf Related — formed from a partnership with Abu Dhabi-based Gulf Capital — has already worked with investment fund Mubadala to develop the neighbouring Galleria luxury shopping mall, which he describes as “the most beautiful project” he has ever executed.
And in truth, Himmel knows more than most about what makes giant mixed-use projects work. Having cut his teeth managing the development of a 100-storey tower on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in his early 20s, the property magnate has since worked on some of America’s most prestigious projects, including the Time Warner Centre and Copley Place in Boston, and is currently the driving force behind the Hudson Yards development in New York — dubbed the largest private real estate project in US history.
His link to the UAE stems from his association with Marvin Traub, the legendary retailer who transformed
Bloomingdale’s from a quiet department store into a glitzy international brand. Traub had worked with Gulf Related as a consultant on the development of the Time Warner Centre in New York, but he had also previously tied up with Al Tayer Group, helping one of Dubai’s biggest family businesses bring both Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdale’s to the emirate.
“Marvin kept on saying to me, ‘you have to go to the Middle East’,” Himmel recalls. “Well, I didn’t do it then because I couldn’t keep up with what I was doing in the US, but six years ago, the US market kind of tanked for a while.
“We were in a bit of a depression and we had more free time than I’d ever had in my life — and I don’t like a lot of free time. So I said let’s take some of the best talent in the office and see if we can find something else to do outside the US.”
Himmel and his team embarked on trips to China and spent a year travelling around the Middle East, testing the waters in Doha, Riyadh, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai — and Abu Dhabi. In the end, Gulf Related settled on what was then known as Sowwah Island in the UAE capital. Mubadala, which has a small stake in Related, was already hard at work developing some of the island’s other infrastructure, including the colossal Cleveland Clinic medical campus and the site that would soon become home to the Abu Dhabi Global Market.
“Dubai has unbelievable growth and indisputable statistics in terms of the velocity of business, but as exciting as the demand is, what’s not exciting is the supply,” says Himmel, of his decision to opt for the UAE capital over the country’s commercial hub. “The number of people chasing all that demand was daunting, and it was very hard for me to get the whole supply and demand into a kind of balance.
“One could also argue that the same could be said of Abu Dhabi in some ways — it’s a different level of velocity, but there’s always a very questionable supply/demand picture,” he continues. “But I thought in this market there was one place that would allow me to do what I do well, which was to work at this level of super-luxury high-quality mix of uses, and bring the brands that I like doing business with most into my project.”
At the time that Gulf Related stepped into the Al Maryah Island project via its joint venture with Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi fund had already committed to building four office towers and two hotels (a Rosewood and a Four Seasons, the latter of which is due to open next year). Himmel, architect Howard Elkus and Gulf Related’s man on the ground, managing director for development Kevin Ryan, spent six months working on a plan for the podium at the base of the office complex, a plan that eventually turned out to be the Galleria. After getting the concept signed off by Mubadala, Gulf Related approached three tenants — the Chalhoub Group, Al Tayer Group and Richemont — who committed to 75 percent of the project.
Boosted by the addition of international licensed restaurants in both hotels, the Galleria, which opened two years ago, is now a 550,000 sq ft project that Himmel says is “unbelievably taking off” despite a slow start.
“The bridges are getting finished now, the Four Seasons is getting finished,” he says. “But our comparable sales are in the mid-double digits and we’re comping at 15-20 percent in sales and traffic over the prior year.”
Now, however, the focus lies solely on Al Maryah Central, the next piece of the island puzzle. Excavation and foundation work on the site has been completed, and Gulf Related handed a $425m main construction contract to Brookfield Multiplex last week. At some point this month, the 3.1 million sq ft project, complete with two towers, will start emerging from the ground.
Anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s department stores, Al Maryah Central will consist of four floors of retail, entertainment and food and beverage options, altogether making up 1.7 million sq ft of gross leasable area.
Particular highlights in the rest of the complex include areas provisionally called ‘Family World’ and ‘Sports World’ located on top of the centre’s car parks. Preliminary drawings of those zones show ziplines, carousels, mini football pitches, outdoor cinemas and skateboard parks. Ryan points out that some of the mall’s grassy outdoor areas could be used in much the same way that Manhattan’s Bryant Park hosts fashion shows.
One tower will feature residential accommodation, while the other will house a hotel. Himmel says that Gulf Related is currently in talks with a “worldwide operating company”, and that the final design for that tower should be completed within a matter of weeks. The entire project — all four levels, plus at least one tower — is set to open on 1 March 2018.
Himmel says he has no concerns about the tight deadline, either from the perspective of getting the construction work completed, or the necessary retailers to sign on the dotted line. About 40 percent of the space is already accounted for, with the Al Tayer Group accounting for a significant share of these.
“By the end of this year, I’d like to be at 60-65 percent, and then during the first half of next year, we’ll get to 80 percent,” Himmel says. “I wouldn’t open a shopping centre unless it was 80 percent open. So there might be 20 percent of small shops [unopened at the time of launch], but they’ll all be under construction.