From Tokyo to London to the UAE, finance districts become vibrant hubs

New York’s Wall Street has all the buzz of the Big Apple. The City of London is home to a decades-old culture of joie de vivre. Tokyo’s Otemachi district is where financiers let their hair down after a hard day at the bank.

Even comparatively staid Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital on the river Main, has built a glitzy centre sometimes called Mainhattan.

Now the two money centres of the UAE – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – are looking to create “urban destination” districts around their financial hubs, the Dubai International Financial Centre and Abu Dhabi Global Market.

DIFC’s launch of The Spine development is the next phase of its ambitious plan to triple in size by 2025.

When it was initially announced, the chief of DIFC Properties, Brett Shaffer, said: “Malls in Dubai get busy at night and on weekends. But our retail spine will be busy during night and day because we have people living here, and like a downtown, a high traffic area, it would have amenities so that people can remain.”

Likewise the huge glitzy development going on around ADGM Square on the capital’s Al Maryah Island, which the developers say will be an “experiential” destination.

In a retail culture such as the UAE’s, these planned facilities will be built mainly around the shopping experience. But increasingly, food and beverage (F&B) will play a bigger part in the after-hours activities of the financial centres.

Nicholas Maclean, the managing director of the Middle East arm of global property adviser CBRE, says: “It is a global trend. F&B is increasing its footprint within malls, and we expect it to account for 25 per cent of retail space by 2025. It’s particularly in evidence in the UAE, where it could reach as much as 30 per cent.”

One of the reasons is climatic. Mr Maclean points out that two other countries that have a high F&B proportion in their malls – Norway and Switzerland – also have weather challenges for much of the year.

But there is also a trend for F&B outlets to cluster around financial districts, which themselves are becoming as much residential as occupational centres.

“The concept of high quality F&B outlets in locations where high-income individuals work and live is increasingly common.

“Once a location has established itself as a high-income destination it has a positive effect on property prices and quality of life in those areas,” says Mr Maclean.

The other reason is that there has been a change in the tastes of traditional mall-goers. “Maybe the old ‘food court’ concept is outdated. People have become more sophisticated and don’t want to be in a noisy hall on the top floor of a mall,” he says.

The concept has already been tried and proven in Dubai, where the DIFC has gathered around it a cluster of five-star hotels and fashionable restaurants. “I think ADGM stands a good chance of success too,” says Mr Maclean.

DIFC’s Spine will boost its presence in this fast growing sector. CBRE says that retail amounts to a small proportion of its overall space – about 6 per cent compared with about 19 per cent in Al Maryah’s master plan.

Although the inspiration might be Wall Street or the City, the more relevant model for the UAE’s latest round of financial hub building is London’s Canary Wharf.

Built on derelict dock land, it has grown rapidly since the 1980s and is now arguably London’s most important financial centre.

“Canary Wharf has become a real regional location, not just a place for office workers to commute to every day,” says Mr Maclean.

With office space slightly smaller than DIFC but almost twice the size of Al Maryah, Canary Wharf has a daily working population of 112,000 who use 300 shops, bars and restaurants, CBRE says, and many of them live on or very near to the development. Canary Wharf has played a major role in regenerating the formerly rundown east end of London.

Strategists at DIFC and ADGM will be hoping for the same stimulus from their projects. But, Mr Maclean warns, there is a natural limit to the amount of restaurants, cafes and bars consumers will take, even in a mall-centred culture such as that of the UAE.

“We think the saturation level for F&B is around 30 per cent of the whole development. Global models show it would be difficult to have more than one third given over to food and drink,” he says.

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Frank Kane

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