Latest face of Lulu Island revealed

All the major masterplans are being changed to reflect conditions in the current market

Over the past two decades, Lulu Island has reflected the changing aspirations of Abu Dhabi. In 1992, after it was reclaimed from the sea just off the coast of the Corniche, the authorities considered building an Arabian-themed Disneyland on the island. Then there was talk of a new financial centre. And after these plans failed to take shape, it resigned itself to more humble activities. Just a few years ago, visitors could laze on the beach, see camels and horses, swim in freshwater pools or go to one of four coffee shops.

In 2008 Sorouh Real Estate, the second largest property developer in the capital, was given the task of figuring out what to do with the 500-hectare island. The first plan, which was unveiled at Cityscape Abu Dhabi in 2008, showed a vast, low-rise residential area that would house more than 18,000 people. It also featured hotels along the ocean side of the island, as well as offices and a single tower.

But then the property downturn hit, forcing Sorouh to rethink enormous projects such as Lulu Island. "All the major masterplans are being changed to become relevant for the current market," said Anthony Mallows, the executive director for the Lulu Island development at Sorouh. "There has to be a much more measured approach to development now." The latest masterplan, to be revealed today at Cityscape, shows several major changes. Rather than being built all at once, as has been tried with other large-scale projects such as Reem Island, Lulu Island will be developed in 15 stages. Each precinct or neighbourhood will be self-sufficient, so the impact of continuing construction will be lessened for residents. Eventually up to 33,000 people are expected to live on the island.

"The first thing you do is break down what normally are these big, splashy type things into a series of pieces that are manageable and market-driven and complete at each stage," Mr Mallows said. Any of the 15 stages could change, depending on the market demand. "You can only make a market if there's pent-up demand and we're not living in that world anymore," Mr Mallows. Instead of a large park running length-wise, the latest plan features several "finger parks" that channel the breeze from the ocean side of the island through the built-up areas.

Mr Mallows said the open spaces were one of the main aspects of the plan. "The most important part is the walkability of Lulu," he said. "It's not such a hermetically sealed environment where you go from air-conditioned space to air-conditioned space. "We are trying to expand the comfort zone for being outside for a much longer period of the year, and during the day." Instead of piers on the city-side of the island, there will be more public beaches to attract more Abu Dhabi residents and visitors. The plan also incorporates the giant dunes on the east side of the island, reportedly made of sand trucked in from Liwa.

Most dramatically, the developer plans to get rid of the tall breakwater along the ocean side. Instead, Sorouh plans to create six small islands that will act as protection for Lulu and improve water quality by making waves. "Those beaches, while they look pristine, they are not healthy," Mr Mallows said. "Getting rid of the breakwater will bring in some wave action." A 400-metre tower that resembles an "elongated oyster" (lulu is Arabic for pearl) turned on its side in the centre of the island remains part of the design. If constructed, it would be the tallest building in Abu Dhabi. Lulu Island is 40 per cent owned by Mubadala Development, the strategic investment arm of the Abu Dhabi Government and 60 per cent owned by Sorouh. The two companies will probably form a joint venture unit to handle development.

Mr Mallows said the Department of Transport had already tendered the design for the first bridge to the island running from Marina Mall. Once the Government agrees to put the infrastructure in place, Sorouh will start to build a temporary construction bridge. "In an environment like this, you have to be much more respectful of the Government's role in the infrastructure," Mr Mallows said. "Lulu is not one of these projects where you have to rush to market, where there is a huge sales push and drive.

"For us, it's about working in a steady, measured way."