After a delay lasting years, work is finally set to resume this month on Amman’s Jordan Gate. But critics of the controversial mega project still question whether it should have left the drawing board.
By Laith Abou-Ragheb
Work on the $400 million Jordan Gate project began back in 2005, right when the Kingdom was basking in an economic bonanza fuelled in large part by rocketing global oil prices. Investment was pouring in from the Gulf, and a slew of huge real estate projects were being given the green light.
But in 2009, as the global economic crisis swept into Jordan, work on the project ground to a halt amid financial squabbling between the companies involved.
The project lay eerily dormant until May of this year, when the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) announced that the project’s owner, Kuwait’s Al Bayan Holding Company, and its Jordanian contractor, Al Hamad Contracting Company, had agreed to resume construction.
Al Bayan Holding Company’s board chairman, Abdul Mughni Abdul Mughni, told The Jordan Times that disagreements between the two companies had been resolved and that $155 million had been set aside to complete the remaining 30 percent of the project. The director of GAM’s Special Projects Department, Murad Awamleh, told the Associated Press the partners had agreed to restart work this month with the aim of completing the project within two years.
The original plans for the Jordan Gate project envisioned the construction of two towers housing offices, shops, and a five-star hotel. They would be built on a 28,500 square-meter plot of land provided by GAM.
Even after all these years, Jordan Gate still manages to polarize opinion. To some, the two towers that soar high into the sky near Amman’s Sixth Circle embody the spirit of an ambitious young city striving to project a dynamic and virile image to the world. To many others, they’re a sad reminder of Jordan’s bygone boom days, when a mania for grandiose mega projects trumped calls for sober-headed urban planning.
One of those people is , an architect and the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment in Amman. “This project should not have been built in the first place,” he said.
To begin with, al-Asad said one of the city’s all-too-rare public parks was removed to make for the project. “Amman is a city with a shortage of green public spaces, and what exists should be protected.”
But a matter of even greater concern for al-Asad is that the designers of the Jordan Gate attempted to cram too big a project into too small a space. “Essentially, a small town is being installed in a relatively small, built-up part of the city,” he explained.
He conceded that increases in city density do offer advantages to city residents, such as keeping urban sprawl in check and helping to attract a critical mass of residents that in turn attract shops, offices, schools and clinics that can be reached on foot rather than car.
But crucially for this to work, he said,are the necessary urban infrastructure and services relating to solid waste, sewage, water, and traffic that need to be provided. This project will generate an enormous amount of solid waste and sewage, and will require massive amounts of water. Moreover, it will be a destination that will attract thousands of people every day, most of whom will be coming by private cars. Also, the amount of deliveries that will be made to the facilities that the project will house will be substantial. “Anyone who has driven through the nearby Sixth Circle knows that the area already cannot handle the massive amount of vehicular traffic that exists there,” he said.
Al-Asad remains skeptical that the existing infrastructure system in the area will be able to accommodate the large density and uses that the project will bring about once it’s completed. “Addressing the challenges that the project will create will be an incredibly difficult and expensive task. An extensive overhaul of the city’s public transportation system will be one first step for doing so,” he said.
Transport will clearly be the biggest problem to contend once the project is completed. This responsibility falls onAyman Smadi, GAM’s transport chief. As with any attempt to undertake a major new development within a busy city center, he said there are clear challenges associated with Jordan Gate—but they’re not insurmountable. “GAM believes investment and proper zoning and maintaining character are not in conflict.”
Much like al-Asad, Smadi expects accessibility to be the key challenge in the area, or specifically how to get the volume of traffic and people in and out of the project once operational. “The main challenge of the project is its scale, especially relative to the neighborhood as well as the network of roads in the area,” he said.
Smadi said parking shouldn’t be a problem, given there’s ample supply within the project itself. What’s more, henoted that activity around the site will center on the two towers. Seeing as these buildings are by and large going to be used for offices and hotel accommodation, trip frequencies will be much lower than those for commercial and retail space.
Smadi added that other important interventions will include improving access to the project location and addressing traffic circulation in the area. A number of traffic signals are planned for key junctions around the project’s expanded block. As well as this, Smadi is looking at enhancing public transport in the area and evaluating the possibility of running some form of express service from park-and-ride locations around the perimeter of the project.
The final height of the Jordan Gate towers has yet to be set. The northern tower, which will be used for offices, currently rises to 44 floors. Its southern neighbor, meanwhile, has 37 floors and will eventually become a Hilton hotel with some 500 rooms.
Besides design objections, questions have also been raised over whether there’s going to be significant demand in these uncertain economic times for all these new offices and hotel rooms.But Hilton appears confident there will be.“Jordan represents a significant opportunity for future-growth of our Hilton portfolio,” the hotel group said in a statement. “We continue to work closely with the owner partner of Hilton Amman Jordan Gate as the development of the property continues, and we look forward to announcing further updates in due course.”
But this will probably not be enough to placate other critics of Jordan Gate like Hanna Salameh, the architect who produced a film earlier this year thatimagined a markedly different future for the yet-to-be-completed project, which he sees as having “disastrous” shortcomings, not least in terms of sustainability. “If you look at the towers, they’re … just completely smacked by the sun all day long, heating them up and requiring an insane amount of energy to be spent on its cooling and ventilation,” he said.
In the film, which has so far racked-up more than 700,000 views on Facebook, Salameh outlines a number of measures which could be taken to make the project much greener, such as replacing the building’s façade with solar panels, converting some of the floors into open air farms and converting lift shafts into wind power generators.
Salameh was keen to stress that he produced the film not to argue that Amman shouldn’t change and grow (he’s actually a big fan of the Adbali project, for example), but that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to one model of urban development, especially when it’s carried out without careful forethought and planning. “We tried to raise that the issue…that the solutions were not either to demolish or to continue the original project. There are alternatives which could include the idea that we suggested, and we would have welcomed other people to come up with other alternatives,” he said.
In GAM’s defense, Smadi pointed out the troubled project was conceived before the city’s much-vaunted master plan came into force and began to clamp down on unfettered development. “The whole motivation for the master plan was to avoid such issues by regulating where and how towers should be located,” he said. “GAM has been extremely diligent on any development small or large that affects the fabric of existing neighborhoods.”
But even with the master plan in place, al-Asad still worries the planning mistakes of the past could be repeated in the future when Jordan’s economy improves and the impetus to build grows. He said: “Cities go through economic cycles. The local economy in Amman and Jordan is a bit slow now, so building activity at this time is not very robust. When economic conditions improve and a new building boom comes along, however, pressures on the authorities by developers and investors to allow for the construction of such mega projects will appear again.”