Sunday, 06 October 2013 13:05

Bluer Skies Ahead?

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President and CEO of Royal Jordanian Amer Hadidi has helped steer the national carrier back to profit. But can the momentum be maintained?

In the field of urban planning, there’s a cast iron rule which states that one of the best ways to attract residential and commercial activity to an underutilized part of a city is to build a high quality highway through it. Put simply, investors like good transport links. This was surely part of the thinking behind the four-year project to expand and rehabilitate the 42 kilometer-long stretch of road that roughly links Amman’s Seventh Circle with Queen Alia International Airport in the Al Jeezah district just south of the capital.  

The new $100 million highway forms an integral part of a wider Amman airport corridor plan first conceived by the Greater Amman Municipality back in 2007. The plan aims to guide and encourage growth in and around Amman’s strategically important and still largely underdeveloped southern gateway, while avoiding the chaotic expansion that often plagued the city’s development over the years. 

Literature for the plan, which focuses on an area of around 175,000 donums, states the airport corridor is “being redeveloped as a major traffic and transit corridor” that will create “new open spaces that will preserve and celebrate near-urban agriculture, conserve the capital region’s limited remaining forests, and complement anticipated new urban development with the corridor.”

The highway expansion project, which the Ministry of Public Works says is due to be completed by the end of the year, has mainly involved rehabilitating the existing dual three-lane highway, and laying a further two three-lane access routes either side of it. New bridges, tunnels, drainage systems, street lighting, and pedestrian walkways have also been created. It has been quite an undertaking, causing significant disruption to homes and businesses in the area.

But backers of the scheme say all the cost and upheaval will ultimately be worth it, especially in terms of convincing local and international businesses to join existing ventures that have already chosen to base themselves around the important arterial route that, lest we forget, has a gleaming new international airport with strong passenger and cargo growth at one end, and Amman – the Kingdom’s economic power plant – at the other.

Estimates as to the value of the investments already up-and-running or underway along the route are hard to come by. But it’s a safe bet to assume they’re considerable, and easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. Besides several private schools and universities, including a soon to be opened medical college, there are numerous factories and even a huge $78 million IKEA, a Swedish company that designs and sells ready-to-assemble furniture and home accessories. It is being built on a 42,000 square-meter plot of land and aims to create 460 new jobs. 

At the project’s foundation laying ceremony in June of last year, Saleh al-Homaizi, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Kuwait’s al-Homaizi Group, which is one of the companies behind the huge project, said the location along the Airport Road was chosen for its ease of access, its close proximity to several population centers, and the fact that it’s slated to become Amman’s premium retail and industrial hub.

PLANNING WORRIES

But while the IKEA store appears to be a responsible and well-thought-out project, some urban planning experts, including architect Mohammad al-Asad, the founder and director of the well-regarded Center for the Study of the Built Environment, are concerned the managed growth envisioned for the area might take a back seat to appease anyone with ready cash to invest.

“From what I can see…there doesn’t seem to be any clear urban plan for it,” al-Asad told Venture, citing the seemingly haphazard way some residential and commercial buildings have appeared along the new highway. “If you have the infrastructure, you should start thinking about what kind of development you want there. I do not know if that kind of planning has taken place.”

For example, he fears more of Amman’s valuable and increasingly rare agricultural land could be paved over in a rush to attract investors. “This is one of the tragic aspects of building in Jordan. We’ve never given enough value to agricultural land,” he said. 

How to cope with increasing levels of local and through traffic is another challenge that al-Asad believes needs considering. On this aspect, he believes they’re largely on the right track. “With the main highway in the middle and the side roads off the center, then you can accommodate that,” he said, but quickly added public transport would have to be extended to the region to prevent an overreliance on private vehicles to get around.  

For the universities in the area to be fully functioning, al-Asad said they need a whole support infrastructure around, which consists of a balanced mix of commercial and residential zones. So far, there’s no sign of this. “We have these universities that are sort of placed right in the middle of nowhere which is not very healthy for student life,” he said. Furthermore, if you want to have residential neighborhoods, these also need certain services around them. They need access to schools and they need access to places of work. “If you don’t organize that, you’re going to create a very messy situation,” he warned.

Rima Odeh, the manager of GAM’s Comprehensive Planning Department, said growth along the corridor was being tightly regulated, even though zoning bylaws only applied in the section of the corridor that ran from the Seventh Circle to where the Prince Hussein bin Abdullah II road met the boundary of Marj al-Hamam. “After this intersection, most of the lands are un-zoned and for these parts we enforce special regulations on individual projects, case by case,” she said.

Odeh said there were numerous other challenges that needed to be dealt with, including the need to provide financially and environmentally appropriate connectivity between different transport modes for moving both people and goods. There’s also the need to link places of employment with places where people live and to provide access to a mix of metropolitan facilities, she stressed.  

Despite al-Asad’s reservations, he appears to broadly welcome the plan to upgrade this increasingly important route, which he believes could become a new economic centre for Amman. What’s more, with Jordan’s economy only now showing signs of picking up, he believes it’s the ideal moment to properly plan ahead so the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated when investors do eventually begin flocking back. “Amman is a city where we’re always reacting to what’s happening,” he said. “This is a good time, with the economic slowdown, to plan. There isn’t that much pressure in terms of real estate investment.”

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