The advertising along Cairo’s clogged arterial roads carrying three or four million people into the city each day could hardly be more effective. Drivers brought to a standstill in the chaotic traffic system cannot help looking up to billboards with images of landscaped villas far from the noise and pollution of central Cairo.

The development of two massive new downtown areas of the Egyptian capital – where a few years ago there was only desert – has created unprecedented opportunities for real estate developers like SODIC.

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In the next two months, the company, in co-operation with Lebanon’s Solidere, will submit the masterplans for Westown and Eastown, the two new city centres that will help redraw the map of modern Cairo.

“West and New Cairo will not just be suburbs or satellites of Cairo,” says SODIC managing director Maher Maksoud, looking at a satellite map. “These areas in themselves are becoming standalone cities as people, businesses and services relocate.”

A population of between three million and five million is expected in each of these suburbs over the next 15 to 20 years and SODIC’s Westown and Eastown projects are designed to address this, offering much-needed basic and leisure facilities to these new cities.

Alleviating the problems caused by Cairo’s unplanned expansion over the past few decades has become a national priority. If things go well, the next few years may be seen as a golden age for Cairo, in which the shape of the city is radically redrawn.

“Cairo was initially planned and built for a population of three to five million people, but today its population is anywhere between 15 million and 20 million,” says Mr Maksoud. By 2027, as many as 10 million to 12 million people are expected to relocate to new suburban developments to the east and west of the old city boundaries.

“We see this as a unique opportunity to inject life into Cairo’s main suburban growth areas by developing vibrant city centres in these suburbs,” says Mr Maksoud In east Cairo, government planners have set aside an area for a new central area with space for more than 80 residential developments, 56 schools and universities, two hotels, two sports clubs, a shopping mall, the international airport and four hospitals.

Meanwhile, the western suburb of Cairo will allow for the development of more than 100 residential compounds, 15 schools and universities, three hotels, four sports clubs, two shopping malls, the airport and three hospitals. About 70 companies will be located in the nearby Smart Village, including the local and Pan Arab Stock Exchange. Government buildings are also relocating to the area.

A breath of fresh air

As soon as you step out of the car at SODIC’s showroom, you can understand why middle class professionals are leaving central Cairo – here, the air is sweet and unpolluted. The main aim of these new developments has been to create a healthy living environment for people currently living in extreme congestion in Cairo, and plans include all the latest ideas in urban planning and design.

Altogether, SODIC owns 6.5 million square metres of prime land in Cairo’s new downtown areas of Sheikh Zayed City and Kattameya, of which two million square metres has already been developed and sold. The location, on a major intersection of highways that link Cairo with Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, and the city’s growing industrial zones, has become a hive of real estate development.

The development of Sheikh Zayed City was kickstarted in 1999 with the opening of the 26th of July Corridor, giving easy access to central Cairo. Since then, the creation of Smart Village, which houses government offices, the stock exchange and leading multinational companies such as Microsoft, has also put the area in the international spotlight.

By 2012, SODIC hopes to complete its 2.38 million square metre Allegria development in Sheikh Zayed City, built around Egypt’s first Greg Norman signature golf course and including more than 1000 villas and townhouses. As well as the 610,000 square metre golf course, the development incorporates parks and pathways throughout the residential area, creating safe areas for children, pedestrians and cyclists.

Allegria has been designed by an international team of architects and designers including Michael Graves, one of the ‘New York five’, famous for their projects inspired by the modernism of Le Corbusier in the 1920s and 1930s. The design team also includes Arquitectonica, the Miami-based postmodern architecture and interior design firm led by the Peruvian Bernardo Fort-Brescia and his wife Laurinda Spear. Also involved are California-based Mark Mack and prominent Egyptian architect Dr Basil Kamel.

Healthy demand

Allegria recently won an architectural award from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the project has already reached the company’s sales targets. Demand for prime plots in Allegria was so strong that prices rose 250% in the first four months of sales and SODIC now forecasts revenues of E£3.5bn ($642m).

SODIC has also completed the masterplan for Kattameya Plaza, an upmarket apartment complex in east Cairo, which it expects to complete by late 2009. The project consists of about 450 apartments in 50 buildings. Designed by the architects responsible for the iconic Grosvenor House in Dubai, Kattameya Plaza will include a residential district, office buildings, a community centre and recreational facilities. In line with the company’s diversification away from pure residential compounds, just over 10% of the project has been reserved for commercial units. Construction started in the third quarter of 2007 and SODIC expects to sell all commercial and residential units by the end of the year.

As part of its diversification strategy, SODIC is launching a 193,000 square metre commercial project, Dahshour Showrooms, consisting of two upscale strip malls that will provide some 70,000 square metres of high quality retail space.

SODIC’s two largest developments are far more ambitious.

Last year’s alliance with Solidere (famous for rebuilding central Beirut) to design and build Westown and Eastown, marked the company’s graduation into full scale city planning.

Realising the strategic location of the company’s existing land bank and the lack of a downtown area in each of Cairo’s fast-growing eastern and western suburbs, SODIC’s management have embarked on plans to create two city centres from scratch. Unlike previous developments, which concentrated almost exclusively on residential areas, SODIC and Solidere are in the final planning stages of two fully integrated city centres including offices, leisure facilities and retail units at a projected cost of E£25bn.

High density

Both projects involve higher-density mixed-use downtown zones. Eastown is being developed on an area of 858,000 square metres of prime land adjacent to the American University in Cairo and close to the international airport. Westown is being developed on SODIC’s 1.2 million square meter site in Sheikh Zayed City on the Cairo-Alexandria highway adjacent to its Allegria development. These new city centres will cost $2bn and $2.8bn respectively and the first phase of construction is expected to be completed by 2013.

Westown will have a built up area of more than 2.4 million square metres, including a state-of-the-art office park with landmark high-rise buildings that will include more than 3000 offices. It will have five residential areas with town houses and apartments, a flagship 120,000 square metre shopping mall, and entertainment areas and up to five hotels.

Westown’s generous public areas include roads, gardens and ample park space connected by a 1.2 kilometre arcaded boulevard promising to be wider than London’s Oxford Street and inspired by old Cairo and Barcelona’s picturesque Las Ramblas leading to the heart of town.

Eastown, right next to the American University in Cairo and 37 other schools and universities, will become a lively new downtown area in its own right. Like Westown, Eastown will also have a pedestrian high street with luxury shops, landscaped parks and a Souk inspired by Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It will also have high rise towers and incorporate hotels and multinational offices.

Government support for two new downtown areas has grown out of the need to reduce pressure on Cairo’s outdated infrastructure and provide for the city’s growth in the next two decades. Both Eastown and Westown will have at their heart a ‘Wist Al-Balad’ area, a cosmopolitan centre designed to reflect both traditional architecture and history with newer ideas such as underground parking, pedestrian areas, parks and squares.

“McKinsey had conducted a study concluding that if the new cities were to grow to a population of three to five million, we would need to provide a full range of services largely lacking in early developments,” says SODIC’s business development director, Ahmed Badrawi.

An experienced partner

Plans for new downtown areas would need to include not just residential compounds, but everything from shops and schools to offices and business parks. Mr Badrawi says: “We looked around to find a partner with this kind of experience and quickly identified Solidere… and so we knocked on its door.”

Solidere had recently come to international prominence for its acclaimed redevelopment of war-ravaged central Beirut. “We were taken on a tour and were all extremely impressed with the design and construction, right down to the street furniture and lamp posts,” says Mr Badrawi.

During December and January, SODIC and Solidere executives began regular discussions. “SODIC and Solidere spoke the same language from the beginning, and we were quite impressed with their expertise in planning a city centre,” says Mr Badrawi. By April, the two companies had a formal agreement in place.

Under the terms of the agreement, award-winning Solidere will be responsible for planning and development, while SODIC oversees the financing, construction and general management of the projects.

Solidere’s work rebuilding Beirut into a thriving city centre recently won it an award from the United Nations, which considered more than 600 international development projects for an award that is only given once every 20 years.

Mr Badrawi says: “It is still very exciting to the think we are going to bring this kind of development to Cairo.”