Construction of Africa’s tallest building runs into headwinds

An artistic impression of Watamu's Palm Exotica beach building in Kilifi County.[Courtesy,Standard]
If all goes according to plan, Giussepe Moscarino, an Italian veterinarian will invest Sh28 billion in the construction of what will be Africa’s tallest structure in Watamu, Kilifi.

Dubbed Palm Exotjca, the 61-storey structure will defy gravity and rise to a height of 380 metres.

When completed, it will have upstaged Pinnacle Towers, a Sh20 billion construction planned in Nairobi that will host the highest Hilton Hotel on the continent.

According to a brief in the Palm Exotjca’s online brochure, Dr Moscarino has “strong passion for art, architecture and Africa’s extraordinary beauty that stimulates the imagination”.

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His imagination will turn the 2.4-acre Gede/Kirepwe ‘B’/369 piece of land along Turtle Bay Road in Dabaso into a “playground for all ages, personalities and choices”.

The structure will consist of 270 hotel rooms including presidential suites, 180 serviced luxury apartments, penthouses, a nightclub and casino, cinema and theatre halls and plenty of retail space.

The top of the range restaurants, say the developers, will create a “little-Dubai” experience through their quality food and modern designs.

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The proposed building will sit several 100 metres from the beach. This though, does not worry the developer, since he proposes to connect the edifice to a beach bar via a skyway.

“The Palm Exotjca could be compared to international development such as The Porsche Tower in Miami and Dubai Mixed-Use Tower also referred to as the Dancing Sisters,” states the project’s Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) Study Report.

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To compare, the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach in Florida allows homeowners to “drive their cars up the building” and park them right in front of their units.

Homes in the 195-metre high tower were so much on demand that one local media outlet said “they were selling like cheap gasoline”.

Public participation minutes in our possession point to overwhelming support for the project from the county government, local politicians and residents.

It is not hard to understand why. Watamu is a sleepy village where locals eke out a living working in local hospitality establishments. Due to low educational standards, many opt for low-paying menial jobs. A few work in hotels’ management teams.

To them, the construction of the tower presents what they term as new opportunities for employment.

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Mike Karisa is a local taxi driver who gets regular contracts from the nearby hotels, especially during the tourism peak season. As some hotels close in the low season, he turns to his motorbike to make a living.

However, there are hundreds of other riders in the area, all competing for that scarce customer. The anticipation of what seems to be a regular job offer made him attend the project’s public hearings that are mandatory before the issuance of a licence by National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

“We can’t wait for the Palm to be constructed,” says Karisa. “They gave us forms to indicate whether we want the project or not. We all ticked the right boxes to approve the project. Our people will get jobs during construction phase and beyond.”

Karisa applauded as the lead developer, in his rare appearances, spoke of how he will build schools, hospitals and other social amenities for residents as a show of appreciation for their support.

Objections

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However, even before Nema can fully consider the application, questions have been raised about the project’s viability. Government agencies, environmental groups, marine experts and businesses in the area have voiced their reservations through letters and memorandums to the County Government of Kilifi and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, under which Nema lies.

Their concerns relate to the project’s impacts on the nearby marine ecosystem and lack of adequate facilities such as water, power and roads to

serve the project during the construction and operation phase.

In a letter to Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko dated June 4, 2019, Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala cited several laws that he said prohibit the construction of such tall structures next to beach fronts as they pose “both ecological and environmental challenges to the delicate marine ecosystem”.

In what he termed as his ministry’s “strongest objection” to the proposed construction, Mr Balala suggested that such a building was best suited in a city.

Most buildings in the region have a height of no more than three storeys.

“This is therefore to seek your indulgence and request that the proposed project be halted and possibly relocated to another place on the hinterland…possibly in Malindi town,” wrote Balala.

Regardless of how Nema decides on this matter, Balala insists his ministry’s stand regarding the proposed construction has not changed.

Speaking to The Standard after an event to mark the International Anti-corruption Day at Nairobi National Park on Monday, Balala said the environmental body must fully address all the issues raised before any decision can be made.

“How do you construct such a high tower on such a tiny piece of land? Where will the other requisite amenities such as parking to serve a 61-storey building sit? Our stand remains that this tower should not be built here,” he said.

Physical planning

On July 12, another letter from the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning to Kilifi County’s department of Lands, Housing, Physical Planning and Urban Development poked holes in the ESIA report’s “inadequacy” in addressing infrastructure issues, including an impact assessment on increased human and vehicular volumes.

In the letter, Augustine Masinde, the national director of physical planning cited several planning regulations that were not put into consideration when the ESIA report was submitted.

These include the Survey Regulations of 1994, Building Code (2009), Physical Planning Regulations (Building and Development) (Control) Rules of 1998 and County Governments Act number 17 of 2012.

“We advise that you suspend the approval of the proposed development to allow proper review and audit to establish its sustainability,” he said.

Apart from government agencies, local conservation agencies, business groups and resident associations have also voiced their concerns about the project.

In one of their many letters to Nema on behalf of eight local organisations, Watamu Association said they were not able to present their side of the story at the public hearings due to what they termed as hostile sentiments from the project’s proponents.

The organisations claimed the project is out of character for the area and will fundamentally change and dominate the skyline, destroying the area’s outstanding beauty.

In addition, they said, the county government of Kilifi cannot fulfill the water and sewerage needs of residents, let alone those needed during construction and operation of the building.

Should the finances and technical aspects fail after the start of the project, the residents fear what they call the “leaning tower of Watamu,” or an incomplete building that will forever scar the area.

“Let it be known that residents and interested groups are not opposed to the project just for the sake of it. In fact, we want sustainable projects that uplift the economic state of residents. We just want all pertinent issues raised regarding the project of this magnitude to be fully addressed by the authorities concerned,” says Wanyee Kinuthia, a land, environment and natural resources consultant based in Watamu.

Nema licence pending

Three consultants contracted by Palm Exotjca submitted the ESIA report in May 2019. Ordinarily, Nema should issue a licence within 45-90 days after the submission of such a report.

“We are still processing it and we have not made a decision yet. We can always request for an extension because it is a big project and may take some time. However, I may not be in a position to give any time frame,” said Marrian Kioko, head of the EIA unit at Nema. 

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