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Race for the skies grinds to a halt in Nairobi’s high-rise hub

By Peter Theuri | September 16th 2021

Hilton when completed, the skyscraper is expected to become the tallest building in Africa, and the third tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, at 70 stories and over 1,000 feet in height. [Wilberforce Okwiri]

When the more than 60-metre helical spire at the top of Britam Towers finally appeared in the city skies, UAP Old Mutual Building ceded its position as East Africa’s tallest building.

Two iconic skyscrapers now stood glaring at each other in Nairobi’s Upper Hill, where other imposing towers were also coming up and claiming their place in the race for the skies.

Long gone were the days when Times Tower was the city’s tallest marvel; Global Trade Centre was coming up in Westlands.

Nairobi was truly in a construction race, spectacular designs complementing dizzying heights that some of the developers dared dream to reach. Upper Hill was leading the charge.

“During the 1990s and early 2000s, as land and office space became scarce and exorbitantly priced in the central business district, businesses relocated to Upper Hill and Westlands, where land and office space were more readily available and less expensive,” says National Construction Authority (NCA) executive director Maurice Akech.

In recent years, the Upper Hill area has seen an increase in major construction, with several multinational corporations setting up offices there.

“When Upper Hill was rezoned from a low-density residential zone to a commercial district, the potential for development grew immensely,” says Superior Homes Kenya project manager Yvonne Ondego-Hamalah.

“With the rezoning, the available land offered the opportunity for iconic developments with developers vying for the ‘Kenya’s Tallest Building’ spot.”

Then the race came to a shuddering halt. Pinnacle Towers, once expected to be Africa’s tallest building and whose foundation in Upper Hill already been dug, stalled.

No skyscrapers were coming up to give the highest of Nairobi a run for their money.

Some industry experts say Covid-19 changed everything. Others say the skyrocketing land prices had killed the enthusiasm.

“There has been a lull in the race for the skies due to oversupply of office space,” says Architectural Association of Kenya president Wilson Mugambi.

“(With the pandemic) it got to a place where people no longer needed the office. Furthermore, lack of enough income meant that fewer people could afford to rent these spaces.”

Buildings, whether a modest bungalow or modern skyscrapers, tell tales. They are tangible manifestations of an individual’s, organisation’s or community’s values and successes, says architect Moses Okemwa.

“Skyscrapers in most cities give an account of the economic growth and technological advancement in the society,” he says.

“The lull in the development of skyscrapers in Nairobi tells a story of diminishing economic fortunes for the people, organisations and even the government.”

Mr Okemwa says since the time of the great pyramids in Egypt to the modern-day Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, high-rise constructions are put up to be symbols of hope, ambition, dominance and transcendence.

“In Kenya, most of these structures were championed by the private sector players as an investment option,” he says.

“However, because of the global Covid-19 pandemic and other factors that have brought economic downfall, we have witnessed a slowdown in the design and construction of skyscrapers in our capital city.”

Mr Akech traces the development of Upper Hill to suitable factors that can no longer attract the praise they used to.

“The Upper Hill skyline quickly turned modernist and futuristic in its architecture based on new and innovative technologies of construction, particularly the use of glass, steel and reinforced concrete fueled by the entry of multinational corporations,” he says.

“The site was attractive and ideal due to the availability of affordable tracts of land suitable for large capital investments.”

Construction of access roads also opened up the area. However, over time the originally favourable conditions have changed, says Akech.

“Price of land has skyrocketed, with a report by HassConsult listing it as the most expensive address where an acre went for Sh470 million in 2015 and must now be over Sh500 million.

“An increase in developments also saw the return of massive vehicular traffic.”

The NCA executive says oversupply of office space has resulted in low demand, with a further slag in return on investment cited as a major issue.

Land-related litigation and the changing economic fortunes could have also precipitated the slump.

Mugambi says Kenya needs a big shift in economic policies if the office spaces are to be filled up and investors get their returns.  

He, however, says the real estate industry is experiencing a paradigm shift, bringing with it a lot of rethinking and re-modelling.

Furthermore, the desire to own the office has diminished, with working patterns changing courtesy of the pandemic. Remote working now defines how people use spaces around them, with the office less fancied.

Ms Ondego-Hamalah reckons that Upper Hill had been envisioned as the next major office district due to its close proximity to the central business district (CBD).

“The race to the skies has definitely slowed down, not only in Upper Hill but also in the major urban nodes near the CBD due to reduced demand of office space as tenants embrace more cost-effective alternatives such as co-shared office spaces.”

The lull is certain, but will it reverse once the pandemic is contained?

“We will not have the race to the skies after the pandemic,” says Mugambi. “Offices may come up once again but not in the model of the skyscraper; we will have smaller-scale offices.

“People will be looking for more interactive and co-working spaces and will no longer be thrilled by permanent addresses or high corner offices.”

The office of the future is not about the closeness to the stratosphere, he says, but about convenience, location and access to ICT services and other crucial amenities.

Okemwa is optimistic that once Kenya recovers the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a number of new sky scrapers will come up.

But Ondego-Hamalah does not see the building of skyscrapers resuming soon.

“With the oversupply of commercial office space, I expect there will be a market correction as the forces of demand and supply moderate each other towards equilibrium,” she says.

“Already there is evidence of this with reduced asking rents from averages of Sh100-Sh130 per square foot in 2018 to Sh80-Sh110 per square foot.”

Akech says the race for the skies will resume, but will not be a walk in the park, and will take a lot of stakeholders’ consultation and engagement.

“I can highlight a few strategies that are urgently required, including development of a master plan for Upper Hill to ensure there is orderly development, coupled with effective implementation and monitoring tools.

“There should also be participatory planning for the Upper Hill area, where developers, service providers, residents, government agencies and interested parties are engaged in the planning of the area,” he says.

The planning should also ensure there is adequate provision of services and amenities, with old infrastructure upgraded to attract private investment.

Okemwa says in case the skyscrapers are to come up again, the government should participate more in the projects.

“In my view, pursuit for the skies should not be a preserve of the private sector. The government has a big role of initiating and implementing this kind of projects as a way of marketing the country,” he says.

“This explains why Egypt is on the verge of completing what will be Africa’s tallest building, the Iconic Tower. Egyptians have understood this since the pyramids.”

Likewise, he says, the Burj Khalifa was a Dubai government initiative. The more than 800-metre tower, the tallest in the world, now serves as the symbol of the new Dubai and is a tourist attraction. 

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