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Skyscrapers that fell flat

By Peter Muiruri | February 12th 2015 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Kenya: A well-known Biblical story tells of an attempt by the people of God to build what was to be the world’s first tallest structure the Tower of Babel. According to German archaeologist Walter Andrae, the shrine at the top of the tower was meant to be the “gate through which God descends the staircase to reach his earthly dwelling place”.

Unfortunately, the construction was never completed due to ensuing linguistic confusion after God scattered their effort.

Modern architecture has not shied away from the concept of such massive projects.

While many have seen the light of day, others never take off the ground for one reason or the other.

We look at Kenya’s share of mega projects that got away and how such projects compare with similar ones in other parts of the world.

On November 26, 1989, The New York Times gave a rare but an extensive coverage to a proposed construction of a tower in Kenya that was set to become the tallest in Africa.

Kenya Times Complex

The 60-storey edifice by Kenya Times Media Trust, backed by the then ruling party Kanu, was set to be constructed at Uhuru Park.

It was to comprise a conference facility, the headquarters of the party, the defunct Kenya Times newspaper and a TV station owned by the same media group.

There would also be a trading centre, offices, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for 2,000 cars.

But why would such a grandiose development elicit such coverage thousands of miles away? It all had to do with the chosen location.

The very idea of constructing such a permanent structure at the popular park elicited condemnation from environmentalists led by Green Belt Movement founder, the late Wangari Maathai.

“The concrete-and-glass structure will turn Nairobi, now a pleasant, airy mix of city and country, into the gray city in the shade by blocking the bright African sun,” stated The New York Times.

Maathai went ahead and filed a lawsuit against Kenya Times Media Trust Ltd in an effort to stop the project due to irregular land procurement procedures. The case was later dismissed.

According to Kenya: A History Since Independence, a book by Charles Hornsby, “Opposition to the project by the political class was non-existent.” But as Hornsby acknowledged, an environmentalist had for the first time taken on the Government.

Proponents of the project hailed it as a symbol of economic and technological advancement and one that would improve the city’s aesthetic beauty. City authorities claimed the tower would take only a small portion of the park.

A Cabinet minister even said the earmarked portion was not within “the area designated as Uhuru Park.”

On Wednesday, November 8, 1989, Maathai became the subject of intense, 45-minute debate in Parliament, with MPs “attacking her as a woman and, worse still, a divorcee”. But she was unbowed.

“Today, The Kenya Times may feel Uhuru Park is big enough for their complex. Tomorrow, another organisation will justify its own share of the park,” Maathai was quoted by The Standard on Sunday as saying.

And although groundbreaking had began the same month, growing opposition made the Government shelve the project on January 29, 1990.

Although environmental factors carried the day, the cost of putting up the structure was also prohibitive for the then struggling economy.

Cost

The British-designed skyscraper would have gobbled $200 million (Sh18 billion at current rates), much of it government-guaranteed loans.

According to environmental architect Kimeu Musau, what Wangari Maathai and other opponents of the project did was laudable.

He says he would act in the same manner were such a project to interfere with a publicly shared natural resource. He says there should be public forums where such proposals are subjected to thorough scrutiny before work commences.

Today, that section of the park is popular with lunchtime preachers and is part of what has come to be known as Freedom Corner.

Between 2010 and 2011, there was word in Nairobi that Dubai-based First Group intended to put up a 70-storey building in Upper Hill.

The One

Known as The One Nairobi, the building would have included a seven-star hotel and luxury apartments.

Again, this would have become the tallest structure in Africa were it not for the upcoming 110-storey Centurion Symbio-City project in South Africa.

As was reported by Home and Away in November 2011, construction of the building could not commence as there were inadequate amenities to support the building.

For example, it would have taken at least 15 megawatts of electricity to power the building while water usage would have topped at 140,000 litres daily.

The road network in Upper Hill would also have presented a problem for a building that was designed with a parking for 600 cars.

“The infrastructure in Upper Hill was initially designed for residential homes. However, the area has become the most expensive and much sought-after piece of real estate in the region. The amenities are not enough for current users let alone such massive upcoming projects,” says Musau.

With the expansion of amenities in the greater Upper Hill area, it is hoped that the developers will reconsider their decision to build the ultimate ‘King of the Sky.’

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