Kazakhstan Conference

shutterstock_15930907 Bayterek Tower Astana Kazakhstan

Dan Anderson was invited to speak about concept development for large scale regeneration, as well as the role of sport in property development, at a two-part real estate conference in Almaty and Astana.  Here he reflects on a week of revisiting old friends and new destinations in Kazakhstan.

I am grateful to old friends at Colliers Kazakhstan for inviting me to speak at the Kazakhstan Real Estate Conference on October 29 (in Astana) and October 30 (in Almaty).  Having spent the better part of two years in Almaty, between 2007 and 2009, it was a pleasure and a privilege to be back.

A lot of credit must go to Bayan Kuatova and her extraordinary team of consultants for organising such a stimulating event.  It was a seasoned developer in Kazakhstan who pointed out to me over a coffee break this important fact:  in more than a decade that he has worked in Kazakhstani real estate, this is the first time that he could remember a property firm organising such an event.  That is a telling statement, particularly since real estate is so central to the broader economic development of the country.  All of the major international firms are there, but this is the first time that a real estate firm has shown some leadership and a genuine desire to get people talking openly about issues that are critical to the sector.

Many issues were aired during two intensive sessions, first up in the gleaming new capital of Astana and then in Almaty, the main commercial city.  Speakers from London, Budapest, Moscow and Hong Kong shared the stage with local bankers, developers, and project managers, always trying to marry international perspectives with local realities.  These included the finer points of valuations, the ins-and-outs of hotel development, project management principles for the local market, and a couple of fascinating perspectives on the causes, consequences and aftermath of the financial crisis.  A well-delivered speech on the value of ‘green buildings’ by Michael Smithing of Colliers Hungary even convinced a cynic like me.

For my part, I was asked to speak about visioning and concept development for large scale regeneration projects and, in a separate presentation, about the contribution that sport and leisure can make to real estate development.  It is a measure of how quickly things move in Kazakhstan that I had a bracing moment on the way from Astana Airport to the conference centre.  After our tour guide pointed out the brand new stadium, velodrome and arena (not to mention the new aquarium, opera house, artificial beach and entertainment centre), each more ‘iconic’ than the next, I started to wonder how instructive a lot my slides would be.  Not much point in discussing the opportunities and pitfalls of stadium development, when all of the stadiums are already built.  Thank goodness for a gracious audience.

Fortunately, it also became evident over the course of the week, that everything we can see today in Kazakhstan – from the fantastical architecture of Astana to the mountain resorts of Shymkent and the financial district of Almaty – is all just prologue to what’s coming.  The World University Games are confirmed and Almaty is the first city to submit a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.  A 300-hectare site outside Astana has been earmarked for an international Expo in 2017.  We saw ambitious plans for visa-free development zones on the Chinese border, ‘green city’ developments the size of a small British town, and continued reinforcement of Almaty’s position as the financial heart of Central Asia.

There was also a palpable sense that we are approaching a ‘new stage’ of Kazakhstani development.  The financial crisis hit local developers early and hard.  From conversations with old friends and new, one got the real sense that the next building boom will be more measured than the last one.  Free of the pre-crisis hubris and hyperbole, today’s developers appear to be (or at least are trying to be) much more cautious and methodical.  Where they once paid lip service to ‘trivial things’ like market analysis, independent valuations, sustainability, placemaking and phasing, there is now a more thoughtful and professional approach to project planning.

In our ‘downtime’ we had a chance to visit the Shymbulak ski resort, which my colleague Jim Roberts played such an important part in delivering.  Every time I visit it seems that something new is added.  This time it featured a high ropes course and a giant outdoor video screen, with a new tubing area under construction.  It augers well for the development of the nearby Kok Jailau valley, which no doubt features heavily in the Almaty Winter Olympic bid.  I also had time to kill a few zombies and do some Kinetic dancing at possibly the best multiplayer gaming centre that I have ever seen – a concept so successful in Kazakhstan that it is now being exported to London.

There is still a way to go, of course.  Finance is still a challenge and professional property management remains a wholly missing link in the transition from completed development to functioning ‘place’.  There is still a troubling ‘build it and they will come’ mentality, which I suspect will come back to haunt a few projects.   I saw a couple of so-called ‘children’s play’ areas in completed developments that almost made me cry.  And my ‘naïve’ comment in one meeting that a distinctive old industrial building could be sensitively preserved rather than ransacked to make yet another shopping centre was met with the chirping sound of Kazakh crickets.  But all of that notwithstanding, I left with the overall impression that things are getting back to normal and, indeed, that ‘normal’ itself has been recalibrated to something that is much more realistic and sustainable.

I look forward to participating in this new stage of development, even in the smallest and most tangential ways.  Any opportunity to get back to Kazakhstan is welcome.

Рахмет! / Спасибо!