Karen’s New Mall: The Hub without the Hubbub

Those who often pass through the Junction Mall will be familiar with the WWW Shop and Bar – the wine bar with the delicatessen and square lounge surrounded by chalkboards and a high glass wall of wine bottles. They may also be familiar with the wine bar’s French owner – Philippe Cauviere – who runs wine and champagne tasting classes within the bar’s specially designed rooms. He has even started cigar tasting evenings, the first of which was held last month at the Villa Rosa Kempinski.

As an experienced hotelier and enthusiastic food and beverage expert, Philippe has been working in Kenya for a while – starting off with Fairmont at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. His most recent project involves the construction of a new mall in Karen called ‘The Hub’. I recently sat down with him to discuss the project, and to discover a bit more about his background.

‘I have been in the hotel business for 30 years’, he said. ‘I’ve worked in around nine or ten countries – as far as Uzbekistan, as high as Russia and then as low as Kenya. After Fairmont I worked for a private owner in hotel development, and then decided to move into commercial development. Kenya is currently one of the most attractive markets for retailers in Africa due to the real estate and infrastructure boom. It’s also a key transportation hub, and has an increasingly stable economy.’

The Hub, he explained, is an ambitious new development that will sit on a 20 acre leafy plot in Karen. The first phase of the 22,500 sq. metre complex, expected to be complete towards the end of 2015, will feature six separate buildings connected by open-air walkways with retail and office spaces, a medical facility, a fitness centre, restaurants, cafés, and even a lake in its grounds. The second phase will see the addition of a hotel and a conference centre.

With so many malls in Nairobi, I wanted to find out more about what distinguishes The Hub from the city’s other shopping centres, and to establish if the development was even necessary.

Karen’s population has been increasing steadily over the last decade, and is expected to rise by 30% in the next six years. According to Philippe, this expansion has outgrown Karen’s current focal point – the heavily congested Karen Roundabout. At present all the shops and restaurants in the area are widely dispersed, and it is this that The Hub aims to change. Karen needs a central point, a ‘nerve centre’ as Philippe put it, where people can shop or meet for lunch – hence the decision to call it ‘The Hub’

The focal point of the complex will be a large piazza, which will host various types of exhibitions, performances and markets.

‘We were inspired by the squares of Europe. If you look at small villages in France, Italy or other European countries, they all have a square with pubs, cafés and Sunday markets. They are happening places, and that’s what we want to create with the piazza – a happening place in the centre surrounded by architecture with a low key, residential feel.’

Philippe was also keen to emphasise the development’s focus on sustainability – on keeping Karen green. The developers have hired an environmental expert to supervise its construction, manage the amount of waste it generates, and streamline the resources used in the process. The mall will sit on the piece of land that was once occupied by the Rusty Nail restaurant, with its huge and very popular garden. Many of these trees, including two massive fig trees and a row of up to 50 jacarandas will remain untouched, or will be relocated to a nursery on site. The site’s greenery seems to form an integral part of The Hub’s design, and according to Philippe will provide a relaxing setting for the mall’s variety of restaurants:

‘Kenyans love to eat outside, and that was one of the important factors in the design. We want all our restaurants to have a terrace. There will be a spectrum of cuisine on offer too – from fast food to fine dining, as well as a family dining experience. The food has to be part of the destination; we want people to say: ‘Let’s just drive to The Hub and decide what we eat when we get there.’

There is a real sense of community with the project too. Philippe and the other developers organised an informal meeting with the immediate neighbours of the development in Karen. The meeting formed a platform for the team to ensure that the neighbours understood what the project was about, and in turn to appreciate the needs of the community.

Philippe is obviously very enthusiastic about the project and it is easy to see why. The Hub will be a blend of European style and African substance – with open-spaces inspired by European town squares, surrounded by local shops and indigenous trees. It’s a refreshing concept, and it promises to become the focal point of a fast-growing Karen community.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation