Beirut’s development caters to the affluent

Despite Lebanon’s struggling economy, expensive new high-rise projects are displacing heritage buildings.

A building law in 2004 relaxed restrictions on tower height and rent control laws [Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebabon – Beirut’s recent luxury development boom has come at a high cost to the city’s long-term residents, communities and heritage, critics say.

One casualty is likely to be Joseph Tobagi’s turn-of-the-century home and orange grove. It lies directly in the path of the proposed Fouad Boutros highway, which aims to link the city’s traffic in the affluent Ashrafiyeh neighborhood to the sea.

Tobagi’s grandfather, a surgeon at the Saint George Hospital, built the mansion in 1898 in the quiet port community of Mar Mikhael, which became home to an incoming wave of Armenian refugees.

Joseph Tobagi’s turn-of-the-century home is under threat of demolition [Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]

Joseph Tobagi said the government paid his family for the bulk of their property when the road plan was initially conceived in the 1960s. But the 1975-1990 civil war put all construction on hold, including the highway.

Now Beirut’s rapid expansion and congested arteries have pushed the municipality to reconsider the blueprints. Residents, urban planners and preservationists decry the move, branding the road as outdated, and instead argue for fewer cars and more green space.

“It’s cutting through the fabric of an entire neighborhood,” said Joana Hammour of the advocacy group, Save Beirut Heritage. “It’s obsolete. More roads lead to more traffic.”

But Beirut’s deputy mayor, Nadim Abourizk, said he would not consider an alternative plan. “We are doing an environmental impact study and a new traffic analysis, because we need to convince everyone it is needed,” he said.

The Fouad Boutros highway is just one of the enormous construction projects that have altered the shape, character and property of Beirut’s neighbourhoods since the post-war 1990s.

Era of high-rise developments

Private-public partnership Solidere, founded by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, established a taste for high-end development by transforming Beirut’s war-torn downtown into an elite enclave of pricey retail shops and apartments.

Today, the Sama Beirut tower, still under construction, is an ostentatious example of the kind of luxury high-rises, mostly built by Lebanese and Gulf-state money that have shot up in the past decade along the city’s coast and within low-rise, historic neighborhoods.

When you read the text of the 2004 law it is obviously written by developers.

-Mona Fawaz, professor

Enabling this boom is the latest building law, passed in 2004, which loosened restrictions on tower height in crowded neighborhoods. In addition, rent control laws, which maintain low fees for tenants who signed contracts before 1992, drive property owners to sell their buildings to developers instead.

“When you read the text of the 2004 law it is obviously written by developers,” said Mona Fawaz, an urban planning professor at the American University of Beirut. “It has all sorts of tricks to build a little more, and to build a little higher.”

Since 2010, Lebanon’s construction boom and tourism have declined, affected by the Syrian crisis and a warning by Gulf States against travel to Lebanon.

Lebanese expatriates are the leading real-estate investors now. They are frequently reluctant to store their money in banks under threat by the United States and European Union for doing business with sanction targets.

“There is construction taking place, but I prefer to look at it as stagnant,” said Nassib Ghobri, the head researcher at Byblos Bank.

“Real estate prices are very high, and they don’t match incomes. Large apartment sales are stagnant and construction is now geared towards smaller apartments.”

According to Byblos Bank, while real estate transactions dropped by over five percent over the past year, the value of each transaction increased by nearly 8 percent.

“Higher-class segmentation has transformed Beirut into an area for real estate speculation, pushing more and more people outside of the city, or even the country,” said economist Charbel Nahas. “The government is not encouraging low income housing development.”

Stagnant economy

The country’s economy has been shaky throughout the year. There is high unemployment, low wages, a lack of affordable housing, overstretched schools and health care, as well as daily power cuts and severe water shortages.

The World Bank reports that by the end of 2014, the Syrian war and the influx of over one million refugees will cost Lebanon $7.5bn.

But life for the tenants in Beirut’s luxury towers is different from their neighbours.

“Upper-income people mitigate for everything with their cash. So you see them replacing the public with all sorts of private amenities,” said Fawaz.

“We are seeing a transformation of typology, where the ground floor has a gate instead of a store. This changes the character of the street,” she said. “Once you don’t have a store you don’t have someone putting out a chair on the street. You get a gate and an SUV driving out.”

Raya Daouk is in a unique position as the head of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD), which identifies historic homes and fights to preserve them.

I don't see my neighbors now because those who can afford these places are usually someplace else.

-Raya Daouk, Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon

Living in a restored villa built in 1870 in Ras Beirut, Daouk weathered the civil war’s violence and then watched her neighbours gradually sell their homes and move out. Residential blocks now surround her, and she jokes that tenants are charged more for overlooking her lush garden.

“I remember my neighborhood before the war,” she said nostalgically. “Me and my neighbors would have coffee by the wall while we gardened.”

“I don’t see my neighbors now because those who can afford these places are usually someplace else,” she said. “They usually buy the apartment, put the key in their pocket and go abroad. They are soulless, empty places. If you don’t live in a place it stops living.”

Across town in Mar Mikhael, a shopkeeper Seham Tekian works around the clock selling cigarettes, beer and groceries. She values her old neighbourhood friends, and keeps close tabs on the rapid development and gentrification of the once sleepy neighborhood.

Tekian and her family own their apartment building, but they are bound by the rent control law to maintain its upkeep for minimal rental fees. “We always have problems but now my husband says, ‘whoever wants it, take it, it’s enough for me.'”

“But we don’t want to sell,” she said. “We won’t find anywhere else in Beirut to live, and would have to go outside. But then you would spend half your day on highway getting back to the city. So where are we going to go?”

Source: Al Jazeera

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