Fight builds for Beirut’s cultural heritage

Activists in Beirut are combating a municipality-backed road project they say will cut through historic neighbourhoods.

Beirut's city centre has seen rapid development in recent years, leading to a loss of green space [Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – As the municipality moves ahead with a long-awaited road project that will cut through the heart of several Beirut neighbourhoods, civil society groups are decrying the project as outmoded and potentially destructive to the city’s cultural heritage.

“We have to take this project out of the municipality’s agenda,” said architect and urban planner Jihad Kiame, who alleges the proposed highway will demolish a historic orchard and dozens of properties, devastating the architectural remnants of a neighbourhood in east Beirut known as Hikmeh.

The Beirut municipality’s Fouad Boutros project is the latest manifestation of the “Hikmeh-Turk” axis plan. Devised in the 1950s to provide a link for motorists from the main avenues of Charles Malek and Charles Helou, the proposed plan will cut across Beirut’s Ashrafieh, Rmeil, and Medawar districts, while slicing through the heart of the historic Hikmeh and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods.


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places to park their car, more greenery and easy in and out access.”]

Aiming to connect the city’s commercial centre to the port, the plan is expected to cost between $70-75m, and would provide a solution to Beirut’s “unhealthy” traffic problem, according to Deputy Mayor Nadim Abou Rizk.

Abou Rizk told Al Jazeera the new road would be built on state lands that were expropriated in the 1970s and 1980s, and added that the details of the plan were contingent on the results of an environmental assessment being carried out by a third-party company, El Ard.

“What we aim is to create for the people of Ashrafieh places to park their car, more greenery and easy in and out access,” he said, adding that underground car parks would clear between 750 and 800 vehicles from the roads, and a park would be established.

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A municipal decree first provided a legal framework for the road project in 1972, and was later revised in 1983, 1996, and 2012. Implementation of the plan was postponed indefinitely at the onset of Lebanon’s Civil War in 1975, but was recently revived, to the bewilderment of architects, urban planners, road experts and concerned citizens, who have mobilised under the umbrella of the Civil Coalition Against the Boutros Highway.

“We’ve been advocating the need for transparency when it comes to the public project. The fact is people have the right to know what is going to be imposed on them as city dwellers,” said architect and coalition member Antoine Atallah.

The coalition has argued that the project is defective from both a design and environmental standpoint, and suggested a park be created in the Hikmeh area instead of the highway. According to preliminary plans for an alternative project, the coalition suggested transforming the area’s abandoned Ottoman homes into museums and public gardens.

Al Jazeera World – Shattered heritage

Beirut-based architect and blogger Sandra Rishani told Al Jazeera that the proportion of green space in Beirut currently stands at 1.8 percent, well below the World Health Organisation’s recommended quantity of 10 square metres per person. In a blog post, Rishani said that Beirut would have to increase its proportion of green space by 22 times to meet international standards.

The coalition has launched a website, a petition and a group declaration penned by experts advising the municipality to cancel the project immediately. A petition circulated by the group in February has so far garnered about 3,000 signatures.

“Many people, especially the municipality and the CDR [Council for Development and Reconstruction, which oversees the project] have been labelling us as a group of romantic tree huggers and old stone lovers, trying to make us lose credibility,” Atallah told Al Jazeera. “We are opposing this project out of thought, out of knowledge, as specialised NGOs, as people who have worked with experts.”

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The Hikmeh neighbourhood is a compact collection of small houses, narrow streets and small gardens, including a large orchard that sits at the heart of the area. Approximately 28 old houses lie in the path of the road project, 12 of which will be completely demolished, according to the municipality.

The architectural heritage of the neighbourhood dates back to early 20th century, during the Ottoman period, and the 19th century past of the district of Ashrafieh, which encompasses the neighbourhood. According to local architect Abdul-Halim Jabr, the area was built during the first expansion of Beirut outside the old city walls, and was transformed into a residential area after the mercantile class moved to the area.

Today, it contains about one third of the historically significant buildings still standing in Beirut’s city centre, Jabr said. “We are talking about the most significant historic area in Beirut and the public officials want to put a tunnel and a highway through it.”

The area’s inhabitants are a mix of original residents, long-term tenants who stayed despite having sold their land to the state, and people displaced during the civil war. Abou Rizk argued that the homes slated for demolition were expropriated decades ago, and said those who remain are illegal squatters.

We are talking about the most significant historic area in Beirut and the public officials want to put a tunnel and a highway through it.

by - Abdul-Halim Jabr, architect

But residents say while they were aware the municipality had a road project in mind for the area, they were never formally evicted. “I’ve lived here for 60 years,” said Youssef Chehab, an elderly resident, as he smoked outside a corner shop. “If they make me leave, I don’t know where I’d go.”

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The coalition has argued that the guiding principle behind the project itself, borne from a time when Beirut was a dense garden city, was outdated in the capital’s current context. When the plan was devised, Mar Mikhael was a dormant suburb, an ideal location to build a highway connecting the city’s port to the international highway leading to Damascus. 

But six decades later, the once deserted plane has become part of a sprawling urban centre, and putting a highway in the area now would be detrimental to its residential connectivity, activists say.

According to Jabr, the municipality’s project was “dug out of oblivion” precisely to create a new playing field for real estate, the dominant force behind gentrification in the city. In the mid-1990s, real estate was in a slump, with a significant surplus in the market, Jabr explained.

Three major factors, he said, created the demand for real estate in the city: the global financial crisis, the surge of money coming from Arab Gulf countries after a spike in oil prices, and displacement from the July 2006 war.

According to Marwan Barakat, a researcher at Lebanon’s Byblos Bank, there are no statistical figures to account for how much space is left in Beirut to develop. He said, however, that real-estate prices have risen over the years in a “staircase scenario”, meaning they tend to stabilise before rising again.

Tenants feel the rise in prices more acutely. In Mar Mikhael, which has become increasingly gentrified in the past few years, local resident Nadine complained that in the past five years, her rental fees have nearly doubled. “The studio I live in used to cost $350, and now it’s $600,” she said.

Those left out of the real estate boom tend to be members of the working class, who now must look further afield to Mount Lebanon to find places to live. “It makes more sense to improve the road conditions and infrastructure to encourage better traffic flows,” Jabr said.

Source: Al Jazeera