BEIRUT: The Beirut Municipality is preparing to renovate the Hippodrome to create a multifunctional public park, officials told The Daily Star Wednesday, but some activists voiced skepticism about a plan they see as premature and unnecessary.
Although feasibility studies have yet to be completed by the French company Polyprogramme, municipal officials are already talking about creating a golf academy, eco-friendly restaurants, an artificial pond and an outdoor amphitheater while retaining the site’s racetrack.
“We want to increase the greenery ... there is no heavy construction,” assured Beirut’s deputy mayor, Nadim Abu Rizk. “The idea is to make the horse the theme of the park.”
The transformation of some 255,000 square meters including the racetrack into a park will be carried out in partnership with the municipality of Ile de France, which has supported several other public space initiatives around the city, including Horsh Beirut, the pine forest park which remains closed to the general public.
Abu Rizk said the municipality’s vision for the project includes a footbridge between the Hippodrome and the pine forest, connecting the two largest green spaces in the city.
The municipality has been criticized for failing to open Horsh Beirut, but Abu Rizk said the municipality was working to finish the remaining renovations and find a private company to contract out the park’s management, maintenance and security.
The official added that he was unaware of the reason why the renovations had still not been completed over 15 years after Ile de France stepped in to help fund the restoration.
Abu Rizk defended the municipality’s decision to contract the park’s care and administration to a private firm, citing understaffing and lack of necessary expertise within the municipality.
“It will not be under the company’s control,” said Abu Rizk. “The municipality will only contract someone to manage, but the municipality will set down clear conditions of what is allowed and what is not allowed.”
Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad said the municipality has been working on the Hippodrome project “for some time” and hopes to have a master plan by the end of the year.
“It will take some time,” said Hamad. “Everything in the public sector takes time.”
Raja Noujaim, an activist and a member of the Association for the Preservation of Beirut Heritage, said the municipality’s approach demonstrates that it has not learned from past mistakes. He accused the municipality of taking on large-scale projects in an ad hoc fashion without consulting urban planners, and then contracting private firm to start work before the preliminary studies have been completed.
“Private companies are the major enemy of the people, because private companies have interests. They don’t work for nothing; they work for money, and they will not tell you when you are wrong,” Noujaim said. “First you have to do your homework, go from macro to micro, talk to people, talk to the civil society.”
Noujaim was skeptical that the plans being disseminated for the Hippodrome would come to pass, pointing to the municipality’s history of changing or canceling projects or merely failing to complete them. And he was not impressed with what he saw.
“What is the use of making a beautiful thing that is not needed by the people,” he said.
“Who is going to come and play golf there? What kind of area is this? This is a [working class] area, people come to get away from the chaos of their lives. They need green spaces, places to rest, relaxation. Golf? Do you know what a golf area is?”
Noujaim argued that the municipality was displaying a lack of professionalism by taking on high-profile “megaprojects” without the proper studies from objective third parties or input from the community.
Abu Rizk called the mock-ups that have been published in the press a “preliminary plan just the show the idea,” promising a transparent international bidding process “through our French partners” to create a final design and carry out the work once the feasibility studies are completed.
He also emphasized the municipality’s willingness to engage civil society, saying: “We are open to discussion on all projects.”