BEIRUT: The Beirut Municipal Council’s first public hearing to discuss urban planning Wednesday ended in a heated debate over a controversial plan to build an underground parking lot in Ashrafieh’s Jesuit Park.
Signs written in English welcomed members of the public to the “town hall meeting,” where council members presented a series of projects aimed at renovating and restructuring a large number of spaces across the capital. Many of the projects highlighted have already come to light in the press, often clouded in controversy.
The meeting appeared to be an attempt to address criticism that the municipality has been less-than transparent with its designs for the city and its public spaces.
“We want to include the civil society in [the planning of the projects],” Beirut mayor Bilal Hamad told the crowd.
He acknowledged that the municipality enjoyed surplus funding, but added that wealth has to “manifest into projects compatible with the city.”
Deputy Mayor Nadim Abu Rizk said projects were “for the residents of Beirut, and not for the council itself,” emphasizing that the council was eager to include citizens, local nonprofit organizations, and the media.
Abu Rizk called on the community to cooperate with the municipality in implementing “a strategic vision for the city of Beirut,” adding: “[Beirut] is not a museum, but is an entity with a beating heart and a soul.”
He also noted the importance of preserving the city’s architectural and archaeological heritage, which has been the cause of debate over the last year.
Earlier this year, residents living near the Jesuit Park in Ashrafieh staged a number of sit-ins in protest of the municipality’s plan to build an underground parking complex. Local activists accused the municipality of surreptitiously sending surveyors without informing the community.
Residents who opposed the project had argued the 100-year-old pine trees with their long roots would not survive, the vibrations from the drilling would harm the ruins of one of Lebanon’s oldest known churches, and the construction period would cause noise pollution.
The space, which includes a playground, was donated by the Jesuit order to the city in the 1960s to serve as a public park.
Municipal officials have defended the plan, which they say would increase parking and relieve traffic congestion, promising to replant and renovate the park when construction was complete.
Despite the hour-long presentation and distribution of a booklet listing all the city’s projects – past, future, and uncompleted – many attendees still appeared confused or apprehensive.
No sooner had the presentation finished, when a middle-aged woman who said she lived near the Jesuit Garden challenged the council on its plans. She was joined by many others, who argued that the underground parking would ruin the garden, and said the plan did not sound at all feasible.
Abu Rizk replied that the plans were not finalized, despite being outlined in the booklet, which specified the parking lot would hold 600 cars. He promised that a separate public hearing would be held at a later date to discuss the Jesuit Park project.
“The need to keep our heritage should not hinder plans to develop and improve the city,” Abu Rizk warned, but promised the council would not go ahead with any project against the community’s wishes.
“We don’t want to impose a project on anyone,” Abu Rizk said, as he came under fire from angry residents. “On the contrary, we are interested that there be a level of understanding on any project.”
Other controversial municipal projects have included the renovation of Sanayeh Park, the Fouad Boutros Highway project in Ashrafieh, the Horsh Beirut Pine Forest, which remains closed to the public, and most recently the Hippodrome, Beirut’s horse track.
According to the booklet circulated Tuesday, the new Hippodrome would include an equestrian club, restaurants, an artificial lake, a parking lot, museum, and golf academy. Critics have accused the municipality of drawing up ambitious plans before the preliminary studies are completed and question the practicality of a golf academy.
Abu Rizk told the audience at the town hall meeting the complex will be renamed “Central Park.”