BEIRUT: Under the shade of an enormous 150-year-old berry tree, a panel of experts and activists reaffirmed their opposition to the Fouad Boutros Highway project Tuesday, accusing the Beirut municipality of illegally beginning implementation before a key environmental study has been completed.
The news conference and civil society gathering was the latest initiative organized by a coalition of NGOs, professionals, and activists as part of an ongoing campaign against the project.
The Fouad Boutros project, which would see a 1.3-km four-lane highway linking Achrafieh’s Alfred Naccahe Road with Charles Helou Avenue by the Beirut Port, was initially proposed in 1972. It was then modified in 1983, 1996, and most recently in May 2012 under Decree 8228 with an estimated cost of $75mln.
The Beirut Municipality and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) are pushing for the project’s implementation assuring that it will improve traffic conditions in the severely congested Achrafieh district.
Held at the Tobbagi family garden in Mar Mikhael, the purpose of Tuesday’s event was to update citizens and stakeholders about the projects’ status, and to plan for ways to counter it. The conference also provided a platform that emphasized on the need for alternatives, especially the Fouad Boutros Park proposed by the coalition. The panel included Raja Noujaim, the general coordinator of the coalition, architect and urban planner Jihad Kiame, and Antoine Atallah, an architect and urban designer who has conducted an impact study for the highway.
Kiame spoke on behalf of a group of over 65 experts who have all signed and recently released a declaration denouncing the Fouad Boutros project. The experts comprise of academics and professionals in pertinent fields, including transportation engineering, architecture, and urban development, and in various organizations, ranging from the American University of Beirut to Harvard University and The World Bank.
The group has described the highway as “destructive and obsolete” based on several principles, the first being that it would actually encourage the use of cars instead of providing or promoting public transport.
“This project is characterized by the outdated and traditional mentality that reinforces car dependency,” Kiame asserted.
The experts’ opposition to the Fouad Boutros project also stems from their belief that it would destroy the architectural heritage and landscape of the neighborhoods it cuts through, and destroy more of the little remaining green space in Beirut.
The highway will partially or completely demolish over 30 houses, in addition to the 10,000 square meters of gardens and orchards that will be paved over, according to the group, while the municipality only owns 10 houses and five properties.
A lengthy and dedicated public opposition, which included several protests that drew hundreds and a petition signed by over 3,000 people, has delayed the project until now.
In support of the coalition, the Ministry of Environment assigned the Earth Link & Advanced Resources Development (ELARD) company to conduct an environmental study for the highway, alongside TMS Consult, which will prepare a traffic study.
The coalition and the group of experts believe, however, that the municipality and CDR are merely putting on a show of cooperation, as they have already started with land expropriation procedures, despite the fact that the environmental study is still in the first phase of scope delineation, which could take up to seven months.
“Land expropriation is the first step in project execution,” Noujaim told the audience at Tuesday's event.
He pointed out that project execution cannot legally begin before the study is complete and the Ministry of Environment grants its approval, questioning why expropriation is underway.
The Beirut Municipality was not available for comment.
Kiame and Attallah also condemned the refusal of the municipality to allow for public debate and consultation or to consider the concerns of its citizens.
“It is our right as citizens to have a say in what is done with our public spaces,” Kiame said.
Over 50 stakeholders in the project have filed a lawsuit with Lebanon’s Shura Council asking for the cancellation of the Fouad Boutros project. If the council votes in their favor in 20 days, it would effectively put an end to the project.
The coalition has also filed a lawsuit concerning the project with the Prosecutor’s Office.
Noujaim emphasized that the coalition will continue to do everything in its power to make sure the Fouad Boutros project is not implemented. Attendants at the event consisted mainly of Beirut residents, other NGOs, and concerned professionals who all echoed Noujaim’s sentiments.
“The Beirut Municipality and the CDR are truly in a dilemma at the moment,” Kiame told The Daily Star. “We were able to get to this point with hard evidence and sound logic in the face of their empty promises. If they decide to ignore citizens’ demands and proceed with the project in spite of all this, I believe people will hit the streets in protest.”
“A city is a safe road, a decent sidewalk, a streetlight at night,” he added. ”It is proper urban planning and adequate infrastructure. That’s what we need in Beirut right now, not new highways and mega-projects.”