BEIRUT: Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad defended Tuesday the Fouad Boutros Highway project, saying it was consistent with the city’s urban and environmental fabric and would not demolish any heritage sites.
Speaking at a news conference, he said most of the property that would be affected by the road between Charles Malek Avenue and Armenia Street had already been expropriated and paid for by the municipality, and that anyone using those building was doing so illegally.
“There is no building listed as a heritage site that will be removed, contrary to what was reported by some media outlets,” he said.
He also pointed to the heavy traffic Beirut suffered from on a daily basis, as well as the severe need for parking lots and green spaces, saying that all these factors had turned Lebanon into a “large garage.”
The Fouad Boutros Highway project, which would see a 1.3-km four-lane highway built to link Ashrafieh’s Alfred Naccache Road with Charles Helou Avenue by the Beirut Port, was originally proposed in 1972 and later modified in 1983, 1996 and finally under Decree 8228 in May 2012.
“The final modification took into consideration a lot of input from experts and civil society [members], and the project is consistent with urban and environmental understandings,” the mayor said.
Deputy Mayor Nadim Abu Rizk said the project’s goals were to alleviate dense traffic on the Mar Mitr crossing and Charles Malek Avenue from all sides by providing an additional entrance and an exit to the city and would also alleviate traffic on Ashrafieh’s inner streets.
The highway would include an underpass at the intersection of the Mar Mitr Boulevard with Charles Malek Avenue; a 25-meter-long tunnel by the College de la Sagesse topped with trees and greenery; a bridge over Armenia Street reaching Charles Helou Avenue; and three underground parking lots.
The municipality has earmarked $75 million for the project.
According to Abu Rizk, the Earth Link & Advanced Resources Development company has been tasked with the preparation of the project’s study alongside TMS Consult, which specializes in transport and traffic.
“At the end of the study, expected by summer 2014, the company will present its report and its recommendations to the Environment Ministry. The Beirut Municipality and the Council for Development and Reconstruction will abide by the results,” Abu Rizk said.
But almost 3,000 people have signed an online petition against the development, arguing that it will increase traffic by facilitating access for cars to the neighborhood.
A civil coalition of non-governmental organizations, professionals and activists has proposed that the government instead construct a tunnel under Charles Malek Avenue to link Downtown with Emile Lahoud Avenue in the east, arguing that this would do more to reduce congestion and would cost less than the current plan. They also want the proposed Fouad Boutros Highway to be replaced by a Fouad Boutros park.
The coalition points to the immense damage that will be done to a historical quarter of Beirut, with 30 buildings scheduled to be demolished and 10,000 square meters of gardens and orchards to be paved over.
“We already warned them [the municipality] to engage in a give and take with us,” said Raja Noujeim, a member of the coalition and the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.
He said the promises of more green spaces were unfounded, calling the designs being handed out “disproportionate.”
Joana Hammour, coordinator at NGO Nahnoo, said Beirut “needed more public spaces” rather than roads and construction projects.
“We must create other alternatives than the car, and we must educate people on that.”