BEIRUT: The impending sale of the iconic Union building off Spears Street next to Sanayeh Park has ignited a new round of fighting in the ongoing battle between preservationists, property owners and developers, one that could have far-reaching implications for the city’s modern architectural heritage.
Businessman Ali Hassoun is in talks with the General Insurance Company for the Near East – commonly known as Al-Ittihad al-Watani – to buy the building, Hassoun confirmed to The Daily Star Tuesday, declining to discuss his future plans for the structure.
“The deal is not done yet,” said Hassoun, who seemed irritated that details of the deal leaked to media last week, sparking a backlash from activists.
“I’m not buying it anymore, and the story ends here,” he said at one point. “Usually business gets done quietly, but everyone is talking about this so I am thinking it might not get finished.”
Hassoun would not comment on rumors that he placed a bid between $40 million and $50 million, citing a nondisclosure agreement. Likewise, he neither confirmed nor denied reports that he planned to demolish the building if he acquired it. “Let’s wait, we’ll see.”
According to real estate industry sources, Hassoun is not considered a large developer, having constructed just one major building, Verdun Twins, where Lina’s cafe is located.
Architect Nabil Azar, who has worked with Hassoun in the past, said the businessman contacted him regarding the Union building but did not know whether he planned to tear it down or renovate it. Although Azar’s firm works on many new construction projects, it has also carried out renovations of a number of important historical buildings, including the St. George Cathedral and the Beirut Municipality.
“I’m always against tearing down buildings,” said Azar. “But the name of the game is money; if the government has money let them preserve it.”
Jacques Abdallah, a lawyer for the General Insurance Company, put the offer at “less than half” of the reported figure of $50 million, adding: “No one is talking about tearing it down.”
Up until a few years ago, demolition permits were processed through the Beirut Municipality, and only buildings that received certain designations were subject to oversight by the Directorate-General of Antiquities, which falls under the Culture Ministry.
In 2010, then-Culture Minister Salim Warde issued a decision stipulating all demolition requests receive approval from a committee of three experts in the Directorate. The committee’s decision to deny permission can be overturned by either the minister or the Shura Council, the country’s highest arbitration authority.
Over the past three years, activists say many old buildings have been saved, particularly those featuring the red-tile roofs and arched windows many associate with “traditional” Lebanese architecture from the Ottoman period. But equally important, say many, is the country’s more modern architectural heritage.
“The first problem is modern heritage is not included in our [perception of] heritage,” said Mazen Haidar, an architect and professor of architecture at AUB and LAU. “Secondly, our vision of heritage is very primitive because we look at separate buildings instead of places or zones.”
Haidar said that preservation criteria should include context, or how the building fits with its surroundings, time period and historical significance, such as a connection to an important figure or event, in addition to the state of the building itself.
The Union, Haidar said, fulfills all four criteria as “one of the most important modernist buildings” from the middle of the last century. Its architect, Antoine Tabet, is considered one of Lebanon’s most prominent.
“Spears Street has preserved a considerable number of buildings from the early 20th century until the 1950s, one of them being the Union building, which has the perfect language related to Spears Street and Sanayeh.”
Moreover, he said, the building is structurally sound and perfectly usable.
The Union is just one of several buildings in the area that were built by notable architects, and not the only one facing possible demolition.
The Butros building, which occupies a triangular sliver of land at the beginning of Spears, was built in 1951 by George Rayyes and Theo Kanaan. It has also reportedly been sold, and most of the tenants have been evicted. Hasan Fouani, who owns a bookstore in the building, said he “heard” the building would come down, but because he paid rent to a proxy, he had no idea who the current owners were. Fouani said he was involved in an unrelated legal dispute that prevented him from being forced out.
Down the street toward Barbar, a tenant of the Ballan building, which belongs to the same plot as the parking lot next to the famous snack joint, said the owner had applied for a demolition permit but was awaiting a decision from the Directorate-General of Antiquities.
All along Spears Street, the rumor mill is working overtime: The owners of a photography studio said a gas station across the street would be torn down, while the gas station employees denied this but suspected the building next door was doomed.
Bashar Abu Saisan, the owner of Pub 101 on the ground floor of the Union building, said he knew only what he had read or seen in media reports, and insisted that neither the company nor Hassoun had contacted him about moving when his contract expired at the end of this year.
“I feel sorry to see such a building removed,” he said. “Beirut is evolving toward chaotic urbanism.”
Abdallah, the lawyer, blamed old tenants from the Union building for spreading gossip in an attempt to drum up support and stave off eviction. But the rumors can be at least partially blamed on the lack of transparency that characterizes property sales and urban development.
“These negative rumors can work against us, because these rumors are organized and investors do it on purpose so they can belittle what is actually happening, because later people will say ‘oh that’s not true, it’s just the Union building,’” said Haidar. “The lack of transparency is only to protect the process.”
Under the law, Haidar explained, old tenants could not be evicted unless the owner intended to demolish the building, which would create an incentive to tear down old buildings instead of renovating them and renting or selling them at a higher price.
“Probably [the prospective buyer intends to] keep the building and add a floor,” Haidar ventured.
“We can take advantage of this event even if the owner does not want to tear it down to start thinking of preserving a street or neighborhood,” he concluded. “I can think of additions that could respect the historical and aesthetic value of the building and at the same time allow the developer to expand.”