There is only one Beirut. Yet Beirut is not unique in the challenges confronted by its urban development. Like all living cities, Beirut needs to grow and change, but this should not happen at the expense of the historic city.
The latest row involves the decision to construct a bridge, the so-called Fouad Boutros Bridge, in Ashrafieh. Those protesting the project say that it will destroy a historic quarter of the city, while also failing to resolve traffic problems. This past Saturday, they gathered near the site where the bridge is to be built to make their displeasure known.
The experiences of other cities prove that growth and its management are not incompatible. Cities around the world have been spending fortunes to dismantle similar bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s because they did not ameliorate traffic flows and because they devalued property and destroyed the historic fabric.
Beirut will be unique when it learns from other cities and generates innovative solutions. But if the city’s leaders only repeat other cities’ mistakes and apply obsolete solutions to old problems, Beirut will be unique only in its ignorance.
The Fouad Boutros Bridge Project points to a lack of vision in addressing the tension between growth and the historic fabric of Beirut. It also points to the absence of mechanisms to allow citizens to review and discuss matters of high relevance to them. In Beirut, as elsewhere, the debate has moved to arenas such as the environment and heritage. These are new priorities that demand immediate solutions but they also require institutional frameworks for decision-making, debate, and accountability.
The crisis of the bridge also puts the authorities, in this case the Beirut Municipality and the Council for Development and Reconstruction, in front of a predicament. The fact that the plan has been approved, the funds allocated, and the property expropriated does not make it a justifiable project.
The historic houses that may be affected may have been saved by an accident of circumstance and by delays. The authorities could turn this into an opportunity to preserve those structures and find an alternative solution. Such accidental delays have saved many historic districts around the world that are now thriving because of their historical character. It is precisely because the property is public that the CDR and the Beirut Municipality can do something different than build a bridge, as long as it is for the public good. There may be hurdles but these can be overcome. Ashrafieh deserves infrastructure investment, as parliamentarians and landowners are saying, but not of this kind.
The issue is not merely about building or not building the Fouad Boutros bridge. On this matter, the answer coming from the experts is a resounding no – be they experts in heritage, environment, transportation, or real estate. The key issue should be about creating a process to engage groups directly affected by the project, such as landlords, merchants and residents.
Democratic engagement and a better Beirut go hand in hand. The CDR and the Beirut Municipality could start by listening to what civil society groups who oppose the project are saying. If they listen carefully, they will hear a proposal for a solution.
First, the Fouad Boutros Bridge Project will not solve the current traffic problems in the area. It is also going to create other problems, including the devaluation of adjacent property.
It is time to debunk the long-held belief that roads are necessarily a solution to traffic. Roads generate traffic as well. The Fouad Boutros bridge is meant to facilitate through traffic but in effect, it is going to create more congestion on Alfred Naccache Street and on Charles Helou bridge. As has been argued repeatedly by transportation engineers, the Alfred Naccache Street is not wide enough to accommodate the flow. It is also a surface road with too many large commercial outlets that add to the traffic.
Bridges are also notorious for destroying neighborhoods and streets, generating undesirable spaces under them, and radically degrading surrounding property. Landowners of adjacent property should go visit areas such as Basta, Cola and Tahwita to understand the negative impact of such bridges.
Two houses slated for conservation are to be dismantled and reassembled over the tunnel, but this is not feasible for a variety of reasons: seismicity, cost, and complexity. It is also not the few protected houses alone that merit conservation, but the overall context of the Mar Mikhael-Gemmayzeh neighborhood, of which the houses are an integral part in their present locations.
Second, the campaign to stop the bridge includes carefully worked-out alternatives by world-class local planners and transportation engineers who have volunteered their time to come up with viable solutions consistent with the aspirations of Beirut today. These experts are saying that the land made available for the bridge project provides a rare opportunity to improve the neighborhood without destroying the existing buildings, through a financially viable scheme.
It is possible to find a solution that addresses some of the through-traffic problems without destroying the existing fabric, while providing public amenities for the neighborhood and improving property values. If the city is incapable of substituting public transport for more streets in Beirut in general, then it should consider implementing public transport at the local scale. It is economically more feasible. Buses and surface trams are a major success in small historic cities in Europe. Gemmayzeh residents are ideal users of local public transportation.
Some experts and local residents see the land set to be developed as a park providing relief space in a dense neighborhood, a much-needed unifying pedestrian “bridge.” If you create a pedestrian connection, you can reduce car use.
The area benefits from its unique historical character that distinguishes it from other areas in Beirut. This character has attracted the nightlife and the arts scene. The new businesses have, in turn, helped increase real estate values in the area. Preservation of the historic fabric of this area would be the key to its economic vitality. Heritage is an economic asset; it is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Let us not chop its neck with a bridge.
Drawing in active citizens from other localities such as Sodeco and Jeitawi who face similar challenges, the residents of Gemmayzeh-Mar Mikhael are also arguing a third point: The success of their alternative proposal could set a model for other neighborhoods elsewhere in Beirut and Lebanon in terms of policies for conservation and public participation.
The process of conservation requires both regulation and economic incentives. Legal mechanisms have been developed around the world to bring the two together and they have worked. Lebanon’s legal system is robust and capable of developing such regulations and incentives. Much more complex legislation has been developed for the creation of Solidere, so there should be a way when and where there is a will.
Regulation includes a more serious reassessment of preservation. Preservation of historical buildings has made them more vulnerable. The state has been good at making lists but mysteriously its lists keep shrinking. The city needs a more rigorous process that also includes districts, public spaces, and natural sites. It needs to encourage public debates about what is valuable. The success of Byblos’ Municipality and its integrated parks, pedestrian zones, and other socially inclusive projects proves that heritage extends beyond individual buildings.
On the other hand, incentives have to be created in order to make a historic building more valuable than the land on which it sits. Such incentives include, among other things, transfer of development rights from historical building sites to neighboring sites, real estate tax exemption for the owners, flexibility with land uses, technical support and subsidies for restoration works, and linkages with larger development projects.
A plan for Beirut can no longer be uniquely authored by an agency in France, presented to the CDR and then approved by Parliament. Creating mechanisms for local review and deliberation of all new plans prior to their implementation has become vital. A unique plan for Beirut has to also come from Beirutis themselves.
The dedication, professionalism and passion of civil society groups, volunteer experts and citizens have been superlative in the case of the Fouad Boutros bridge. It is time to listen to them. They are the bridge to a better Beirut.
Hashim Sarkis is the Aga Khan professor of landscape architecture and urbanism at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.