Beirut Municipality Sells Beirut’s Collective Memory and the Last of its Green Spaces

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Horsh Beirut, Beirut's biggest park, remains closed off to the public with a sign in Arabic stating that entrance is only granted by receiving permission. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Hadeel Farfour

Published Monday, February 2, 2015

Transplanting the Beirut Municipal Stadium from Tarik al-Jadideh to Horsh Beirut (the Pine Forest) in Qasqas and transforming the Beirut Hippodrome (a horse-racing facility) to something like Zaitunay Bay (a posh development project) is no longer a fantasy that entertains the minds of developers but a concrete project (pun intended) ready to be implemented as soon as possible. Preliminary studies have been completed and last December the Lebanese cabinet approved a plan by the Beirut municipality to invest in public lands in al-Mazraa real estate area. What is happening now destroys all that is left of the city we inherited — its flaws notwithstanding — and destroys whatever chance we have to impose something of the “right to the city” idea in this real estate speculators paradise that is Beirut.

Entering Horsh Beirut will require a “membership card,” which will make park goers feel restricted and watchedUnder the pretext of building a parking lot for 2,500 cars in Tarik al-Jadideh to service its markets and real estate businessmen and to prepare it for the social transformations coming from every which way, the Lebanese cabinet approved (decision No. 62 dated December 18, 2014) a (modified) plan by the Beirut municipality to invest in about 540,000 square meters (5,812,511 square feet) of public property in al-Mazraa area that includes Horsh Beirut in Qasqas and the Beirut Hippodrome in addition to the Municipal Stadium in Tarik al-Jadideh.

Based on the cabinet decision and the explanations by the mayor and members of the Beirut municipal council — the latest was at a meeting organized by the Nahnoo (We) organization last month — the plan’s broad lines can be identified as follows:

Horsh Beirut and the Beirut Hippodrome

In the first phase, a new municipal stadium will be built by international standards on the area left of Horsh Beirut, which means turning green spaces into concrete structures consisting of a stadium, stands, parking lots and facilities to service spectators, players and clubs. The cabinet’s decision required examining the possibility of creating an entrance off of Omar Bayham Street. This street divided the forest in the 1970s into two parts, the current Horsh Beirut and the Beirut Hippodrome. Creating an entrance off of Omar Bayham Street disproves the claim that the new stadium and its accompanying amenities will be built where the existing courts are and not in a forested area. The existing stadium is located alongside November 22 Street and there is a neighborhood located down a long stretch of land from the corner connecting it to Omar Bayham Street. Therefore, the only way to access the planned stadium from Omar Bayham Street is to cut off an important part of the current forested area whether it is to build sporting facilities and their amenities or to allow cars and pedestrians to cross to these facilities and amenities, especially the parking lot.

During this phase, Horsh Beirut will remain closed off to the public and will only be opened — according to the municipality’s decision — after entrusting its management, maintenance, security and operation to a private company. Entering Horsh Beirut will require a “membership card,” which will make park goers feel restricted and watched, even if claims that membership will be free are true — let alone if they are not — in light of the plan created by the municipality to divide Horsh Beirut into separate sections based on functions and activities. A section for sports, walking and jogging, a section for picnics and a section for entertainment activities. In addition to a botanical garden like the one that exists in Geneva costing up to $10 million, according to deputy mayor Nadim Abou Risk.

This division betrays a plan to impose user fees depending on the activity, not to mention that it restricts free and open access to Horsh Beirut in its entirety, as public space. This plan for park functions and activities is closely related to the proposed plan for the Beirut Hippodrome. After the municipality acquiesced to the interests of investors and abandoned its previous plan to use part of the Beirut Hippodrome to build the new stadium, the municipality is planning to make it possible for investors to develop a project similar to Zaitunay Bay, i.e., building restaurants, equestrian clubs and small golf courses. This means openly and blatantly catering for high-income clients and turning the hippodrome into a source of enormous rentier profits for investors.

Horsh Beirut covers an area of 300,000 m² (3,229,173 ft²), representing the only real green space in the city. Therefore there is no excuse for commandeering a part of this rare space to build a stadium, especially since this forest has been preyed upon for a long time. It used to cover about a million m² (10,763,910 ft²) but successive Beirut municipal councils granted parts of it to different parties in the context of sectarian and other quotas. The current municipality is about to hand over what is left of this space to benefit investors at the expense of the public’s right to have a say in their city.

The plans for the Beirut Hippodrome is another proof of this. Beirut’s deputy mayor says: “The new vision for Horsh Beirut can not be separated from the the vision for the Beirut Hippodrome,” pointing out plans to build an equestrian club at the Beirut Hippodrome in addition to environmentally-friendly restaurants “befitting of the city’s residents” and children’s activity centers equipped with child-friendly games. So, the municipality informs us that it has plans to use about 210,000 m² (2,260,421 ft²) of public property where the Beirut Hippodrome currently stands for a project that will not open the space to the public but will rather reinforce it as a closed area catering to a specific social strata and benefiting a few favored investors.

Tarik al-Jadideh

During the second phase, the Municipal Stadium will be removed from property No. 3943 in al-Mazraa real estate area (Tarik al-Jadideh). Structures amenable to investment will be built in its place, particularly, an underground parking lot that accommodates 2,500 cars and offers parking services by the hour during the day and monthly night parking permits. Based on the municipality’s plan and minutes of the cabinet meeting, the municipality intends to build facilities that include “a multi-purpose hall (for weddings and other events), a library equipped with tools for scientific research, an internet cafe, a field for soccer practice and basketball, volleyball and tennis courts “to provide opportunities for various clubs and associations.”

These buildings, which are being portrayed as a “service to the residents of Tarik al-Jadideh,” are nothing but an investment project that limits free usage by different social strata. Why else would they specify the parties that stand to benefit (clubs and associations) or restrict their usage?

The municipality’s plan is to use about 30,000 m² (322,917 ft²) where the municipal stadium currently stands. The municipality is trying to reassure everyone concerned that the ground-level parking lot will be tree-covered and will serve as a “breathing space for the residents of Tarik al-Jadideh.” However, the structures that the plan entails refute such claim, as they will leave only small areas “decorated” with trees. Not to mention that the decision to transplant the stadium to Horsh Beirut makes this entire plan a complete lie.

This plan is not new. The government had commissioned the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) on June 2, 2009 to study the project and build a public parking lot under the Municipal Stadium “as part of the urban transportation project for the city of Beirut based on municipal council decision No. 28 dated January 1, 2009.” Environmental activist Raja Njeim says there has been plenty of debates in the past few years about implementing this plan, however, “it was met with opposition by some civic organizations and by Tarik al-Jadideh residents.” This prompted the municipality to postpone the implementation of the plan “until they find the right opportunity to pass it in the cabinet.”

The “opportunity” came during the December 18, 2014 session when the cabinet approved the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities’ request to ask the CDR to “prepare the necessary studies to build a civic center on property No. 3943 in al-Mazraa real estate area (the Municipal Stadium).”

Abou Rizk hopes we won’t dwell on the project. “The important thing is that Horsh Beirut which has been closed for a long time is going to be opened soon.” The deputy mayor is obviously aware that raising this issue and discussing the project is likely to create controversy in light of the opposition it garners from a number of experts who warn against its social and environmental implications and its urban effect.

The municipality did not present a study to evaluate the environmental effect of these two projects. Abou Rizk says the Beirut municipality is about to conduct these studies. However, conducting the necessary studies to build the center means that the decision has been taken to implement the project regardless of what the studies find. Usually, this kind of study precedes the drafting of the project, not the other way around.

The project’s inherent problems

Some experts argue that building the Municipal Stadium, the parking lot and other technical equipment it needs will distort Horsh Beirut’s natural habitat and will definitely affect its greenery. Architect and American University of Beirut professor, Naji Assi, says: “The infrastructure that the project requires will undermine the park’s ecological health and is quite expensive.” He asks: “Why spend so much if Horsh Beirut is beautiful the way it is?”

Abou Rizk stresses the need for the parking lot which will accommodate a large number of cars. But he wonders why the municipality does not devise a plan for public transportation in the city? He admits that building a parking lot is part of “a short-sighted policy that does not take the future into consideration,” adding: “What if these parking lots are used without receiving proper management and maintenance, then the Tarik al-Jadideh residents would have lost the parking lots and the stadium.”

Njeim points out that bringing in a huge number of cars to central parking lots will exacerbate the problem of traffic jams in the area instead of solving it,” arguing that “most projects undertaken by the municipality lack urban strategies.”

Abou Rizk told Al-Akhbar that building a stadium in Horsh Beirut will not cut down its size because there is already an area inside the forest especially for building the stadium. Mohammed Ayoub, the executive director of Nahnoo, points out that “the first design guideline for Horsh Beirut included a stadium that provides whatever the municipality claims it wants to achieve.”

Abou Rizk argues, however, that the stadium in Horsh Beirut is unfit and “the plan requires developing it with high specifications.” Then why not develop the Municipal Stadium in Tarik al-Jadideh instead of transplanting it? The deputy mayor says Tarik al-Jadideh is not a suitable area for building a stadium of this size, pointing out that the residents need the new civic center and support the project.

It’s hard to say whether Traik al-Jadideh residents support the project or not because, as usual, the municipality did not include them when it designed its plan and it did not involve experts and activists from civic and other organizations. Ayoub protests the municipality's way of doing business which “does not deal with the residents of the city as citizens who have the right to participate in a decision-making process that affects them first and foremost.” He describes the municipality’s planning process as “neither transparent nor professional.” Otherwise, why does it resist participation by experts, insisting on “consulting specific experts only?”

According to Njeim, the Ile de France (Paris) municipality, which gave the grant to rehabilitate Horsh Beirut, rejected studies submitted about the project because it did not involve the residents of the area.

Neighborhood chief Khodr Doghman says residents are not opposed to this project like before. In his opinion, it is a good project that provides a place for weddings and other events. “We support the governor and the municipality,” he insists, pointing out that residents currently do not benefit from the stadium. Besides, the parking lot will ease the traffic jam in this crowded area. Assi, on the other hand, argues that linking the needs of Tarik al-Jadideh residents with building a huge municipal stadium in Horsh Beirut is nonsensical. Meeting the needs of the people does not mean building a stadium with these specifications in Horsh Beirut.

Collective memory vs. capital

One of the people attending the meeting organized by Nahnoo asked why does the Beirut municipality create new costly projects, often at the expense of places that represent part of the city’s memories? And why,instead of working hard to preserve these places, does the municipality destroy them and build development projects controlled by the private sector?

Beirut’s Mayor Bilal Hamad once said that he too has “memories in this place (the Municipal Stadium) but we can not dwell on memories!” In fact, one can not separate what is happening in the Municipal Stadium from other projects sponsored by the Beirut Municipality, which were built on the ruins of the city’s history and memories (the Fouad Boutros project is an example).

Cities usually center around places that combine memory and identity which seems lacking in most places in the capital and perhaps downtown Beirut is the most striking example. Beginning with the Beirut reconstruction project launched in 1992 which expelled 135,000 people from their work places and homes, it is easy to conclude that the municipality succumbs to special interests that have so far squeezed people out of the city and into distant suburbs without even providing them with a transportation system that allows them to do their daily commute to work in Beirut.

What is left of common spaces in this miserable and overpopulated city is being gradually privatized by restricting access to a certain social strata that is still able to live in the city and transforming them into profit-driven investment projects for private companies within the system of quotas that dominates the Lebanese state. There are plenty of examples, from Sahet al-Burj (Martyr’s Square) to Ramlet al-Baida beach and from al-Daliyeh Port and Raouche to Horsh Beirut and the Beirut Hippodrome. And more is yet to come.

A snapshot from Google Earth showing Horsh Beirut, the Beirut Hippodrome, and the Municipal Stadium — which are all now under threat from private developers.A snapshot from Google Earth showing Horsh Beirut, the Beirut Hippodrome, and the Municipal Stadium — which are all now under threat from private developers.

To learn about cabinet decision No. 62 dated 12/18/2014, click here.


Horsh Beirut
Horsh Beirut covers an area of 300,000 m² (3,229,173 ft²), representing the only real green space in the city. The Beirut municipality decided and the government agreed to build a new municipal stadium on the remaining part of the forest. The cabinet approval requires studying the possibility of creating an entrance to the new stadium and a parking lot from the Omar Bayham Street which had split the forest into two parts, the current Horsh Beirut and the Beirut Hippodrome.
In the meantime, Horsh Beirut will remain closed to the public and will not be opened according to the municipality decision except after entrusting its management, maintenance, security and operation to a private company. Horsh Beirut is still closed since its rehabilitation after the war.


The Beirut Hippodrome
The Beirut Hippodrome covers an area of 210,000 m² (2,260,421 ft²). The municipality is planning to allow investors to build environmentally-friendly restaurants, equestrian clubs, small golf courses and child-friendly sports centers in the space. The Beirut Municipality was given a licence to invest in the Beirut Hippodrome in 1966 but since 1969 the Association for the Protection and Improvement of Arab Horses has been running the place through a backdoor deal, organizing horse racing and overseeing the betting process. This association was inherited by a small group that includes Minister and MP Michel Pharaon and MP Nabil de Freige. Since then the deal got extended despite the opposition of the Audit Bureau. In 1998, the municipality decided to privatize the Beirut Hippodrome and contract it out to a private company through a build, operate and transfer contract (BOT).


The Municipal Stadium
Property No. 3943 in al-Mazraa real estate area (Tarik al-Jadideh) where the Municipal Stadium currently stands covers an area of around 30,000 m² (322,917 ft²). The municipality decided and the cabinet agreed to build a civic center on this piece of property. The main goal, however, is to build an underground parking lot for about 2,500 cars offering parking services by the hour during the day and monthly night parking permits. Based on the municipality’s plan and the minutes of the cabinet meeting, the municipality is planning to build structures that include “a multi-purpose hall (for weddings and other events), a library equipped with tools for scientific research, an internet cafe, a soccer field and basketball, volleyball and tennis courts. Although the municipality is trying to reassure everyone concerned about the environmental ramifications, the plan only leaves a very small area of green space.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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