Conflict Over al-Tal Square: Is Tripoli Poised to Become Another Beirut?

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Tripoli's al-Tal Square. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad

Published Thursday, February 19, 2015

There is debate underway in Tripoli today as to what should happen to the city’s al-Tal Square. The debate is not concerned with possible ways to conserve the square as part of the city's memory and heritage, or to preserve the historical character of the place — “the heart of the city,” as the people of Tripoli call it. The “developmental” discussions focus, rather, on choosing what project will be constructed in the square. On Tuesday, the municipality of Tripoli rejected a proposed parking lot, intended to start construction early next month, and instead accepted a Turkish donation of $50 million to construct a cultural and conference center.

It may just be the first time that the municipality of Tripoli overcomes its internal differences. On Wednesday, the municipality held a two-hour meeting chaired by North Lebanon Governor Ramzi Nohra. The board announced its unanimous rejection of a proposal to build a parking lot in al-Tal Square, and its acceptance of a Turkish donation of $50 million to construct a cultural and conference center.

The municipality’s rejection of the project frustrated those in favor of building the parking lot, who are reportedly influential political and economic figures in the city. According to a source, “Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas, MPs Mohammed Kabbara and Samir Jisr, and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) insist on the implementation of the project."

Many questions have been raised about the project, which involves the construction of a four-floor underground garage which accommodates 500 cars. Although the project was proposed as one of three “development” projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion in the city center, informed sources said that there is a plan to build a shopping mall near the square, and that the parking lot will only serve as “a car parking space for the mall.” Sources linked the mall project and the CDR’s request to the municipality to give up two real estate pieces it owns in al-Tal Square “to be appended to the public property before the execution of the parking lot project.”

The CDR sent the property relinquishment request to the municipality without attaching the project maps or declaring that the project had been contracted. According to a source, the project was contracted “by mutual consent at a cost of 300 million Lebanese liras, though members of the Municipal Council confirm that a previous two-floor parking lot project was executed at a cost of 40 million Lebanese liras under the former Municipal Council.”

The municipality is not the only side that has not viewed the project plan. A civil activist in Tripoli says that civil society groups were not informed of the project and “have not seen the maps,” adding that “the project was handled with great secrecy, which reinforces our doubts about the goal behind building the parking lot.”

The city council members were displeased with the CDR’s actions. Khaled al-Tadmuri, who heads Tripoli municipality’s heritage and antiquities committee, said that “the members expressed their resentment for the CDR’s arrogance, and its request to waive two properties in al-Tal Square for the execution of a project we do not know anything about.”

The municipality’s rejection of the project was expected. Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Tripoli municipality council member Khaled Sobh said that “there was prior coordination between the members to reject the project. We requested that the amount allocated to the parking lot project be used for other projects the city is in urgent need of.” Sobh added that “although the construction of the parking lot was the 56th item on the agenda, the members protested and demanded that the issue be the first item.”

The rejection of the proposal was unanimous by 18 members who attended the meeting. Tadmuri notes that “at the beginning of the session, some members asked to view the project’s maps and feasibility study.” Governor Nohra intervened, saying that there is a general sentiment in Tripoli against the project, and the delay in rejecting it might lead to the loss of the donation granted ​​by Turkey to build a cultural and conference center in al-Tal Square, instead of a parking lot.”

A few days ago, Turkish Ambassador in Lebanon Aignan Oozheldez informed Prime Minister Tammam Salam about a Turkish initiative to build a cultural center and a theater in the square, which includes maps and [feasibility] studies for the renovation of the entire square. According to Tadmuri, the initial proposals “include the construction of a large underground theater hall, as well as two-floor buildings designed in a combination of traditional and contemporary style architecture, and include a large center for holding conferences and cultural activities in Tripoli. This project would make up for the demolition of the historical Anja Theater in al-Tal Square years ago.”

A source said that there is a “race” between the proponents and opponents of the project; the first group is striving to have the government approve it, while the second group are seeking to obtain approval for the Turkish project.

Amid this “race,” a historical square — the main landmark in the city reflecting part of its character and heritage — will be demolished. The square is nearly 4,000 square meters in area, and it is being contested for “development” projects.

Elias Khallat, head of the Tripoli Foundation, an NGO that promotes and protects Tripoli’s cultural heritage, says that comparing the two projects is not the required solution, adding that the Turkish project “is not less significant than the parking lot.” He notes that the cultural center project would also need a parking lot, and will involve digging and a reduction of public space in the city.

“Therefore, both projects will affect the traditional character of the place,” Khallat says, adding that “this area includes many eighteenth century elements and historical buildings, which should not be erased or contested.” Some have expressed concern that Tripoli’s city center would become like Beirut’s city center — void of soul and character, and a ground for land speculators.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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