Public Property ... For the Rich Only

Solidere has no rights over it and this area is not suitable for the construction of any buildings (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mohammad Zbeeb

Published Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Zaytouna Bay, the luxury seafront development built on reclaimed land along Beirut’s downtown coastline, is the embodiment of everything worth resisting in Lebanon: corruption, the theft of public property, the destruction of the city’s history and seafront, and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The entity responsible for the Zaytouna Bay project is the Beirut Waterfront Development company, which built on the old Normandy landfill by artificially extending the coastline in an environmentally damaging process known as “reclamation.” Beirut Waterfront Development is jointly owned by Solidere, the private company of two former Prime Ministers – Rafik and Saad Hariri – and Stow Capital partners.

Stow Capital’s primary shareholder is Finance Minister Mohammad al-Safadi. As minister of public works and transport from 2005 to 2008, Safadi was directly responsible for public coastal property when the bay was transferred from public to private ownership.

This resort is not merely a symptom of a growing wealth gap, which can be blamed on the economy and wider market forces. The story of Zaytouna Bay mirrors that of a society being destroyed and divided into rival factions, creating eternal ‘green lines’ between them. It is a perfect illustration of how a small group of wealthy politicians use their offices to corrupt the law and enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of the Lebanese people.

In 1991, the Lebanese government passed Law 117 allowing the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) to contract a private company to carry out reconstruction of areas damaged by fighting during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

This opened the door for Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who came to power the following year, to found his own real estate development company, Solidere, which was then contracted to rebuild downtown. Some 135,000 Lebanese were forced out of the city center as a result, creating a true no man’s land and widening the Green Line dividing East from West, Muslim from Christian.

These empty spaces were in turn filled with expensive shops and restaurants policed by private security guards and bouncers. It now appears the same process is taking place on the waterfront, as what was intended to be public land is converted into a private commercial development using state funds.

The Lebanese government was obliged to reimburse Solidere for a portion of the cost of rebuilding downtown, but since it lacked the funds, it essentially gave Solidere the Normandy landfill – the only truly public land downtown – as a renewable, 50-year lease at the steeply discounted price of 2,500 L.L. ($1.67) per square meter.

All this was done through a consensual contract, without carrying out the tender required by the laws governing such a procedure.

Reclamation and construction was then carried out under the pretext of building a 66,000 square meter public marina to help promote tourism, but all the buildings constructed on the reclaimed land were licensed through special exemptions pushed through by politicians who also had a financial stake in the project.

Civil planning laws are implemented by the ministry for public works and transport. And Safadi, who owns the majority of shares in Stow Capital, was heading the ministry when the area was granted special building exemptions.

According to Act 3808, issued on September 8, 2000, the Zaytouna project is built on plots 1455 and 1456. The act considers the additional land, which was created through reclamation by the Beirut Waterfront Development company, to be public property.

According to Act 3808, “Solidere has no rights over it and this area is not suitable for the construction of any buildings.”

But on March 9, 2006, when Safadi was still minister, the cabinet issued Act 16546, which was signed by President Emile Lahoud and which altered the zoning for regulatory sector (A) in Beirut’s commercial center. Act 16546 removed plots 1455 and 1456 from public ownership and exempted them from regulations for central Beirut, in general, and reclaimed seafront land specifically.

With these exemptions, the company was able to build a car park on the port side of the development in violation of building height regulations in the area. The electric plant was also not counted as part of the additional built up area, nor were maintenance facilities.

The maximum height of the building intended for plot 1456 was raised to 13 meters, and the building was granted an exemption on the percentage of balcony space on the seafront side, normally specified at 60 percent. The company was also allowed to opt out of dedicating certain areas as green spaces – usually a legal requirement. The act permitted the construction of cafes, restaurants and tourist amenities, as well as sports and leisure centers, commercial shops and residential areas in contravention of the designation of these plots as public areas.

On November 13, 2007, the acting governor of Beirut, Nassif Qaloush, granted Beirut Waterfront Development building permission for six years. It provided for the construction of three floors below sea level, one ground floor and one technical floor on plot 1456, which had been forcibly removed from the public domain by Act 16546.

However, on July 7, 2009, Qaloush altered the building permission. As a result of the change, four floors were added to the ground and technical floors, amounting to six above-ground floors and three below ground. This resulted in the resort overwhelming the publically accessible space and blocking the view of the sea from the adjacent corniche (seafront promenade).

Beirut Waterfront Development infringed even further on any public claim to the land with private residential, commercial and leisure areas ripe for investment. The company now owns an 800-member yacht club, 9,000 square meters of commercial property and nearly 12,000 square meters of luxury furnished residential units waiting to be sold.

Moreover, the entire project known as Zaytouna Bay was licensed as a temporary construction. However, the structures are clearly permanent and there is no longer any public land left, apart from a narrow wooden walkway adjacent to the marina.

In the original plan, this was a wide public walkway connected to the corniche, which would extend uninterrupted from Ramlet al-Bayda to the Beirut Port.

But the company has now built a thick, unlicensed concrete wall cutting off the walkway from the corniche, essentially appropriating it for the project itself. It has closed off the main entrance to the marina and now controls entry through a gate opposite the Monroe Hotel. The area is filled with private security men and and warning signs, reminding passersby that they are intruders on the company’s private property, or, at best, guests who are being watched.

These measures have effectively rendered the entire area private when both the law and the original master plan designate this area as public land.

The Zaytouna Bay project has been one long exercise in corruption, from start to finish. It has proceeded in violation of the constitution and the law, which were amended or bent in order to allow construction to go forward. This has been carried out at the expense of citizens’ rights and has resulted in the waste of public money and the theft of public land.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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