Coastal Development in Lebanon: Cutting Off the Sea
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Saturday, June 9, 2012
At the Joseph Khoury Marina in Dbayeh, a sunken pit lined with reddish dirt was transformed into a temporary site of celebration this past Thursday evening. The construction zone facing the yachts was bedecked with white couches, a full bar, and spotlights. Suspended from cranes were two giant screens that projected images of the future Waterfront City: a luxury residential and commercial development with a $2 billion price tag.
“Construction has now set sail,” read the screens.
Once the sun had set between two strategically placed bulldozers, Alain Bejjani of the UAE-based Majid Al Futtaim Properties took to the podium. Speaking quickly, he listed all the platitudes of Waterfront City, “where every dream sets sail.” He also mentioned that graffiti and unwanted elements would soon be removed from the Marina.
Bejjani and Wadah al-Solh, the general manager of Waterfront City, shoveled some dirt to applause. Ground had been broken, and there were just 15 more years to go.
A glassed-in scale model of Waterfront City was at the physical center of the celebration, right next to the piano. Its linear street grid and cookie-cutter condos are projected to stretch along 193,600 square meters of the coast, forming a buffer between the marina and the mountain-side sprawl.
The master plan and design are from the San Francisco-based SB Architects, but more notable than the architecture is the marketing and packaging of the development. Billboards line the Lebanese coast hyping the forthcoming “journey,” while promotional material promises physical and psychological betterment – a “place where generations get shaped in harmony and where people are inspired to live passionately, freely.”
One reveler – the owner of a Waterfront City penthouse – said that he wanted his kids to grow up with a view of the sea. Chances are, they’ll be getting more than that. The tagline of Waterfront City is “Own the Horizon.”
The visionaries behind this destination-making project are UAE real estate development firm Majid Al Futtaim and Lebanon-based Joseph G. Khoury et Fils Holding. Together they’ve set out to complete the first phase of Waterfront City in 2014, which will include seven low-rise buildings complete with a shop-lined promenade. The coming years – up until 2027 – will feature hotels and offices, as well as Futtaim’s signature product: a shopping mall. Even with a current Futtaim-branded City Centre mall wrapping up construction in 2013 in Hazmieh, Lebanon, the company believes the market can accommodate yet another mall.
Thanks to Khoury, the coast north of Beirut is ripe for developers like Majid Al Futtaim and company. When Solidere was reclaiming the Normandy Landfill from the sea in Beirut, a similar project under the auspices of Khoury was taking place along the Metn coast. Yet according to a 2001 report from the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment, Solidere set the precedent for coastal development, providing “a legal basis and justification for all other sea reclamation projects.” By 1998, the North Metn Sea Reclamation Project had reclaimed 600,000 square meters of land from the sea and was primed to follow in Solidere’s footsteps.
Developers did just that, but didn’t see Solidere-like success. Around 2004, plans for a “Marina City” in Dbayeh were unveiled with the backing of Rusd Investment Bank in Malaysia. The Daily Star ran an interview with bank chairman Saleh J. Malaikah in 2004, where he fatefully said, "The timing is superb for Lebanon. We are expecting a real estate boom in Lebanon that may last seven years." The project went bust after the 2006 July War, making all the optimistic posturing seem premature.
Now, the project has re-emerged as Waterfront City with a level of enthusiasm that hasn’t been hampered by its failed predecessor. The Daily Star continues to cheerlead the project in whatever form it takes, heralding it for its future creation of 10,000 jobs or for the fact that 95 percent of the residential units sold have been claimed by Lebanese. It’s this uncritical reception of the project in the media, along with the backing of real estate juggernauts like Futtaim, that make Waterfront City seem unsinkable. The momentum is so great and the views so homogenous that it’s difficult to imagine a different future for the Lebanese coast, all 250 kilometers of it.
Along the coast, there are 49 remaining kilometers of beaches and 11 of cliffs. The rest of the coast is urbanized, with the Ministry of the Environment projecting that if current trends continue, Lebanon’s coast could be totally artificialized à la Hong Kong by 2025. Perhaps everyone is too busy celebrating to notice. The jubilation and hype surrounding Waterfront City, along with promises of a zen-like state of living, mask the anxiety that people should be feeling in the face of unsustainable and environment-destroying building along the coastline.