Zaitunay Bay: The “Glory” of Privilege

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Zaitunay Bay’s seaside strip of over a dozen upscale restaurants and cafés has been over six years in the making, but finally opened to the public at the end of December 2011. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Wednesday, January 18, 2012

After the sun had set over the Beirut Marina, a couple strolled along the illuminated boardwalk, pausing for a laugh at the expense of a luxury yacht named “Thanx Dad III.” Nearby, a girl wearing a winter coat posed for a photo near another yacht named “Aquaholic.” On this winter night in January, the visitors to the marina have come not just to gawk at the yachts, but to wander around the Zaitunay Bay, a joint development project from Solidere and Stow Waterfront.

Zaitunay Bay’s seaside strip of over a dozen upscale restaurants and cafés has been over six years in the making, but finally opened to the public at the end of December 2011. The Daily Star recently heralded it as a return to Beirut’s “old glory days,” but it seems that the glory days will be limited to those with money to burn. At an estimated price tag of over $150 million for the entire development – including the yacht club under construction – Zaitunay Bay is boasted to “epitomize the culture, luxury and quality of life that Beirut has to offer.”

Solidere, the development company founded in 1994 by assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has become synonymous with uninviting luxury developments, but with its latest waterfront project, the architects of L.E.FT and Steven Holl have tried to create public spaces between private businesses and exclusive yacht club.

While sitting at one of the Bay’s cafes, Ziad Jamaleddine, a partner at L.E.FT, said, “We tried to make it so the commercial can function, but not overwhelmingly so.”

The public features of the Bay, like the boardwalk, benches, and courtyards situated on top of the shops, can help to create “openness,” Jamaleddine said.

Unlike Solidere’s downtown, with its unnatural silence and empty alleyways, there is a buzz of conversation and footsteps at Zaitunay Bay. Visitors walk from one end of the boardwalk to the other, even though it is flanked by two dark dead ends: the yacht club under construction on one side and its abandoned predecessor, the St. George Hotel, still surrounded by empty pools and thatched-roof changing rooms, on the other.

The trademark Solidere deadness is present only in the posh residential towers that hover over Zaitunay Bay. Most of the floors remain darkened at night, but a lit Christmas tree in one window and a treadmill in another hint at life. Despite the seemingly low occupancy, the yacht club under construction has been conceived partly with the tower residents in mind. Jamaleddine points out that the club’s green roof has been designed so that residents looking down will be treated to a pleasant view, as opposed to an industrial roof.

Anchored by the yacht-club-to-be, the high-brow nature of Zaitunay Bay gives it a “look but don’t touch feel.” Security guards wearing nondescript business suits and radio earpieces enforce the development’s unspoken rules. One guard I spoke with said that he studied part-time at a technical university in the city and worked as a guard to support himself. A sign posted nearby forbids dogs, bicycles, skateboards, and rollerblades.

“It’s rare to have a public space since everything is private in this country,” said Bassam Lahoud, an architect and professor at Lebanese American University. “There’s a concept here that land means money and investment. We don’t think about the public.”

Lahoud said that he discovered the boundary between public and private space when he was sitting on a bench in Solidere’s Saifi Village downtown. A guard asked him to move, but did not explain why. Lahoud protested that this was public space, but now he’s not so sure if it was or not. While Lahoud appreciates the security provided by quasi commercial-public spaces, he believes that companies like Solidere place undue restrictions on them and stifle their natural flow.

For L.E.FT architect Makram el-Kadi, private developers have stepped in where the Lebanese government has not been able to deliver. Until there is a “properly functioning state” in Lebanon, he said, “then we can question the premise of development.”


Check out my new photos I took of Zaitunay Bay at night:
Hope you enjoy them! :)

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