Peaceful La Sagesse Street is about to experience an uproar the like of which it has never known before. The unique magic of its alleyways, at the intersection of La Sagesse college and Beirut Maronite Archbishop’s Patriarchate, are as yet undisturbed: what modern buildings have been set up there are few and far between.
And why? Because some forty years ago, the state bought up part of the street’s buildings and gardens with the aim of building La Sagesse-Al Turk highway in their place. Three years ago, the city authorities renewed the project, prompting outrage and mobilizing the forces of civil society.
In a closed-off lane along La Sagesse Street, the passer-by witnesses history frozen in place for more than half a century. Chickens saunter shamelessly between the old buildings with their traditional facades. Through their famous triangular arches, windows and doors offer glimpses of life in the distant past, while the outer walls are daubed with red crosses: crosses that do not bode well. They have been painted there by the Save Beirut’s Heritage Association (SBH) to indicate the buildings that will be torn down to allow high-speed traffic along the Fouad Boutros Highway.
(SBH) president Giorgio Tarraf states that, “thirty of these buildings will be destroyed, though as we speak today, nobody—not in any of the region’s major capitals nor in the West—is welcoming cars into city centres. The Fouad Boutros project will do great harm to this heritage and the neighbourhood’s residents, not to mention its environmental impact. It’s a crime they will regret committing.”
The project is inspired by the road network that civil engineer Michel Ecochard drew up for Beirut in the 1950s. It remained tucked away in a drawer for years only for the municipality to retable it some three years ago. Eilie Helou, senior project manager at the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) explains that, “work started on this project before the war. The bridge at the intersection between Charles Malek and Mar Mitr was the first of these engineering projects. The highway is a piece of an incomplete puzzle, which must be completed to lessen the passage of traffic in Achrafieh.”
The highway will be a major artery starting at Spinney’s supermarket, with exits along the main strip of Charles Malek Avenue that connect with restaurants currently situated there and block certain roads, before ending its mad dash through three bridges and two tunnels at Charles Helou Avenue. Neither the various local committees affected nor civil engineers belonging to The Civil Collective support this plan.
“The project’s a trick”
Raja Noujaim, a member of the Civil Collective, recalls that, “in 2009, Fouad Boutros laid the foundation stone of the La Sagesse-Al Turk Highway even though the project had been given the go-ahead more than fifty years before. Back then, La Sagesse Street was less than twenty years old, but the buildings had been built without any future perspective to preserve them as they are. We shouldn’t be thinking of buildings, but of the street as a whole. We demand that the neighbourhood as a whole be classified as protected.”
“What’s more,” he continues, “preserving tradition is only one of the issues behind our objection.”
The collective regards the overlaying of highways onto main roads that has and will take place in 2013, to be “a destructive, revolutionary act”. It insists that quite aside from posing a threat to urban identities and the wider architectural and cultural fabric of society, these projects only offer a short-term solution to the city’s traffic problems and will lead in time to the increased use of private vehicles. Raja Noujaim is not shy about voicing his opinion, stating that, “this project is a scandal; a trick. The municipality is acting as though the Emile Lahoud Highway which connects Damascus road to the port does not exist. It’s as though the logic behind La Sagesse-Al Turk Highway is stuck in the 1960s: as though nothing’s changed since the 1950s. They have no right to start on a project without conducting proper studies of traffic flow and the economic, social and civil benefits of the proposed route.”
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
Those behind the project, on the other hand, defend their position. Rachid Achkar, a representative of the Beirut Municipality’s Transport Committee says: “The project might date back to the 1950s, but the Fouad Boutros Highway is part of a comprehensive vision for the city’s transport infrastructure which was initiated as part of the Urban Transport Development Project (UTDP) in 2003. This huge operation is one of the most advanced infrastructure projects in the city and it would be unfortunate if we failed to appreciate its importance. Work in Beirut is not finished. We have a long-term vision for the city, and you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The project will attract new traffic flow, most of which will be felt at the entrance to Achrafieh, but in general it will ease traffic. In addition, we intend to widen Charles Helou Avenue to make it more amenable to development, and we have received permission for this plan.”
Achkar clarifies that the old plans have been changed: “We can no longer build roads that pay no regard to the environment. In the case of the Fouad Boutros Highway, where trucks will not be allowed to travel, there will be a unified urban cultural fabric comparable to the current one.”
A portion of the land will be filled in to allow green spaces to be laid out on top of it: maybe more. Elie Helou explains: “We asked the Antiquities Administration to indicate which buildings should be preserved. In this way they can be rebuilt on top of the old alleyways and new buildings added, as the municipality sees fit.”
When it comes to parking spaces, work has started on three sites: two underground sites, one near to the Mar Mitr Church (150 spaces) and the other after Charles Malek Avenue (250 spaces), while the third, overground site lies between Armenia Street and Saint Georges Hospital Street (450 spaces). Rachid Achkar explains that, “this last site will solve the parking problem in Mar Mikhail Street, a solution we were unable to come up with in Gemmayzeh. Nobody can deny that this site will be of benefit to the city as a whole.”
These claims fail to convince Raja Noujaim, who demands that a detailed study be prepared for the zones to targeted in 2013: “We can’t use a traffic flow study made ten years ago! We are using all the means at our disposal to draw up studies that propose and compare solutions to reduce traffic flow, starting with the Charles Malek-Mar Mitr roundabout.”
New exits and traffic directions will be added, plus consideration given to the long-term project of constructing a tunnel in Charles Malek Avenue, whose value Noujaim estimates at 140 million dollars. The Civil Collective has a counter-proposal, a project that offers a new vision of the city, which reminds us of other ongoing projects in the Beirut Municipality, in particular the pedestrian road that is supposed to connect to Damascus road. The proposed project will allow pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim the urban space. There have been government repossessions from La Sagesse to Armenia Street, while those reaching to Charles Helou Avenue are still before the courts.
“We have an unbelievable opportunity right now,” says Noujaim: “A historical opportunity to reclaim a neighbourhood repossessed by the government and get hold of the 50 million dollars which it has given to the Fouad Boutros project. We must take advantage of this and create a green belt.”
“The money will go towards restoring buildings,” Noujaim explains, “and towards building car parks, cultural centres, a museum, a library, a botanic garden and spacious spaces for exhibitions for the city of Beirut. With this money we can solve some of the traffic problems. This calls for total dynamism on our part.”
An unrealistic project
Yet both the Beirut Municipality and the CDR are united in describing this counter-proposal as completely unrealistic.
Rachid Achkar responds: “If we carried out their project as it is at the moment we would need to buy back double the amount of land plus an additional 60 or 70 million dollars. Of course a green belt would be more beautiful, but how would it solve the traffic problem? It’s a mystery. There are cars in this city, and cars move about. That’s the way of the world. I’d be happy to implement their project if we had the means to do it.”
“I want Beirut to be a more beautiful city as well,” he continues. “We’ve altered the plans in order to safeguard the environment and the municipality has backed this 100 per cent. We are also conducting an environmental study to prepare the bridges and facades.”
“Life isn’t all roses!” he points out. “The bridge in Armenia Street is the one that most upsets me, because we will have to tear down some very beautiful residential buildings. I approached the owners to propose moving their houses to a neighbouring piece of land at the municipality’s expense and they refused.”
Project manager Elie Helou knows that every plan has its positives and negatives, but he is determined to go ahead. “We can’t just leave this hanging,” he says: “We have to start building this road. If all goes well work will start at the end of 2013 and last for two and a half years.”
When asked if the project would be put on hold, he added: “Anything’s possible during elections. The MPs can’t be discounted, because the Civil Collective wants to include them by making this issue part of their electoral manifestos.”
Raja Noujaim believes the project will not go ahead: “No one can pass a project like this. We tried talking scientifically and technically with the CDR and the municipality but it was no use. We’ll be taking a different tone for here on in. They will be forced to halt the project.”
It looks like the rebels have taken up their positions and we have only seen the first spark of the battle to come.
This article was first published in French in L’Hebdo Magazine on May 3, 2013.
The article was translated from the French by Robin Moger