The Bridge to a Better Beirut

The Bridge to a Better Beirut

(A 3×3 Proposal)

The release of the tender for the proposed Fouad Boutros Bridge Project has inadvertently created a rare chance for the Lebanese public to exercise its democratic rights in a non-sectarian and constructive manner. Civil society has spoken. It is saying three simple things loud and clear: 

1)      The Fouad Boutros Bridge Project is obsolete. It is bad for traffic. It is bad for adjacent property value.

2)      Improving the existing neighborhood is both a need and an opportunity provided by the available property. An alternative project could be found that reconciles growth with conservation.

3)      The success of this alternative project could set a precedent for other neighborhoods in Beirut and in Lebanon especially when it comes to viable conservation and public participation.

There is only one Beirut. Yet Beirut is not unique in the challenges that confront its urban development. Like all living cities, Beirut needs to grow and change, but this should not happen at the expense of the historic city. The experiences of other cities also prove that growth and its management are not incompatible. Cities around the world have been spending fortunes to dismantle similar bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s because they did not solve traffic problems and because they devalued the surrounding property and destroyed the historic fabric. Beirut will be unique when it learns from other cities and generates innovative solutions. This requires careful, inclusive, and innovative thinking. If the city’s leadership only repeats other cities’ mistakes and applies obsolete solutions to old problems, Beirut will only be unique in its ignorance.

The crisis of the Fouad Boutros Bridge Project points to the lack of vision in addressing this tension between growth and the historic fabric of the city. It also points to the absence of mechanisms to review and discuss matters of high relevance to citizens among citizens. In Beirut, like elsewhere, the political debate has clearly moved to arenas like the environment and heritage. These are new public priorities that demand immediate solutions but they also require institutional frameworks for decision-making, debate, and accountability.

The crisis of the bridge also puts the authorities, in this case the municipal council of Beirut and the Council for Development and Reconstruction, in front of a predicament. The fact that the plan has been approved, the funds allocated, and the property expropriated does not make it a legitimate project. The historic houses may have indeed been saved by an accident of circumstance and by delays. They could turn this into an opportunity to preserve them and to find an alternative solution. Such accidental delays have saved many historic districts around the world that are now thriving because of their historical character which may have been undervalued at one point but is now a goldmine. It is precisely because the property is public that the CDR and the Municipality can do something different than the planned bridge as long as it is for the public good. Yes, there may be hurdles but these can be overcome. No doubt, and as the parliamentary representatives and the landowners are saying, the area of Ashrafieh deserves investment in its infrastructure, but not of this kind.

However, the crisis presents the city officials with a truly unique opportunity to provide a progressive vision for their city and a precedent for future projects. The issue is not merely about building or not building the Fouad Boutros Bridge. On this matter, the answer coming from the experts is a resounding no, be they experts in heritage, environment, transportation, or even real estate. The key issue here should be about putting in place a process to engage groups that are directly affected by the project like landlords, merchants and residents. Democratic engagement and a better Beirut go hand in hand.

To get there, the CDR and the Beirut Municipality could start by listening to what the civil society groups who have bravely mobilized against the project are saying. If they listen carefully, they can hear a proposal for a solution made of three points each in three parts.

1.  The Fouad Boutros Bridge Project will not solve the current traffic problems in the area. It is also going to create other problems including the devaluation of adjacent property. 

a)      On the issue of traffic, it is time to debunk the long-held belief that the road is the solution to traffic. Roads generate traffic as well. The bridge was meant to facilitate through traffic but in effect, it is going to create more congestion on Alfred Naccache Street and on Charles Helou Bridge. As has been argued repeatedly by transportation engineers, the Alfred Naccache Road is not wide enough to accommodate the flow. It is also a surface road with too many big stores that spill their traffic onto it.

b)      Bridges are also notorious for destroying neighborhoods and streets, generating undesirable spaces under them, and radically degrading surrounding property. Land-owners of adjacent property should go visit areas like Basta, Cola, and Tahweeta to understand the negative impact of such bridges.

c)      Dismantling the two classified houses and then reassembling them over the tunnel is not feasible for a variety of reasons: seismicity, cost, and complexity. It is also not the few classified houses alone that merit conservation but the overall context of Mar Mikhael/Gemmayzeh of which they are an integral part in their present locations.

2. The campaign to stop the bridge includes very carefully worked-out alternatives by local world-class planners and transportation engineers who have volunteered their time to come up with viable solutions that are consistent with the aspirations of Beirut today not in the 1960s. These experts are saying that:

 The land made available for the bridge project provides a rare opportunity to improve the neighborhood without destroying the existing buildings and through a financially viable scheme.

a)      It is possible to find a solution that addresses some of the through-traffic problems without destroying the existing fabric, while providing public amenities for the neighborhood and improving the value of the property. If the city is incapable of substituting public transport for more streets at the larger scale, then it should consider implementing public transport at the local scale. It is economically more feasible. Buses and surface trams are proving to be a major success in small historic cities in Europe. The residents of Gemmayzeh are ideal users of local public transportation.

b)      Some experts and local residents see this land as a sinuous park that provides relief space in this dense neighborhood and provides a much needed unifying and pedestrian “bridge” through the neighborhood. If you create a pedestrian connection, you reduce car use.

c)      The area benefits because of its unique historical character that distinguishes it from other areas in Beirut. This character has clearly attracted the nightlife and the arts scene that have in turn helped increase real estate value in the area. Preservation of the historic fabric of this area would be the key to its economic vitality. Heritage is an economic asset. History is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Let us not chop its neck with a bridge.

Drawing in active citizens from other localities like Sodeco and Geitawi who face a similar fate, the residents of Gemmayzeh/Mar Mikhael are also saying:

3.  The success of this project could set a model for other neighborhoods elsewhere in Beirut and in Lebanon especially in terms of policies for conservation and public participation.

a)      The process of conservation requires both regulation and economic incentives. Legal mechanisms have been developed around the world to bring the two together and they have proven to work. Our legal system is robust and capable of developing such regulations and incentives. Much more complex legislation has been developed for the creation of Solidere so there should be a way, when there is a will.

b)      Regulation includes a more serious reassessment of classification. Classification of historical buildings has proven to make them more vulnerable. The state has been good at making lists but mysteriously its lists keep shrinking. The city needs a more rigorous process that also includes districts, public spaces, and natural sites. It also needs to encourage public debates about what is valuable. The success story of Byblos’s municipality and its integrated parks, pedestrian zones, and other socially inclusive projects proves that heritage extends beyond individual buildings. On the other hand, incentives have to be created in order to make a historic building more valuable than the land that it sits on. Such incentives include, among others, transfer of development rights from historic building sites to neighboring sites, real estate tax exemption for the owners, flexibility with land uses, technical support and subsidy for the restoration works, and linkages with larger development projects.

c)      A plan for Beirut can no longer be uniquely authored by an agency in France, presented to the CDR and then approved by parliament. Creating mechanisms for local review and deliberation of all new plans prior to their implementation has become vital.  A unique plan for Beirut has to also come from the Beirutis themselves. The dedication, professionalism, and passion of the civil society groups, the volunteer experts, and the citizens have been nothing short of superlative. It is time to listen to them. They are the bridge to a better Beirut.

Hashim Sarkis

Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

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