Media, activists shut out of municipality talks once again

AUB engineering students have arranged a rare question and answer session with the mayor of Beirut over the most controversial civil works project in recent memory, but the media and activists have been barred from attending.
As noted in the event’s “about” section, only AUB students and faculty will be able to attend, effectively banning any news coverage or tough questions from activists who have been following the issues closely:
Now I have been to dozens of AUB lectures and conferences over the past ten years–at the departments of public policy, architecture, Middle East studies and many others. They have all been wonderful, insightful and free and open to the public.
This is the first time I have seen such an aggressive banning of public participation from journalists, students and faculty from other universities as well as experts and outside members of the community. Is this unprecedented or very rare in the history of AUB? Shouldn’t the residents of Beirut–not just students of an elite university– have access to their mayor?
When asked by one of many architects that have spoken out about recent municipality plans, how such a ban would be enforced, one of the student organizers suggested IDs would be checked at the door to the lecture hall:
Now how often do you hear that at AUB? When asked why the students were taking such an aggressive policy, no direct answers were provided. One suggested this was student policy and commented “check the website” but there is no mention on the Civil Engineering Society website that such a policy exists and it appears that it has not been implemented at past CES events.
So why the restrictions and what is different this time? In fact, this is not the first time activists have been shut out of municipality meetings.
The mayor is scheduled to speak about the now infamous Boutros Road, a four-lane tunnel and bridge system that will pummel through one of the city’s greenest neighborhoods and destroy up to 30 historic buildings and green properties.
Activists block Armenia road during a march for a park last month
Architects and urban planning experts from Harvard, AUB and other prestigious institutions have opposed the $75 million plan. Not only will it destroy some of the city’s few remaining green and pedestrian areas, it may also cause increased traffic jams by putting added pressure on congested roadways, multiple experts told me in an investigative piece I wrote last year for The Daily Star.
At the time, the municipality refused to divulge plans for the project, curtailing any public discussion by independent analysts or members of the community. In fact, after waiting for two weeks for the documents I was told by government officials that: “the consultant working on it had to leave for an emergency.”


So it was with great surprise last November that the deputy mayor of Beirut announced during an international AUB conference that the municipality was very transparent and had held a “Town Hall meeting” to engage the public in its planning efforts. 

I was surprised because I had never heard such a meeting took place and neither had some of the largest activist groups in Beirut including Save Beirut Heritage and the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.
I approached deputy mayor Nadim Abu Rizk after his short presentation and asked how someone like myself might get invited to such a meeting. I also asked if very visible groups like SBH and APLH had been invited. “I don’t think so,” he said. Asked who then was invited: “I consulted my friends,” who sent out emails to all the ‘concerned experts’.
So it turns out the Town Hall meeting the municipality had been touting before international experts at AUB last year, was actually an “invite-only” meeting and the most prominent activist groups who have proposed alternatives to the road were not invited.
And among those that did attend the meeting, there were reports of time constraints and exclusion of any detailed discussion.
“A serious and real discussion between the municipality and the participants was not conducted,” wrote the youth organization Nahnoo in a letter to the deputy mayor on its website.
“… it didn’t leave us time to conduct a discussion concerning the topics represented,” it said, adding that media coverage was scant and “only certain people” were allowed to participate in the discussion.
Was this a genuine attempt to engage the public, or was it merely an attempt to create a media image that “the civil society was present” Nahnoo asked.
Giving credence to the later explanation, the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government body which is undertaking the Boutros project, told me:
 
“Usually we don’t build public consensus on projects. It’s never happened since I’ve been here since 1996.”
 
The same official also told me that there was “no need” for an environmental impact study because there were “no flora or fauna” in the area:
One of Beirut’s last farms which, like many green spaces, falls in the path of the Boutros project. Activists want to build a park here.
Also despite recent ‘engagement’ statements, the municipality has completely rejected a plan proposed by activists and urban planners to build a park in the place of the highway, to better serve the community. Such plans have been adopted by municipalities around the world, argues Hashim Sarkis the Agha Khan Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard. In a recent essay he gives multiple examples of alternatives to the road and writes that the municipality plans:
“…reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city and administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide and with the ambitions of Beirut’s citizens and their right to the city.”
He adds:
“Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Axis project persist… no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project.”
Interestingly the plans for a park were initially included in the latest AUB event flyer:
But these were swiftly removed by the “CES student society” in favor of a more flattering image of the mayor, divorced from the controversy:
Why all the fuss about how the event is presented and who attends? Is there a desire to please those at the top?
Finally, despite the municipality’s insistence on its plan, it was announced that it would break ground in “summer 2013”. But now, several months later, the municipality says it is engaging in a new study that won’t be ready until the end of summer 2014. There are few details on how this study was commissioned or how much it will cost. But the delay of over one year is substantial. Did the questions and protests of activists play a role in this possible backtracking?