One of the great things about the internet is that there is just so much floating around out there–like all the plans for Beirut that seemed to have magically disappeared.
There was/is(?) a plan to re-create part of the old promenade of Beirut, the original corniche, which was known as Avenue des Francais:
Today’s seaside esplanade or corniche is an extension of this historic Avenue. But the bay was filled in with garbage during the Lebanese war and according to Solidere (the private firm created to rebuild central Beirut) the original coastline was “lost” and the plan was to use the garbage dump as a landfill and further extend the shoreline, thus creating hundreds of thousands more square meters of real estate property in the process.
For now, we won’t get into the controversy of how Solidere was formed and who profits from it (I’ve written about that extensively here and here). Instead, let’s look at one of the many promises it made to the public to build green and publicly accessible space as part of its rebuilding narrative. One of these projects is called Shoreline Walk, a series of interlinking gardens retracing the original coastal outline of the city as seen in the top photo of the Avenue. It’s marked below by red lines. We can also see how the large landfill created a new coastline enclosed by a new breakwater sea wall and yacht marina (which has also become a cash cow for Soldiere):
Designed by the London-based firm Gustafson Porter, The Shoreline Walk was meant to “restore the energy and vigour of the old Corniche promenade” with “green infrastructure” that aims to “re-establish east-west links and connect together a series of new public squares and gardens for the enjoyment of the community,” according to the firm’s website, which contains the images below:
The project was designed 14 years ago in 2002 and expected to be completed by 2010 at a cost of 5 million GBP (around $7.2 million) according to a company presentation. So where is it now? I’ve been living in Lebanon for most of my life and I’ve never seen or heard of it.
Here is an image of the design from Gustafson:
It wasn’t easy to place the gardens on today’s Google map because so much has been constructed. So I resorted to an old aerial shot from the late 1990s to align the plots:
And here it is with a rough overlay of where the “Shoreline Walk” should be:
As compared to:
So where is it?
Conceived 14 years ago, it’s due date is nearly six years past, and beyond a few shrubs and a short row of sidewalk trees, the area remains largely baren and off limits to the public.
The only garden that is completed is Zaytouneh Square, on the lower left.
But in reality, this is a hardscape space with few trees or shade:
A far cry from what seems a virtual rainforest in artist conceptions:
Indeed, Solidere’s overall “green spaces” map looks a lot more green on paper:
…than it does in reality:
On the other hand, the company seems to have had no trouble fulfilling its promise to construct blocks of high end towers for sale, with very few undeveloped plots remaining.
Still, Solidere’s green map is often touted in presentations and interviews with the press. Soldiere’s urban planner recently told design students at a university conference that the city center contains “60 parks and public spaces.” Many students were probably left wondering where these spaces are, as the presentation did not specify if the references and images described existing or planned projects.
In fact, Solidere has plenty of parks and public projects on paper. These include a range of archeological gardens, museums, fountain pools, even a large “central park” on the reclaimed new waterfront as seen above in the company map. But 22 years after Solidere began excavations in 1994, few of these spaces have materialized. And as seen by the example of the tiled Zaytouneh Square, the spaces that have been built often take the shape of sterile expanses with little seating that feel more like modern art to compliment private properties around them rather than inviting spaces for the general public to enjoy. But is that even the goal? Would the general public, most of whom are poor, be invited to mingle amongst the high security multi-million dollar apartments and luxury shops of the city center?
The Shoreline Walk was celebrated in a piece published last year by a landscape magazine which described the completed phase– Zaytouneh Square– as “daring, unique and dramatic.”
It added: “The sleek, bold, ultra-modern look of the square matches the character of the surrounding buildings and gives us the impression of a more modern, edgy Beirut.”
Here’s another image of that space:
Personally, I have never seen more than a handful of people loitering around the area and many of them tend to be private security. But will this change when the other “gardens” are completed? Will they be more green than this?
Although the magazine article was published last year, curiously it makes no reference to the 14 years that have passed since Shoreline Walk was announced, neither does it ask any questions about when it will be ready. Soldiere’s web page on the Shoreline Walk also provides no explanation for the delay or any revised completion dates.
Perhaps the firm will say that political turmoil has hurt progress. Yet why has the same political turmoil not affected the completion of residential towers, sprawling condominiums with hanging gardens, a yacht marina and high end seafront shopping center (Zaitunay Bay) that have all been completed over the last decade? Are glass and steel towers easier to build than minimalist landscaped gardens?
Or does the $8 billion firm prioritize real estate gains for its investors over public space for the community? Perhaps someone out there has the answer.
What is the state of “Shoreline Gardens” today? Dirt, broken tiles and a patch of grass. Here’s a view from the ground:
The real estate, the multi-million dollar new buildings are there but where are the public spaces?
Compare this to Solidere’s official website description of the Shoreline Gardens (which was recently updated) and note the use of the present tense, which seems to convey this place actually exists:
“The Shoreline Walk is a sequence of five connected spaces, placed between the old city, and the new land-filled area. The concept design suggested a new line which guides and reveals elements of history and forms a connective spine…
Shoreline Gardens (4,508 sq m) site of the historic Avenue des Français, provide a contemporary promenade. A long linear water feature and pergola unite the space, creating water movement over an undulating surface and dappled shade to sit below, re-establishing this area as a meeting point.”