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When we hear about real estate developers working in poor neighborhoods, it often means they are tearing them down to build towers and looking to kick old residents out. But in the south Beirut slum of Ouzai, a former developer claims he is actually doing the opposite: making life more livable for existing residents to stay.

The project known as Ouzville began a year and half ago, according to its founder, real estate mogul Ayad Nasser.

Nasser says he spent over $100,000 to bring in 25 graffiti artists, local and foreign, to beautify the neighborhood. Why? Because he grew up here.

“I wanted to give back,” he says. “Lebanon gave me a lot.”

Growing up in poverty and largely without parents helped give him the drive to succeed in business, Nasser explains, adding he has since worked on 12 real estate projects in Lebanon and six in France.

Of course most Ouzai residents have not been so lucky.

Tens of thousands of people live in the crowded slum, which grew rapidly as a squatting community in the 1980s when Israel was bombing south Lebanon. With no help from the state, internally displaced Lebanese from southern villages took up shelter at beach resorts along what had been Lebanon’s Cote d’Azur in the 1950s. Fast forward a few decades later and the place has become a shantytown not unlike Palestinian refugee camps.

Some of the new artwork makes use of the haphazard infrastructure. Once again, the state has largely ignored this impoverished community, alleging that most of the neighborhood is “illegal” and thus had provided few services. Yet today all the chaotic elements can be integrated into an artist’s canvas.

Some locals have even been inspired by the artists and contributed pieces of their own.

I met this young man who said he was so inspired he decided to paint his front door.

A few shops in the neighborhood have also decided to “rebrand” in line with the Ouzville project, such as this “Shisha Bar”

Other residents say the project also inspired them to take garbage collection more seriously. “I used to throw my garbage right into the sea because everyone did that,” said Mohammed Balita, 40,  who was born in Ouzai. “But when I saw everyone else cleaning up, now I take my garbage to the bin.”

Public services and environmental accountability are scarce even in the wealthiest parts of Beirut so the state is even more absent in an informal settlement like Ouzai.

I met Maher al Halabi, one of the neighborhood’s earliest residents, who was born around the 1950s.

He showed me a picture of himself standing in roughly the same spot when he was a child:

The wall he was standing on has been replaced by buildings. But what is also missing is the sand.

Al Halabi said the waterline used to be out where the rocks are today.

Balita, the other resident, added that during low tide a few weeks of the year, the water would recede enough to reveal seaweed marshes ideal for catching shrimp. “It was a beautiful beach,” he added. “My cousins from Australia would visit us and they said it was better here!”

But the tides and the sand vanished about 15 years ago, Balita and others said. And these days Ouzai is known as one of the most polluted places on the Lebanese coast. Much of this may be due to the fact that sewers from the area pour directly into the sea, much like other parts of Beirut. But what happened to the sand and the marshes?

The major event that changed things about 15 years ago seems to be the construction of the new airport in the late 1990s. Balita says everyday large barges were brought in to dredge the area over several months, sucking up all the Ouzai sand to be used in the construction of a the new runway, seen in the background below:

I have reported extensively on the destruction of Beirut’s original coastline, largely by real estate companies, but this was the first time I had heard about the damage done by the airport. If Balita and the others are right, the elimination of tides must create a larger environmental impact that may have occurred on several places along the coast since the end of the war.

But for Ouzville founder Nasser, the small steps are what matter at this point. He is happy the road was paved by local politicians following the start of the graffiti project. Some worried that they were trying to take credit for the project, but Ayad says he is not bothered. “Let them take credit, that’s great!”

Fresh pavement in Ouzville. Political conspiracy or just idle speculation?

Interestingly, a short article in The Economist claims local politicians are “threatened” by Nasser’s project and “suspect” he will run for office. But though the article speaks with certainty, it quotes no sources. Also it’s a little hard to imagine the major political parties present in the area, namely Hezbollah and Amal, with their vast military and economic networks, would be threatened by street murals.

Nasser says he is just trying to clean up his old neighborhood and even inspire some citizenship. Perhaps it is also a reaction to the urban sprawl industry he was so intimately involved in.  “We need to stop building, we should have stopped in 2010- and start beautifying the mess and that is what we are doing.”

Ayad Nasser standing below the home he grew up in in Ouzai.

“I consider Lebanon is more important than my two kids,” he adds. “If every Lebanese considers Lebanon as one of his children, we can save Lebanon and then we will become Lebanese citizens.”

Of course Ouzville is taking place on just one of probably dozens of streets like it in Ouzai, though Nasser says there are plans for expansion. At the very least, the project has also provided a more colorful environment for local children to play in.

Maybe some of them will get inspired to be artists themselves someday.

In fact many of the local children helped during the painting:

Some artists chose to draw greenery to help make up for the lack of trees.

That’s enough from me. I’ll let you enjoy some of the other art works. You can also check out more on the Ouzville Facebook page. Stepfeed also collected some great photos.

And definitely go out and visit. There is a lot more to see than documented here- 120 buildings says Nasser. If anything, this project could encourage more people to visit the area and help break the stereotype of it being a dangerous “illegal” neighborhood.

Also there is apparently a good fish restaurant not far from the murals known as Riba Cafe. Nasser says the fish come from down south and people come from all over Lebanon to eat there. If you get lost, use the restaurant as a landmark.

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Something fun today in a mad world! Check out this new video by The Wanton Bishops recalling vintage Beirut action flicks and it is shot in Dalieh, the last natural coast of Beirut endangered by a real estate project.

When you finish watching, check out The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh الحملة الأهلية للحفاظ على دالية الروشة to see what is being done to #SaveDalieh and check our recent post: “Beirut’s stolen coast and the growing fight to get it back” for background on this topic.

Activists have put together this great new video looking at how Beirut’s natural rocky coastline has basically been stolen from the public, destroyed and turned into concrete marinas for private resorts.

 

What’s particularly interesting about the video is that it uses maps to illustrate the radical transformation of the shoreline and brazen transgressions of laws that were aimed at protecting it.

Take for example this map of the Beirut coast before real estate exploitation:

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And after:

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The video, which was produced by the lawyers’ collective Legal Agenda and the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh is based on investigative research that exposed the dubious decree 169 of 1989, which allowed the building of the Movenpick Hotel in contravention of coastal protection laws that preceded it. This set into motion a precedent that allowed more seizure of public coastal properties and the mushrooming of more resorts, as seen above.

Before the Movenpick:

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After:

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The good news is that decree 169 never went through official channels and was never published publicly, lawyers have found, creating grounds for the launching of a lawsuit against the state, which is currently pending.

In the meantime, more resorts are being planned, threatening to repeat the destruction caused by decree 169 and obliterate the last remaining stretch of public coast.

After a multi-pronged campaign of three years, activists have already challenged a major project planned for the coast of Dalieh and Raouche, and lobbied the Environment Ministry to issue a draft decree to protect the area. But it has yet to pass in Parliament and Dalieh may still may be threatened.

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The coast of Dalieh, source: Cedric Ghoussoub

Other projects are already underway including the massive Eden Rock marina and towers project, being built just a few feet from the waterline.

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Excavation for Eden Rock resort on Ramlet El Baida beach, source: Firas BouZeineddine
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Eden Rock excavation, source: Iffat Edriss Chatila

Last week activists made it down to the construction site and attempted to disrupt this public property seizure by yanking out the hoses being used to dredge the area to lay concrete foundations on the beach.

One activist involved in the action was assaulted by an employee of the real estate company and others have been questioned by police or threatened with lawsuits. Interestingly, the police have not asked to question the developers of the resort about the destruction of the public coastline and the billions of dollars that will be made at the public’s expense.

Instead of investigating the project’s destruction of the natural environment, seizure of public lands and dubious legal foundation, local broadcaster Future TV,  chose instead to produce an entire music video-like report lavishing praise on the developers and congratulating them for their achievements.  Activists have come up with this clever montage that mixes the propagandistic report with the situation on the ground:

 

If all of this sounds crazy and unjust to you, you can join over a dozen civil rights and environmental organizations this Saturday (Nov. 26) for “El Shat La Kil El Nes” (The Coast For All The People) in what promises to be a massive march calling for accountability from the billionaire class that runs this country, and approves such projects.

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The march begins at 4PM near the gate of the public beach at Ramlet El Baida. Here is the event page

For more on how the coast has been privatized and destroyed across Beirut and the rest of the country, you can see my piece in the Guardian last year “A City Without a Shore: The Paving of Beirut’s Coast”

The Beirut Madinati political collective also launched an online protest to the disappearing coast:

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Artists have been chipping in as well, such as this illustration by Omar Saliba Abdel Samad:

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Caption: “Beirut with no coast?!”

A couple of weeks ago activists also confronted Beirut’s governor on how construction was approved on the coast and why other countries have managed to keep hotels off the sand, which should remain public. He didn’t seem to have a lot of answers when confronted with historic maps and laws that cast doubt on the legality of such construction. Watch the live recording provided by the NGO Nahnoo, which hosted the event, here:

 

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:

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And here it is with a rough overlay of where the “Shoreline Walk” should be:

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As compared to:

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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:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network

A far cry from what seems a virtual rainforest in artist conceptions:

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Indeed, Solidere’s overall “green spaces” map looks a lot more green on paper:

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…than it does in reality:

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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:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network

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.

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UPDATE:

What is the state of “Shoreline Gardens” today? Dirt, broken tiles and a patch of grass. Here’s a view from the ground:

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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.”

Here again is the artist conception from 2002:

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After several weeks of organizing and documentation by activists, the minister of environment has called for a halt to a port project that threatens to destroy the natural coast in Adloun (South Lebanon) believed to be the location of an ancient civilization.

However, in this report by LBC, there appears to be a tug-of-war going on between the Ministry of Public Works, which is carrying out excavation works, and the Environment and Culture Ministries who say work must stop until studies have taken place and a joint committee is allowed to examine the project, dubbed “Nabih Berri Port.” The Ministry of Public Works says the other ministries have failed to come up with any proposals for over 15 days, giving them the defacto right to carry on with the project. So in the meantime the destruction of the rocky coast, which is claimed to be a Phoenician port town, is continuing and LBC says the ancient ruins may be lost before a joint-committee is formed to investigate the matter.

One interesting aspect left out of the LBC report is that the Public Works Ministry, which is adamant on pushing forward with the project, is being led by a political subordinate of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whom the new port is being named after.

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According to a report by Al Akhbar, the “Nabih Berri Port” project is worth around $26.6 million and encompasses an area of 164,000 square meters. While the ministry says the project will create jobs and serve the surrounding fishing community, Al Akhbar and local activists say the port is being designed to accommodate 400 luxury yachts, that will cause massive environmental damage to the village, which does not have the infrastructure to accommodate such traffic. Al Akhbar alleges that destruction continues despite cessation requests from the other ministries and in the absence of an environmental impact study,  a claim also carried in a report by the Lebanese lawyers’ collective Legal Agenda.  Al Akhbar further reports that the awarding of the excavation contract to “Khoury Contracting Company” came under an irregular bid and with little input from or discussion with the local community.

In a report by Al Jadeed TV, the head of a south Lebanon preservation group says Adloun is a known Phoenician port site that has not been properly excavated. She says that it is preservation and celebration of Adloun’s heritage that will bring economic benefits to the local community, not converting the site into yet another playground for the wealthy.

Much of the outcry and media coverage over what is happening to the site was sparked by the work of local activist group Green Southerns who have been documenting the destruction on a daily basis with a series of amateur videos like this one, which have in turn been carried by mainstream media:

As well as reports on the site’s archeological significance:

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The Green Southern group has also documented Adloun’s ecological and marine life significance as an increasingly rare sea turtle nesting ground:

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It’s hard to say what the precise archeological history of the current excavation site is from pictures alone and the reporting thus far, although it is clear that the Adloun area has been the site of numerous archeological expeditions dating back to the the late 1800s with evidence uncovered suggesting both Phoenician as well as pre-historic remains dating back to 70,000 BCE.

What’s also disconcerting about the rush to build over Adloun is how the state and it’s crony capital partners have once again managed to seize public coastal property for what could be luxury, exclusive development under the guise of ‘public good’.

As I reported for The Guardian last year, the Lebanese coast has largely been colonized by illegal or vaguely legal projects that have fenced off much of the coast from the public, denying the constitutional right to beach access. According to the government’s own studies, there are approximately five illegal resorts usurping public maritime property for every one kilometer stretch of Lebanon’s 220 kilometer coastline.

A lot of these infractions took place during the last three decades, well before the inception of social media and the subsequent enhancement of activism bolstered by popular blog posts as well as increased mainstream media attention. Will this make a difference in the case of projects planned for Adloun, Dalieh, Byblos and other planned–and now fiercely opposed–projects? In some respects, it already has, but will be the long term impacts?

You can follow more of Green Southerns work on their Facebook page where they have recently launched on online petition to preserve the site. They’ve also recently staged a demonstration at the National Museum to get the press’s attention:

 

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Activists take down a legally dubious fence restricting access to the sea at Dalieh El Raouche

As I have written previously, a new boldness appears to be gaining strength among Lebanese activists in the context of the garbage crisis and #youstink movement. In addition to facing off politicians in the typical form of large-scale protests and marches, we have also seen unprecedented acts of civil disobedience such as challenging  security barriers at the Prime Minister’s office and the holding of a sit-in at the environment ministry for nine hours, as thousands gathered outside in support. We have also seen the protests extending beyond garbage to other failed public services such as electricity and water shortages. Yesterday we saw that energy channeled into a new front: the unregulated privatization of the Lebanese coast.

Like dysfunctional public services, the unlawful seizure of public seafront properties has gone on for decades with no accountability,  as politicians and their cronies create luxury marinas and resorts restricting access to well-heeled customers and leaving very few public swimming areas for the majority of people in the country who cannot afford entrance fees. (Over 1,000 illegal resorts occupy the coast)

Yesterday a protest was called to occupy one of these upscale marinas built on public property known as Zaitunay Bay. (The Bay is owned partially by a prominent former minister and the marina pays a pittance to the state- only $1.5 per square meter–despite collecting exorbitant berthing rates for the dozens of yachts parked there.)

Protestors began by defying the marina’s exclusionary restrictions on food, drink and music by having picnics and a dance party:

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After a couple of hours, the activists from #youstink and other groups decided to move the party to the famous Raouche Rocks area further along the seaside promenade (corniche) where another luxury project is being planned and the coast has been fenced off to the public. Here prominent investors tied to the former prime minister’s family have put up a razor wire fence in preparation for a major real estate development, seen by activists and lawyers has a clear violation of the law. (See my in-depth piece in the Guardian for more background on this story.)

For over a year, activists known as The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh have been trying to stop the project and open the space to the public by lobbying politicians, organizing an international design competition for alternatives and even convincing the environment minister to issue a decree to protect the area. Ironically the environment minister himself–the same one being held responsible for the garbage crisis–had called the razor wire “hideous” in a Facebook post on his personal page. Police subsequently destroyed the homes of fishermen to make way for the private project, claiming the homes were built illegally. Yet many questioned why the fence and many unlawful luxury establishments blocking the coast were not included in the police “law enforcement” action.

Lawyers associated with the campaign have also argued that the fence contradicts constitutionally enshrined rights of access to the sea and endangers the public with its layers of prison-like barbed wires both above and below the esplanade, as pedestrians often recline or lean on the rails. Following intense lobbying from the Dalieh campaign, the minister had even issued letters to relevant authorities calling for the removal of the razor wires in August 2014. And yet despite all this, the 377 meter fence has been up for a year. Until yesterday.

Activists from the #youstink protests came equipped with pliers–young, old, male, female, middle class, poor–and literally began bringing it down with their hands:

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Here is a video I shot from the scene:

Finally the view of the sea was unobstructed again, revealing the famous pigeon rocks, on countless postcards of Lebanon, but increasingly hard to see for city residents due to rampant and illegal developments.

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Once the fence came down, there was a few minutes of celebration as protestors chanted about corruption, the daily theft by the ruling political class, the unelected parliament, the lack of employment and marginalization of the poor. Finally one says “Now that we have liberated the coast, let’s go enjoy it!”

 

I then filmed the crowd walking toward the sea as police man just stand by and watch. In fact a few dozen police, including a riot squad, were deployed at the scene. But they merely watched as citizens took down the fence.

Finally it was time to reap the benefits and enjoy the sea.

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Activists made their way down to rocky coast that had been used for hundreds if not thousands of years as a swimming hole by the city’s residents.

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Here is a video from the scene:

Before the fence had gone up, this spot known as Dalieh el Raouche had been used by generations of Beirut residents, known for its natural pools, coves, caves and grassy areas to picnic and enjoy time with the family.  It is feared that the private project, proposed to a celebrity architect, will end all this free access and limit the area to elite sunbathers who can afford entrance or membership fess.

When the protestors began to head home as the sun began to sink into the sea, they had stripped the 377 meter fence in its entirety:

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Left behind a sign, reclaiming the public access to the area, reading “This Sea is Ours”

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And allowing average citizens once again, the right to gaze out at the sea, one of the few rights that seem to be left in this country.

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Nowruz celebrations fell on a stormy Saturday this year so only a few in the Kurdish community came out:

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Later that evening, a group of activists from the Civil Campaign to Save Dalieh held a Nowruz bonfire in solidarity with the community, who stand to loose this gathering space due to a major Rem Koolhaas project planned for the site. (You can read more about the project and the politicians behind it here)

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But today, with the sun shining, crowds came out to celebrate in Dalieh, despite the barbed wire fences and concrete barricades that have been put up by the property developers.

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The concrete blocks that developers have placed here leave little room for a stage seen in previous years’ celebrations, but people still improvised in the few open spaces that remain:

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For now, Dalieh is the only surviving natural coastal outcrop in Beirut, walled in by luxury towers:

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But if developers have their way–and build a sprawling seafront project here– this space may no longer be available the public, as the free picnic and recreational grounds it has been for generations:

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You can read more about the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh and keep up with their upcoming activities on their Facebook page.

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The picturesque coastal town of Byblos is known largely for two things: ancient ruins and overpriced beach resorts. Like much of the 220 kilometer Lebanese coastline, the shores around Byblos–one of the oldest constantly inhabited cities in the world–have been developed by private resorts, where access is restricted to paying customers and a couple can easily spend $100 for a day at the beach.

(For more on the privatization of Beirut’s coast, see my recent piece in The Guardian)

Now there is news that one of the last undeveloped plots of Byblos seafront, which is just below the 10,000 year old ruins, will be rented to well-connected developers. The rocky shore in question (see photo above) is also the place of a historic Armenian community church and orphanage and there are imminent plans to reportedly exhume the bodies of Armenian genocide survivors who are buried at a small cemetery near the shore to make way for a new seafront project.

The large building on the site dates back to the early 1900s and was used as a church and school facility as part of an orphanage founded to serve those saved from the mass killings.

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The orphanage was run by the Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, who is credited with saving thousands of Armenian children from the massacres in Turkey. Many ended up at the Byblos orphanage known as “Bird’s Nest”

Here is an early picture of the orphanage building:

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Source: Demirdjian The Armenian

Today,  the main building facing the sea is part of the plot for rent. Will it be used for a restaurant or spa?

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According to a recent report, the tenant leasing the property from the Church is former minister Jean-Louis Qordahi, who is also former mayor of Jbeil, where Byblos is located. The report also indicates that the orphanage’s small cemetery will need to be moved, meaning the bodies of many genocide survivors may be exhumed to make way for the project. See the graves in the triangular plot below:

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Interestingly, there appears to be archaeological digs currently going at the project plot–not surprising because the building is literally a few meters away from the ancient Byblos site.

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Having just written an in-depth piece for The Guardian on how politicians and real estate developers often work together to shape laws in coastal areas, this project raises a lot of interesting questions. Are there any laws protecting the natural coastline in Byblos? What right do citizens have to access the shore and how is it impeded by private resorts that charge entrance fees?

In this case, the church is leasing the land and I have heard there are other examples of this. So how does this work and what ethical concerns are involved in exhuming the bodies of genocide survivors or in turning a historical site into one of profit? What archeological discoveries are being made at the site and how will these be preserved?

I have heard from some locals that the church was a main anchor of the Armenian community in Byblos, hosting countless marriages and ceremonies over the last several decades. Some reports indicate a new church and memorial will be built. But how does the community feel about this? To what extent have they been consulted?

 

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UPDATE: Following an uproar in the media over this move–including Armenian newspapers in the US–the Armenian church has suspended the move to privatize while awaiting further studies on the matter. See this updates at the bottom of this post.

Nowroz Kurdish celebration(1)
Weekend gathering in Dalieh. Source: Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

Activists have claimed that a multi-million dollar real estate project by world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas is being planned for Dalieh, one of the last undeveloped coastal areas in Beirut.

If confirmed, the project would mean that Dalieh, a public swimming and picnic area for generations of Beirut families, may now be restricted to the richest segment of the population, depriving the city’s lower and middle classes of any picnic or recreational grounds.

This news comes in sharp contrast to a statement made by the property owners to Executive magazine a few months ago when asked what was planned for Dalieh: “No construction or any other permit is being or will be sought in the foreseeable future as far as I am aware” a representative of the Hariri family, which owns a majority of the land, told Executive in August.

Activists with the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh, which include architects, engineers, urban planners and professors, released the announcement in a letter to Koolhaas published in Jadaliyya today, discussing the manipulation of laws and environmental protections that have allowed the project to go forward.

Here is an excerpt:

“…private real-estate developers have lobbied affiliate politicians to pass multiple exceptions to existing laws that serve their interests, allowing intensive building exploitation ratios at the expense of the city’s livability. The lobbyists behind these regulations are not only property owners, but also policy-makers, ministers, and other members of the political elite who have turned law into yet another tool that serves their private interests. Your client is a member of one of the most powerful players among that elite. Thus, while the entire zone of the project was non-ædificandi (unbuildable) until 1966, exploitation ratios have gradually increased reaching a whopping sixty percent rate, according to the most recent modification of April 2014. The effects of these exceptions to the law are clearly visible on the city, where miles of public beaches and open spaces have been turned into a gated private resorts and landscapes. A design intervention that works within this usurped legal framework will serve the interests of a handful of policy-makers/property-owners who are blatantly manipulating the law to their own advantage, at the detriment of the city, its natural environment, and its dwellers.”

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One of several natural pools in Dalieh, used by Beirut residents for generations.

 

Through the help of lawyers, the activists uncovered significant irregularities in the laws that have made the project possible (passed during the chaos of the civil war) and they have recently launched a major lawsuit you can read about here.

Not only does the project threaten human activity, but activists also say it poses a danger to Dalieh’s unique wildlife and archeology that had previously been protected by Lebanese government bodies:

“Numerous studies highlight the ecological value of this area, particularly as it includes representative marine habitats, namely underwater caves and vermetid reefs where a unique sea-life flourishes. We cite, for instance, the National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territories (approved by decree 2366/2009) that identifies this site as a distinguished natural area of utmost importance to be protected, as well as Plan Vert de Beyrouth(2000) proposed by renowned architects and urbanists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment (2012), Greenpeace’s A Network of Marine Reserves in the Coastal Waters of Lebanon (2012)”

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Dalieh contains several natural caves, inhabited by wildlife

For more images of the possibly endangered natural caves and pools of Dalieh, see this previous post. The site is also the place for many popular celebrations, such as Nowruz, as covered here.

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Last year’s Nowruz celebrations in Dalieh by Lebanon’s Kurdish community

The new property owners have recently fenced off the area with barbed wire, a move Lebanon’s minster of environment called “scandalous.” For more on the grassroots activism to protect this site see this post.

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Finally, you can find the entire letter to Mr. Koolhas, which I have republished below:

 

“We have recently learned that the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has been commissioned to develop a design for a projected development on a prime sea-front location in Beirut (Lebanon): the Dalieh of Raoucheh. Proposing a private development over such a prime social, national, archeological and geological landmark in Lebanon has generated an ongoing public outcry, in the form of protests, letters to officials, discussions, andmedia mobilization. We are writing today to alert you to the disturbing facts behind the project, and solicit your support in outlining an alternative vision for Beirut’s seafront. Here are the facts fuelling the dispute over the project:

1. The project erases an important social space and a national landmark

For decades, the site where the project is being designed has been a prime social and public gathering for Beirut dwellers, but also a national landmark for Lebanese citizens. The site included traditional fishermen ports, informal restaurants, and a vibrant informal economy that lived off such temporary recreational activities. These activities have recently been interrupted as the site was reclaimed as “private property,” and fenced-off, displacing its long-term users.

Adding to the social and symbolic significance of the site is its immediate proximity to the Raoucheh rock, perhaps the main city landmark that holds enormous symbolic significance at national and international scales. Frequently used as a metonym for Lebanon’s natural beauty, the Rock has appeared on national currency as well as in numerous films, histories, and imageries of the city. Any architectural intervention that modifies this seafront landscape, particularly one that privatizes a natural extension of this public landmark, will have resounding negative impacts.

2. The project is built on property that was partially acquired illegally

Dalieh properties were the result of the visions of Ottoman and later French authorities to entrust the city’s commons to the main families of the city, as its custodians and protectors. Until 1995, these properties had multiple owners, who were all members of the so-called “old families of Beirut.” One investor managed to buy these property shares, consolidate single private ownership and expand it over what was the city’s collective commons. This take-over operation has been represented as a de-facto reality that overshadows the historical communal practices in Dalieh and represents them as illegal squatting of private land. This led to the fencing-off of the area and the subsequent prohibition of access to the sea.

Historical and contemporary property records we have obtained unequivocally demonstrate that property boundaries in the area have been modified to encroach on the public maritime domain, in contravention of the law. In other words, a large section of the area where the project is currently planned has been illegally privatized. This includes the fishermen port that, until recently, secured the livelihood of over seventy-five families, and also served as a recreational space for thousands of others. Implementing this project in this location will make theft of public land a fait accompli.

3. The project serves the narrow interests of an elite group of politicians and real-estate developers

While urban and building regulations had relatively protected Beirut’s seafront for decades, making of the promenade along the coast a landmark communal space in the city, regulations have been considerably modified over the past twenty-five years. Indeed, private real-estate developers have lobbied affiliate politicians to pass multiple exceptions to existing laws that serve their interests, allowing intensive building exploitation ratios at the expense of the city’s livability. The lobbyists behind these regulations are not only property owners, but also policy-makers, ministers, and other members of the political elite who have turned law into yet another tool that serves their private interests. Your client is a member of one of the most powerful players among that elite. Thus, while the entire zone of the project was non-ædificandi (unbuildable) until 1966, exploitation ratios have gradually increased reaching a whopping sixty percent rate, according to the most recent modification of April 2014. The effects of these exceptions to the law are clearly visible on the city, where miles of public beaches and open spaces have been turned into a gated private resorts and landscapes. A design intervention that works within this usurped legal framework will serve the interests of a handful of policy-makers/property-owners who are blatantly manipulating the law to their own advantage, at the detriment of the city, its natural environment, and its dwellers.

4. The project threatens a unique ecosystem

Numerous studies highlight the ecological value of this area, particularly as it includes representative marine habitats, namely underwater caves and vermetid reefs where a unique sea-life flourishes. We cite, for instance, the National Physical Master Plan of the Lebanese Territories (approved by decree 2366/2009) that identifies this site as a distinguished natural area of utmost importance to be protected, as well as Plan Vert de Beyrouth(2000) proposed by renowned architects and urbanists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment (2012), Greenpeace’s A Network of Marine Reserves in the Coastal Waters of Lebanon (2012)

5. The project will destroy a rich archeological site

The site is etched with features that could be traced back to the geological history of Lebanon. In fact, it may be the last remaining coastal karstic outcrop on the Beirut city coast, which is the backbone of the city’s visual landscape. Among other sites on the coastal strip, it is also by far the most extensive and important site that presents evidence of the Stone Age in the Levant.

In light of the above, we are appealing to you in your roles as founder and lead architect of the firm, and as an educator and a public intellectual, to side by us in advocating to your client, but also to planning and urban authorities in Beirut the preservation of a site with unique characteristics, and withdraw services on this project. If such advocacy efforts falter, we urge you to dissociate yourself and your firm from this contentious project.

We remain open, as a campaign, to meet with your office to discuss in more detail various aspects of this controversial project and this key national site.

Sincerely,

The Civil Campaign for the Protection of the Dalieh of Beirut”
http://www.facebook.com/dalieh.org

 

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UPDATE 12/18/14: Rem Koolhaas has responded to the letter in a Facebook thread below the Jadaliyya article. Here is the full text:

Dear Civil Campaign team,

Thank you for your open letter from the 15th of December. I appreciate its tone and its content.

Several months ago we were asked to think about the Dalieh of Raoucheh site. From the beginning our client has shown an awareness of its uses, its history and its beauty, and is clearly expecting us to respect and preserve these qualities in the development of our ideas.

Since we have become involved, our research has convinced us only more of the site’s uniqueness, its importance as a public space on the Beirut coastline, and its role in the civic life of the city. The directions that we are beginning to develop do full justice to these qualities, and are compatible with the pleas expressed in your letter. It is, for instance, our intention to actually enhance public accessibility of the site. As in all our work, we are trying to preserve what works well and add only with discretion and intelligence.

I should emphasize that at this point there is in fact no project, just a series of initial explorations. If in due course a project takes shape, we look forward to continuing communication on a more concrete basis. For the time being, please know that we take your letter seriously and that we hope to together maintain a substantial conversation about the issues your letter justly raises.

Best regards,

Rem Koolhaas

A new project seems to be chewing away the coastline in Batroun.  I was able to get a few shots when I was passing by the area last weekend.

Apparently the plan is to build a new private resort by Orchid, which already runs a private beach in South Lebanon.

Here is part of the construction wall:

I wasn’t the only one to notice. This (better) photo set was posted on Facebook yesterday by Tala Hajjar Skaff:

I remember reading once that the law requires a minimum of 10 meters of space between any development and the shore line. I wonder if that law still applies and, if so, how was this project  approved and who approved it?

For those unfamiliar, much of Lebanon’s coastline has been privatized by resorts that charge $20 to $40 per day in beach access fees. Of course you can’t bring food or water to such resorts, so patrons will be dishing out an additional $10-$20 for a small snack and/or drink. With a per capita income of less than $1,000 per month, most Lebanese won’t be able to afford such prices and are thus barred from enjoying the coast across much of their country.

Batroun remains one of the few places where many beaches are still free and accessible to the general public. But how long will that remain the case?

Right next to the construction is an existing establishment that has also built directly on the beach:

Mocking the new Orchid advertising slogan on the construction wall, one of the commentators on Skaff’s post, wrote:

“First there was a beach, and then there was no beach”

Surely there is more we can do about this than laugh. What permit has Orchid obtained for this project? Was an environmental impact assessment carried out? Who approved this permit? Will the resort pay fees to municipality? How much and where will those fees go? Have the people of Batroun been consulted? Have any government bodies been consulted? What is the environment ministry’s position?

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Thanks to Lama for pointing out Tala’s pictures.