There are a few points that thirty-six year old real estate developer and entrepreneur Karim Bassil wants to make perfectly clear to any reporter interested in untangling his rapidly growing business interests.
First, contrary to some press reports, the general contracting company La Constructa that Bassil began with partner Walid Marchi a few years ago, is but one element in a vertically integrated group of firms that services both his own development projects as well as those of other clients.
So although there is no overall holding company as yet, Bassil Real Estate Investment (BREI), not La Constructa, is more or less de facto company leader, given its role as advisor and manager on several ongoing projects.
Second, although he’s been the driving force behind the various related companies (which now number six according to his most recent business card), Bassil is insistent that he is “a very, very bad manager who just partners with great managers.”
Finally, and perfectly in line with his outward demeanor which shifts effortlessly from self-effacing modesty to sprawling aquisitiveness, Bassil is adamant that development in historic neighborhoods like Gemmayze, no matter how new in concept or how bold, must be harmonious with the surrounding area, not in contradiction to it.
Of course, this last point stands as a rare dictum in Lebanon, where enlightened urban planning is usually a mere afterthought (if a thought at all). However, after taking one reporter on a tour of his most recent construction project, a boutique hotel cum residency in the middle of trendy Gemmayze street, one gets the sense that Bassil is indeed willing to put his money exactly where his ideals are.
“Look at that tree,” he said, motioning to a towering Magnolia that rests in the middle of the bustling construction site. “That tree is so beautiful and old. How could we just cut it down…. Instead we’re building around it.
“You see, in general,” he continued, “if we really wanted to exploit this space fully, the only way to do it is by building a tower. But that would be completely against the character of this street, so instead of building16,000 sellable square meters, which we could, we are building 8,000 square meters.”
Since Bassil began developing real estate for himself in Lebanon in 1998 (and launching successive affiliated companies thereafter), he’s been able to complete or initiate a total of five projects – something that has given him credentials really with which to prove both his sincerity in matters of organic building practices as well as his own prowess.
With each one, as a perusal of relevant architectural sketches demonstrates, a sense of synergy rather than opposition really does seem to dominate; although, so too does the notion that the projects themselves will only get bigger.
“We wanted to preserve the old style of the neighborhood here,” Bassil said, referring to his three completed Gemmayze projects: Convivium One, a 4,000 square meter townhouse with five apartments valued at $4 million, Convivium Two, a $7 million two building project, and Convivium Three, a $5 million “ core and shell” project (i.e. without interior amenities or infrastructure).
“Convivium Four, where we have rehabilitated a turn of the century house into four apartment rentals, will be finished in the next six months,” he explained. “There too you have the same idea of a building that is in harmony with the surroundings… you see large ceilings, exteriors as in the neighborhood, a similar scale.”
Last but not least
It is Convivium Five though, the 8,000 square meter development in the heart of Gemmayze street, that has marked a departure of sorts for Bassil (though not from his commitment to aesthetic unity in practice).
After all, the development is Bassil’s most ambitious to date – a $17 million effort that will put a boutique hotel with 33 suites, branded under the name of an as yet undisclosed fashion figure, three residencies in the back area and a five floor clock tower all on the market by next year.
And unlike Bassil’s earlier projects, which typically ranged from $1,100-$1,200 per square meter, Convivium Five’s residencies will start at $1,750, with every additional floor level tacking on an added $75 per square meter.
So perhaps somewhat naturally, the changes in price, cost and scale are having a direct effect on the developers bottom line strategy.
In fact, it now seems increasingly likely that with three new projects in the offing, including a $33 million residential project in Gemmayze, Bassil may finally have to turn to outside investors instead of relying on pre-sale down payments and bridge loans from banks.
It is a move that may also unfortunately mean he is unable to keep all aspects of a project under one roof, as he has in the past.
“La Constructa has acted as the General Contractor on other projects, including the Byblos Bank tower in Sassine, the New French Embassy and the University of Balamand… and it is the General Contractor on Convivium Five. But for the upcoming projects where we may have to turn to outside investors we have to be careful about any possible conflicts of interest like having the general contractor and the project manager be affiliated.”
Of course, avoiding such conflicts of interest will not be easy: Bassil has intentionally structured his companies to work together seamlessly, sometimes in an almost a turnkey fashion all in an attempt to consolidate projects and contain costs.
Thus, there is the facilities management company MMG that currently manages over 300 sites across Lebanon. There is the property management company, PMG that handles more than a dozen high-end buildings. There is the security company, Group 4 security that started four months ago and now already has over 200 employees. And there is the concrete pouring company Stratum.
“BREI,” Bassil explained, referring to the project management company, “was structured because I decided to have a company that would service real estate developments… my own and now those of other people.
“But in Convivium Six Stratum will have to bid for the concrete pouring contract and it will not be possible to have BREI and La Constructa functioning as project manager and General Contractor respectively… The projects are growing and the rules have changed.”