Sky’s the limit for real estate sector

The continuous influx of Arab nationals and their capital is leading to an increased demand for high-end properties and large scale malls.

Fuelled by the continued influx of Arab nationals and capital, Lebanon’s real estate sector continued to grow in 2004 by an estimated 20%. Solidere had an outstanding year, as the Beirut Central District experienced increased demand for property, while on the retail side, big is beautiful seemed to be the theme as ADMIC braced for the end-of-year launch of its Dora shopping mall, the biggest so far in Lebanon.

Overview

Key indicators, such as cement sales and the number of construction permits, showed a healthy growth in the construction sector, while the number and value of property transactions increased significantly compared to 2003. Despite a rise in price, cement deliveries amounted to 1.23 million tons during the first half of 2004, an increase of 6.2% compared to the same period in 2003. It should be noted though that part of the increase was due to increased exports to Iraq. The Order of Architects and Engineers reports that construction permits grew from 4 million m2 during the first half of 2003 to 4.3 million m2 in the six months of 2004, which is similar to the tail end of the 90s reconstruction boom.

The geographical distribution of permits shows that Mount Lebanon maintained its 2003 lead as it accounted for 46.4% of the total, followed by the north of Lebanon with 20.2%, South Lebanon with 14.8% and Beirut which witnessed an increase of 4.5% to reach 12.8% of the total. According to Banque Audi data the number of property transaction during the first half of 2004 rose by 7.2% to 51,899 compared to the first half of 2003, while the value of property transactions grew by 27% over the same period to reach LL 1.7 billion. In the third quarter it slowed down to 22%, well above the 15% annual growth recorded in 2003, yet still a far cry from the 30% growth figure of 2002. Beirut maintained the lead in terms of value of properties sold, accounting for 35% of the total, followed by Baabda with 22%, Metn and Mount Lebanon with 15.8% and Kesrwan with 9.8%. The figures confirm that the market was dominated by high-end construction and property transaction, as the increase in the real estate market was largely driven by the Arab investors, who since the events of 9/11, continue to see Lebanon as an alternative home, holiday destination and place to invest. Most players in the sector observed a relative slowdown by the end of 2004, which they attributed to the events surrounding the presidential elections and the attempted assassination of Marwan Hamade. The departure of Rafik Hariri as prime minister and the loss of his international clout were seen as less of a blow as many Lebanese are still optimistic that he will stage a comeback. A 2004 report issued by Ramco Real Estate Advisers concluded that Gulf investors bought land worth some $680 million between 2000 and March 2004, noting: “taking into account the additional investment on project development the amount could easily more than double.

In that period a total of no less than 2.3 million m2 of land were sold in 109 major deals. The Arabs’ preferred destinations are the mountains, not too far from Beirut. With this in mind, 38% was bought in Baabda, 27% in Metn and 18% in Aley. Only 1% of all land deals concerned Beirut, which still represented the largest value for the Lebanese economy. Apart from the controversial Sanine Zenith project, the $1.4 billion, 100 million m2 tourism extravaganza on Mount Sanine, boasting several tourist villages and 5 hotels, as well as 18 ski slopes and a golf course, the two largest purchases of land, 368,723 m2 and 123,492 m2 respectively, were concluded by Kuwaiti investment groups in the region of Qornayel.

Residential: Manhattan on the Mediterranean

Even though most construction permits and land sales centered around Baabda and Metn, the most eye-catching and valuable developments were taking place in Beirut, especially the ongoing seafront development facing the Beirut marina in the BCD. The $200 million Marina residential tower, which will be some 150 meters high, has been half built, while the foundations of the Beirut and Platinum Towers have been laid. Next to the trio, the slightly lower tower of the Four Seasons Hotel is being built. The four high rise buildings represent a total investment of some $600 million and will significantly change Beirut’s façade in the course of 2005 and 2006. With a price tag of $4,000 to $6,000 m/2 the towers’ highly luxurious apartments are arguably the most expensive property currently available in Lebanon. Some 80% of the apartments has already been sold and this seems to be trend for most of the high end residential developments in BCD, including the Capital Gardens and Saifi II projects, which are due to be built in 2005. Not surprisingly, Solidere had an excellent year in terms of land sales, helped by an initiative, which encouraged shareholders to sell their stock for a 15% discount on the land. More residential projects and two hotels are slated for the sea front, while the Abu Jamil area is to become a purely residential district. In spring 2004 it was also announced that the $200 million and 155-meter-high Landmark Building Riad el Solh would go ahead, adding to the BCD’s ever changing skyline. As a consequence demand for the price of land has increased, varying between $1,200 m2 inland to some $1,700 m2 on the seafront. Last but not least, after four years of delay and for a reportedly inflated price of some $12 million, Solidere announced that they are about to obtain the necessary permits needed to complete construction of the 100,000 m2 Souqs retail project by 2006. Downtown Beirut, however, was not the only area to witness significant developments. Contrary to downtown, where 80% of investors and buyers are Gulf Arabs, Ashrafieh remains popular among the Lebanese. New, high-spec apartments are smaller, on average between 250 to 350 m2, and more reasonably priced, on average between $1,700 to $2,500 m2. The same is true for developments in areas such as Ain Mnreiseh, Hamra and Ramlet al Baida.

One of the fastest changing areas in Beirut is no doubt Gemaizeh (see box), while large areas behind the Phoenicia hotel, west of the Damascus road and along at Rue Spears have been cleared. No doubt, these current ghost towns are next in line to see some major developments throughout 2005 and 2006.

Retail: The rise of the mall

2004 was the year of the mall and 2005 will continue to be so. The $120 million ABC Ashrafieh, Lebanon’s first genuine mall opened in November 2003 and went into full gear last year. Apart from its size, the difference between ABC and existing malls, such as Verdun 730 and Dunes, is that the first truly offers a world of shopping, entertainment, food and beverages all under one roof. Critics had doubted there would be sufficient demand for such a major development, but ABC has proved them wrong. Its 40,000m2 of retail space are fully occupied and shops, restaurants and cinema attract a constant flow of customers. In 2005 however, ABC will have to compete with BHV at Dora. About twice the size of ABC Ashrafieh, BHV is Lebanon’s first mega-mall with under its roof the country’s first Casino hypermarket, a grand department store, shops, boutiques, restaurants, café’s and a cinema. Most experts expect it to do well, seeing its excellent location between the two highways that form Beirut’s northern exit. With rents of as much as $1,000 per m2 per year, ABC and BHV are among the hottest properties around as far as retail space is concerned. The downtown follows with rental prices varying between $800 and $1,200per m2 per year. Verdun has an average price of some $800 per m2 per year and, as a shopping district, continues to perform steadily. Prices in Hamra vary between $300 m/2 per year at both ends to some $600 for top locations in at the heart of Beirut’s only genuine high street. Following the completion of the restoration works in summer 2004, hopes remain high for Hamra to regain its leading position as shopping district. With its hotels, hospitals, banks, and universities, its history and character, the area has every potential. In Chiah, the 50,000m2 Beirut Mall should open for business next year. In Sin el Fil, the 14,000m2 Metropolitan Mall is currently being constructed, while at Concorde square the 50,000m2 V5 Mall is planned. In comparison, the V5 will be no less than 20 times bigger than its Dunes counterpart on the other end of Verdun. The future will tell if there is a demand in Lebanon for such a large quantity of added retail space and if there is still space for the traditional high street such as Hamra and to a lesser extent Verdun. Experts predict that shoppers may tire, after the initial excitement, of indoor shopping. One thing is certain, the increased supply of retail spaces will no doubt lead to a decrease in retail rents, which is an advantage for shopkeepers, and in the end for consumers as well.

Office: smart space sells

No major developments regarding office space took place in 2004. With an average rent of $300 per m2 per year, the BCD remains among the 30 most expensive business districts in the world, which is part of the reason that some 40% of office space in the downtown remains empty. The problem however is not only price-related. Most office space in the BCD does not meet modern international standards, but those that do, such as Atrium and the An Nahar buildings, are performing remarkably well, which is why the construction of Atrium II will begin in 2005.

Tourism:

Last year, also saw the long awaited opening of the imposing Le Royale in Dbayeh and, following the success of the $10 million Eddé Sands beach resort in Byblos, business tycoon Roger Eddé has big plans for the ancient harbor city. Aiming to attract investment of nearly $5 billion over the next 10 years, Eddé envisions turning Byblos into the Cannes of the Middle East, with a luxury marina, hotels, restaurants spas and health clubs. Most importantly however, was the government’s official approval of the controversial Sanine Zenith project. The $1.4 billion project measures some 100 million m2 of BUA on which it is planned to build several tourist villages and hotels, as well as 18 ski slopes and a golf course.

Gemaizeh

The area changing most rapidly is no doubt Gemaizeh. The old quarter bordering the downtown, which still has a flavor of old Beirut, threatens to become the next Monot, as a string of small cafés, bars, restaurants, boutiques and galleries have recently opened. The revolution began in 2001 with the renovation of the Ahwat Azaz (Glass Café) and French bakery/café Paul, which “made” the corner. In 2004, a dozen more commercial establishments opened and more are expected follow, transforming what used to be a shabby if charming, quarter into arguably the hippest quarter in town. A handful of residential projects are also in the pipeline, especially on the strip of land bordering the downtown, but also well into the quarter. Following the success of Convivium I and II, developer Kareem Bassil is building a third halfway down the main street towards Electricité du Liban. Apart from its character, one of the main attractions of Gemaizeh was the relatively low prices. That is rapidly changing. The price of land has in some locations risen from less than $400 up to $800 per m2. The rent of retail space has in top locations tripled since the beginning of the year, while asking prices for residential property has increased by 50%, though it remains to be seen if these will be realized.

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Beirut since 1996.

*

Top