Ashrafieh was never meant to be this crowded. Its six-meter wide streets gave it a village appearance as it gazed sleepily on the eastern edge of the original walled city of Beirut – roughly what is now the downtown area. Even 30 years ago land was plentiful and the roads were used to get to places rather than as temporary parking lots in the district’s nightmare traffic jams.
But the rapid influx of people during the war, especially from Spears and Zarif, began a process of transformation of the essential characteristics of the area. Where land was once available for the rapid construction of concrete blocks of flats as architecturally uneasy neighbors to the traditional villas, now the villas themselves are increasingly under threat to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand.
The modern snob value of Ashrafieh also traces its origins back to the wartime era when it became a matter of defiant pride to repair within 24 hours as much shell damage as possible. From this developed a reputation for cleanliness and security, as well as the all-important attraction of being the innovator in the 1990s for restaurants and nightspots.
Ironically, its location on the edge of downtown increases its allure as a method of avoiding the ill-tempered morning commute along the coastal highway. Maybe traffic jams in narrow streets are quainter than those on four-lane highways.
Like the curate’s egg, it’s good in parts
Real estate consultant Michael Dunn, chairman of Michael Dunn & Co., summed it up. “Part of Ashrafieh is very much wanted and other bits less so,” he said. In the prime areas, he listed the advantages as proximity to the town center, a smart area and a good address, snob value, a new shopping center and restaurants.
“Obviously the problem on the east side of town is the appearance of the port and that is what prevents Ashrafieh from having a high-priced residential seafront area like Manara,” Dunn added.
According to the real estate agent Coldwell Banker, there are two main categories of potential buyers in the area. The first are young, local Lebanese with jobs in Beirut, the classic “dinks” – or Double Income No Kids. Their targets are medium-sized apartments, preferably with a parking space and priced at under $200,000. Never let it be said that the young lack idealism.
Coldwell Banker says demand for this tier of property has been steadily increasing in the past two years while the supply remains, at euphemistic best, “limited.” Since even idealism has its limits, dinks are increasingly turning to alternative areas that still cut down commuting time. For this reason Hazmieh is growing in popularity where homebuyers can get the same space for less or even more space for less money than in Ashrafieh. And the highway from Hazmieh speeds up most of the drive into town … until it reaches the edge of Ashrafieh.
Seeking comfort in the “Golden Triangle”
The second main category of potential buyers identified by Coldwell Banker is a mix of local wealthy Lebanese and Lebanese expatriates returning from Europe and other Western countries. These home-seekers are on the lookout for 300m2 apartments starting at around $300,000, specifically inside the “Golden Triangle” that connects Tabaris, Sodeco and Sassine, such as Lebanon Street, Furn Al Hayek, and Abdel Wahab El Inglizi.
Even that increased budget is modest when compared with some of the prices being asked. New apartments in the Park Hill project at Sassine, albeit somewhat larger at 400m2 to 600m2, are being sold for between $2,000m2 and $3,000m2.
“The top areas are very bourgeois and are considered very safe,” said Fady Malha, a lawyer who has offices in Monnot and who also lives on the edge of Ashrafieh. “The road from Sassine to Sodeco and the Sursock areas are the most expensive areas, especially on the same side of the road as the Hotel Gabriel. Apartments of 400 meters sell for more than a million dollars. Tabaris is slightly cheaper at around $2,000 a meter.”
According to Dunn, prices have increased by at least 50% over the past five years. “Before 2000, the top price for existing buildings was around $1,200 a meter,” he said. “I expect downtown to trade at a premium to Ashrafieh for the foreseeable future but there will be growth in one area when there is growth in the other. Assuming stability [will return to] the economy and the country, it would be fair to expect values to go up by five percent a year.”
Snapping up, or demolishing old villas
A growing trend is to look for old houses in Gemaizeh although they are very difficult to find, said Malha. The difficulty is enhanced by the fact that Gemaizeh has a bigger percentage of old rents than Ashrafieh. Dunn said that property ownership in Ashrafieh was less hamstrung by this problem and therefore it became more tradable, and of course more valuable.
With so little vacant land available for development, another continuing trend could be to follow the pattern of Bourj Hammoud by demolishing existing buildings to replace them with bigger ones. “I think they will continue to knock down those special old villas and the less efficient buildings,” said Dunn. “It is perfectly legal unless the buildings are listed, but any long-term strategy really ought to go with the villa.”
His arguments are based more on financial considerations than pure sentiment. “To maintain the value of the whole area, its character needs to be maintained,” said Dunn. “The villas will have an even more special value in the future. If Ashrafieh becomes over-developed, it will be just another modern suburb.”
That danger is real. With modern luxury apartments mostly being sold on plan, the temptation for developers to acquire and demolish non-listed villas is intense. “Eventually there will be no place left to build in Ashrafieh,” said Coldwell Banker.
It ain’t cheap and it ain’t easy
At the other, supposedly bottom end of the buying scale, competition among buyers is fierce and prices are high for what is being offered. “There are no bargains in Ashrafieh,” said Malha. One first-time buyer started hunting with a budget of $100,000 and found nothing. “She upped her budget to $130,000 but found only property in an appalling condition,” he added. Now she has increased her limit to $150,000. “Even at that price the choice will be very limited and if she does find a place it could easily need another $50,000 to bring it up to scratch,” said Malha.
Coldwell Banker sees buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s and perhaps damaged during the war as more attractive to investors and developers than to individual homebuyers. The firm optimistically puts a value averaging $250m2 to $300m2 on these buildings although most experts see even the bottom end of the market as much more expensive. Dunn said there was affordable property in Gemaizeh around the steps and among the older apartment blocks in Sioufi. He put prices in the $700-$800/m2 range.
Opening its doors to all-comers
Although nominally designated as a “Christian area”, Ashrafieh has become much mixed over the past decade. “Muslims see it as a safe area where there is no question of which faction will eventually take control,” said Malha. “The area is also an obvious choice for moderate Muslims, whether Lebanese or foreign, for the lack of interference in their life.” Along with Broummana and Beit Mery, Ashrafieh is more and more on the shopping list of Gulf nationals seeking an alternative home in Lebanon, especially for the higher-priced properties.
But whether expensive or comparatively cheap, few properties remain on the market for long. “If you have the right amount of money, it’s not too difficult to find a place,” said Malha. “Ashrafieh is a fairly small area and if you want to buy you have to be quick. The cheap ones sell less quickly but they still sell well. In Jal El Dib you might wait a year to sell a property. Not in Ashrafieh.”