Toward the end of the year 2010, something strange began happening in the Mar Mikhael neighbourhood. Usually visited when a car was in need of repairs or as an escape from the highway traffic, it saw design bookshops, art spaces and trendy fashion boutiques popping up in its little alleys. They were followed by a couple of restaurants and bistros along with a hotel — all in charming renovated heritage homes.
Today Mar Mikhael is unrecognizable from its former self, with a plethora of eateries, pubs and art spaces amidst the mechanics and industrial venues which are still in operation during the day. Though some applaud this as modern urbanization and progress, others warn that it could be in danger of being another Gemmayze — which saw a significant drop in footfall after it had been a nightlife destination — or worse yet, a gentrified area.
Mukhtar Bshara Ghniem says that Gemmayze and its surrounding upper areas were considered elite back in the day, and had the most beautiful palaces such as the Trad Palace and the Gemmayel Palace. In contrast, Mar Mikhael was considered a lower class industrial area, inhabited by those who had come from the Karentina area below.
The growing interest in Mar Mikhael was fuelled by several factors. First, there was the desire among various Lebanese investors for an authentic neighborhood that retained the charm of 1920s Beirut. This was difficult to find as traditional neighborhoods, such as Hamra or Ashrafieh, were being developed into areas with high rises and modern designs.
Laws of attraction
“When I opened, back in 2009, I had already been living in the area for four years and found it extremely charming. For me, opening there was the only option as I believed Papercup would fit perfectly,” says Rania Naufal, owner of Papercup concept bookstore.
Marie Helene Gougeon, co-owner of Villa Clara Hotel, says she and her husband fell in love with the French Colonial style house and garden — which now houses their hotel and restaurant project — and also with Mar Mikhael itself, which had the “authenticity of the Beirut I remember and love from my childhood.”
The concept of restaurants in traditional homes gained popularity with the Lebanese crowd by the end of 2011, and within a period of two years, ten such venues had opened in Mar Mikhael and its immediate vicinity.
This is in part due to the economics of proximity — where similar concepts exist next to each other and become a destination for those seeking them — and also because heritage homes in other areas were either complicated to acquire or sold to developers. “There is not one traditional home available for commercial use in Hamra anymore; they are either already restaurants, or have residents who refuse to leave them, or they have already been sold to developers,” says Anis Rbeiz, a real estate agent specializing in Hamra.
Another reason behind Mar Mikhael’s hospitality boom, particularly regarding nightlife venues, was the discrepancy in rental fees between Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael. Karl Sarkis, managing director of Blox Real Estate Sevices say, “at the end of 2011, a 30 square meter (sqm) venue in Gemmayze could cost you up to $30,000 per year in rent when the same sized place in Mar Mikhael would cost you $7,000 per year. I recall that many would-be investors were asking me for venues in Gemmayze but those had become ridiculously expensive so they started asking for venues further along, after the Electricité du Liban, and so nightlife started inching towards Mar Mikhael, which was at first somehow seen as an extension of Gemmayze.”
The new hamra?
After the first few bars — such as Radio Beirut, Bar Internazionale and Chaplin — opened on the main road, others mushroomed around them.
Hospitality developments in Mar Mikhael diversified in such a manner that it has become a destination with something for everyone, from the art crowd checking out the galleries to trendy socialites trying out the newest restaurant, or the casual bar hoppers looking for something new.
Mar Mikhael has been compared to Hamra’s bar street in that it also gives a genuine, noncommercial feel and attracts the same people who used to frequent Hamra but who migrated to Mar Mikhael for various reasons. “Mar Mikhael is similar to Hamra Street in its authenticity and the foreign community currently prefers to spend their time here because of the perceived security risks in Hamra,” says Charles Frem, co-partner in Hamra’s Garcia’s and the newly opened Central Station in Mar Mikhael, which caters to a slightly older crowd, adding that Hamra is a very cosmopolitan street that will “never die.”
Among other reasons cited by those interviewed by Executive for Mar Mikhael’s success in the hospitality sector include its relative proximity to the Metn, Downtown and Ras Beirut areas, and its wide road — traffic is both up and down in Mar Mikhael — with many exits causing fewer traffic problems and fewer noise-related issues than those encountered in Gemmayze or Hamra.
However, this growth is not without consequences. Rental fees for ground floor commercial venues, when found, have up to tripled — from $200 per sqm in 2011 to $600 or $700 today, according to Sarkis. “Mar Mikhael is an emerging market and there is a very high demand on it. When the demand is high, and the supply is low, you get increased prices,” says Frem, admitting they were lucky in finding their large venue when they did — they signed the rental lease in May 2013.
“There are only two venues I know of available on the main street. The others are either in alleys or a bit far from the heart of the action and so it would take a brave person with a solid background to venture into those. It’s not easy anymore,” says Sarkis.
The developments have also impacted long-term residents of the area, who at one point could park right underneath their homes, but now have to battle with valet parking staff over parking spots. “I try to use my car as rarely as possible because once I move it from its spot, it could take me up to forty minutes to find another upon my return — and don’t get me started on the noise from the drunks!” says one disgruntled Mar Mikhael resident.
Others feel the area is losing the very atmosphere that made it attractive in the first place. “The area has unfortunately lost its charm and is becoming a gentrified area with old houses being replaced by large rising towers and complexes, and worst of all, the invasion of valet parking. The neighborhood identity is shifting,” says Naufal.
Some residents, especially those whose businesses benefitted from the recent activity in their neighborhood, take a kinder view. “Yes there is more noise, but so what?! It’s better this way as it used to feel like a cemetery around here a few years back,” says the shopkeeper in Abu Tony’s supermarket, which was finally able to afford a much needed facelift.
Other businesses that have profited from the new Mar Mikhael include a laundromat that now handles the laundry of five venues in the area and a printing press which prints business cards for seven.
Beneficial to the residents or not, Mar Mikhael continues to attract hospitality minded investors. Facing Central Station is a 200 year old open roofed house with a 400 sqm surrounding garden, which Frem explains they rented from the Tienne family in order to develop it into their summer venue.
Further along, after the Manara gas station facing the Mar Mikhael train yard, Mario Haddad’s group is completing a cluster restaurant concept, and a hotel project is also being contracted in the same area.
Still to be seen is whether Mar Mikhael will fall victim to the fickleness of Lebanese taste like Monot, Gemmayze and Hamra. Each of those areas faced certain circumstances that led to its decline, but what could be Mar Mikhael’s achilles heel?
Frem sees that in order for Mar Mikhael to survive, newcomers should avoid the “copy, paste” approach and create unique concepts that complement the area. “The most important points for the success of a venue are good management, a smart concept and a good product,” says Frem.