Beirut Mayor Jamal Itani offers two words when asked about his vision for city spending: “investment projects.” During a brief interview in late July, Itani explained a variety of the city council’s plans, from making Beirut more pedestrian-friendly to balancing private and public interests along the city’s contentious coast.
E What is the city’s financial situation?
When we took over [on June 1, 2016], we got a statement from the central bank [Banque du Liban] saying that, in the account, there’s in the range of $495 million.
E Most will be spent on…?
Investment projects, [for example the council recently decided to redevelop a plot of land in Medawr] plot 385 is a big plot owned by the municipality. Part of the land is occupied by the municipality, part leased to different entities, and the purpose is to redevelop this piece of property. It’s approximately 80,000 square meters of property that is [in a] very important location at the entrance to Beirut; we believe that this property needs to be developed and can have a great return for the municipality. Financial return.
E Will it be developed as a residential or mixed use project?
E What is the size of the city’s land bank?
[Exhales and smiles] We have good land. Some of it is misused. Some of it is used by other entities. We’re trying to get it all back and use it and invest in it.
E Speaking of land, the council decided to cancel the purchase of privately-owned plots along Ramlet al Baida, that the past council was rumored to be set to buy for $130 million. Why?
We believed that the price that was agreed on was unfair to the municipality. This is why we cancelled it. It should be much lower. And before we move on, we have the coastal line of Ramlet al Baida [where we have] identified sites that we want to protect and prevent any construction on. So, we took two decisions; one decision is to put all those properties, all the area [from the Movenpick Hotel to the Summerland Hotel], under study. And this is a long process.
E It will take two years, correct?
It takes a year just to put a lien on the property. That’s why we took another decision that those properties will be publicly used, so the owners can’t make any application even for a construction, or put [up] any other structure.
E So, it will be strictly public use from now.
Well, they are publicly used now, and this will prevent the owners from starting any development during the course of the study. They won’t even be able to apply for building permits.
E What is the purpose of the study?
Two parts, the legal part and the engineering part. We want to make sure that the coastal line will continue to be for the people and no construction will happen there. That’s the main purpose. In order to do that, we want to identify each property and see how much of the coastal line is part of this property, what can we do to make this coastal line free of any construction.
E The coastal line is defined in the law as the furthest point onshore that the waves reach in winter. On the sea-facing side of the coastal line, no ownership of land or construction is permitted. Some of the privately-owned Ramlet al-Baida plots are completely within the coastal line, while others are large and the coastal line might cut through the plots, correct?
E Cutting the sand in two. What does this mean for the beach resort, once branded Eden Rock ,near the southern limits of the city?
This is a special case. The President of the Republic has requested an investigation into the project, it’s in the hands of the Shura Council. We have to wait until their decision.
E Why not include Dalieh? Your predecessor told Executive that he was in contact with the owners and would “soon” announce a development project in that area.
We’re not in talks with the owners. We’re going to take a decision after we make sure we identify all of the properties … The whole coastline of Beirut will be under study. That’s the next step.
E The city has been doing a lot of tendering in the past year since the new council took power (and now officially has a working website that contains information on council decisions and open tenders). Recently, the city approved tenders for reflectors in the streets, what’s the plan there?
We want to identify all the pedestrian crossings in Beirut and install proper lighting, street marking, and signage, [including reflectors called cat eyes, which help drivers identify pedestrian crossings at night]. We also want to do signage for pedestrian crossings, and this is part of the tender already issued for street names and directional signs.
E There are new green signs around the city reminding people to clean up after their dogs. Does the city have a large enough workforce to enforce things like responsible pet walking and the non-vehicular blockade of pedestrian crossings?
E What’s your enforcement strategy?
We currently have the municipal guards. We’re involving them.
E How many?
We have approximately 600 people. But we have also requested our own police department. The Minister of Interior is studying it to make sure that there’s no conflict between us and the [national] police of Beirut. Once it’s done, we’ll have police patroling around the city and enforcing the laws of the municipality.
E Will you be sticking to former council’s plan for rehabilitating the city’s parks?
Because of the specificity of the characteristics of each area, we’re discussing with each community in each area, the possibilities we have. For some parks, we have the possibility to create parking underneath. Some people disagree with this idea.
E I’ve covered this, and many residents were opposed to the idea. It sounded like lack of trust was the biggest problem; people I spoke to didn’t trust the park would ever come back.
Exactly. Some of them. It’s the same thing with the [waste-to-energy] plant, it’s the same thing with a lot of things. We’re working hard to gain the trust of the people.
E Speaking of waste, does the city still plan to do it’s own waste collection and treatment?
We have some options, but I don’t wish to declare them now. We’re still studying them. We need to do a feasibility study and environmental impact assessments for the locations before we announce the locations.
E But the city is decided on waste-to-energy?
Yes, yes, yes. We have nothing to hide.
E Do you have a timeframe for when studies will be done?
Hopefully before the end of the year.
E That will only be treatment. What’s the plan for collection and street sweeping?
We requested from the Council of Ministers that we manage the tender ourselves, [as opposed to letting the Council for Development and Reconstruction handle tenders, as they did for other former Sukleen service areas]. We had an issue with the tender [launched last June], we retendered, and the opening date will be August 14.
E Can you update us on the status of Beit Beirut, the city’s long-awaited museum in the Sodeco area?
It will open end of August, early September. We have events all year round.
E And you’ve found a curator?
We have several options we’re working on. We’ll assign someone soon.
E They’ll be ready by end of August?
E And the artifacts and everything already in the museum?
There won’t be a set collection.
E Finally, one campaign promise was to appoint an auditor to look at city’s books going back to 2015. I noticed the council recently approved appointing an auditor, when will we see the results?
We took the decision, and everything takes a long time to get done. The process is: we make the decision, it goes to the Governor, the Governor checks it, makes sure the money is available, and then it goes to Ministry of Interior, which has to approve. After the ministry, we sign the contract, then the Court of Audit (Diwan Al Muhasabi) must approve. Once they approve, then we can start to work
E So it will be a bit of time.
Yes, but we insisted we wanted an auditor to do a gap analysis, due diligence, and the closing of accounts.