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Former Green Line becomes real estate hotspot

Pockmarked builidings are making way for sleek pubs, clubs and apartments as developers turn reminders of a bitter past into monuments to a brighter future

by Peter Speetjens

Until recently, the Damascus Road was one of the last reminders of the Lebanese Civil War and its buildings, pockmarked by bullet holes, a favorite subject for camera crazy tourists. But those days are gone now. Today, tens of millions of dollars are being invested in the area, turning the former Green Line into one of Beirut’s real estate hot spots. A string of nightclubs and restaurants have opened their doors, while a number of eye catching residential projects are under construction, pushing the price of land and apartments up by 20%.

As was the case in formerly neglected areas Monot and Gemaizeh, frontrunners in refurbishing and revitalizing the Damascus Road have been club and restaurant owners. The 250 seat Italian restaurant Piazza was (along with Japanese eatery Yabani) among the first to open its doors. Thanks to its combination of location and medium priced quality food, the eatery has also been one of the area’s true success stories. The $2 million restaurant is managed by Premier Leisure, a holding company part of the Boubess Group, which runs several other restaurants and clubs, such as Piazza Downtown, Scoozi, Le Relais de l’Entrecôte and Mandarine.

“We opened Piazza in 1999, when there were hardly any restaurants yet on the Damascus Road,” said Premier Leisure’s operations manager Toufic Akl. “In our opinion, it was a prime location, as it is close to downtown. What’s more, Ashrafieh has always been the area for bars and restaurants. So, we foresaw the future and I think we’ve been proven right.”

It was, however, the opening of the popular club-restaurant Element in February 2003, that really started the current wave of clubs and restaurants opening up in the area. First located just off Monot at St. Joseph Street, Element had been one of the most successful outlets in the trendy area until a legal dispute with their Jesuit neighbors forced them to close down. “I decided to move to Damascus Road,” said Element’s main owner Sami Farhat, “because there was a plot of land available and I would not have any neighbors.” He downplayed the importance of the location’s proximity to both downtown and Monot. “If you have a good formula,” he said, “it will work anywhere. In the end, Beirut is such a small city. At night, it takes you twenty minutes to get from one end to the other.”

Facing Bernard Khoury’s tower design for Yabani, the newly built Element cost an estimated $1 million. That excludes the rent of land, which is some $110,000 or $160 m/2 a year.

Party time

A dozen clubs and restaurants have now opened up shop in the Sodeco area, including District, which is right next door to the Element, and 50 meters up the road sits L Bar, the owners of which are currently building a large new restaurant next to Piazza. On the crossing of Damascus Road and Sodeco Square sits Casino, which is building an extension to the club, while a group of young investors turned the ruined red villa on the main road towards the French Cultural Center from a war relic into a nightclub, La Villa, for an estimated $600,000.

This sudden wave of investment is even more remarkable, considering that not everything has turned gold on the former Green Line. One of the most striking failures was Lebanese restaurant L’Os, which learnt the hard way that its mountain reputation for good food was not quite enough to make things work in the heart of Beirut. Another failure was the opening of a second branch of Broumana’s popular English pub The Fox, which closed only months after it opened.

“I don’t think Damascus Road will become a future Monot,” Premier Leisure’s Toufic Akl said. “Pubs and café’s don’t work on the main road. They need a pedestrian flow, which is impossible to generate on this street.” Farhat couldn’t agree more. “Monot is more for a younger crowd who like to go bar hopping,” he said. “What we see opening up at Damascus Road are much larger, upscale places with valet parking. I have customers who come in at 8.30pm and stay till four in the morning.”

It seems that Monot is more likely to feel the heat from the burgeoning number of small cafés and bistros opening in Gemaizeh rather than from the establishments opening up on Damascus Road. Between the larger pubs and restaurants in the Sodeco area and the smaller scale operations in Gemaizeh, part of Monot will certainly have to give. Three places are already up for sale in Monot’s main street.

Retail and residential

It’s not just the food and beverage industry that has discovered Beirut’s former demarcation line and its direct surroundings. Many of the bombed out apartment blocks have been refurbished and wait for inhabitants, while in between Element and L Bar, the foundations are being laid for the Michelangelo Center, an office and retail complex (??). Just off Damascus Road, facing the St. Saveur Church, construction has started on Hugo 43, a $9 million, 20-store residential tower for luxurious apartments of 300m2 and 400 m2. The sales price per m/2 varies from $1,300 on the first to $2,600 on the last floor.

Another notorious war remnant, the yellow building adjacent to Sodeco Square, was until a few months a Lebanese army checkpoint, complete with tanks, an image which only enhanced the memory of war. Today, it has been knocked down to make way for the landmark Dakota Building. Designed by Australian architect Nicholas Turner, the Dakota Building is an 11-storey residential tower with retail space and offices on the ground and first floor respectively. Turner’s striking design is characterized by two open box-shaped penthouses on top.

“The idea behind the building,” the architect said, “is to make a positive contribution to Sodeco’s rapidly changing urban tissue and to serve as the new gateway to Ashrafieh.” According to Turner, the building’s owners, residing in Australia, prefer to remain unknown and do not want to go into details concerning the value of investment. Apartments will be sold for an estimated $1,700 to $2,500 m/2.

Fifty meters further into Ashrafieh, another tower called Le Bellevue d’Ashrafieh has nearly been completed. The some $12 million, 18-storey building offers retail space on the ground floor, offices on the first, and 17 floors of luxurious apartments. All apartments have been sold, except on the fourth and seventh floors. While the price was some $1,200 two years ago when construction began, today prices amount to $1,540 m/2 and $1,700 m/2 for the fourth and seventh floors, respectively.

Prices The Conseil Gestion Immobilier (CGI) is Saradar Bank’s department specialized in real estate consultancy and investment, which among other projects has been responsible for the development of Le Bellevue d’Ashrafieh and Hugo 43. According to CGI’s Aboudi Farkouh, the prices per m/2 of both land and luxury apartments in and around Sodeco Square have risen by up to 20% since 2001.

“Depending on location and project, the price of land generally varies between $2,000 and $2,500, and in some cases has risen to no less than $3,000 m/2. Note that prices on the opposite side of Damascus Road are significantly lower at an estimated $1,500 to $2,000 m/2. The price per m/2 for newly built apartments varies between some $1,500 and $2,500 m/2,” said Farkouh. “Prices have risen due to the increase of the euro, which makes imports more expensive, the increase in price of raw materials such as steel and gravel, and last but not least the rise in demand for Lebanese real estate, which stems mainly from Arab investors.”

It is, however, still possible to find slightly older and less luxurious apartments for some $1,000 m/2, like for example, at the highly successful multi-use Sodeco Towers. Arguably the first major post-war development of the former Green Line area, both offices and apartments at the tower have performed remarkably well since its inauguration at the end of 1996. Prices stand today at some $150 m/2 to rent office space and some $1,500 a month for a 190m2 apartment. The price to buy an apartment is $1,000 m/2 on the first floor, which increases by some $50 m/2 per floor. In other words, a top floor apartment will cost some $1,800 m/2.

The Barakat building

Finally, any analysis of real estate developments on the Damascus Road and Sodeco area would be incomplete without a final word on the Barakat Building. Facing Sodeco Square, this yellow villa with its double-pillared façade is both an architectural masterpiece and the most ghostly reminder of the civil war, during which it served as one of the city’s most notorious snipers nests.

Built in 1924, it was designed by architect Yousef Bay Aftinos, who also signed for the municipality building in downtown Beirut. The Barakat family, who owns the building, had preferred to just tear it down and sell the land. In 1996, architect Mona Hallak, however, started lobbying for the protection and preservation of the monumental building, which in 2002 resulted in the government agreeing to acquire the property. Ever since, however, any restoration has been at a standstill. Plans to turn the Barakat Building into a war museum have been stalled, partly due to lack of funds.

Though many people in the neighborhood want to see the Barakat building knocked down, especially the owners of the Sodeco Towers, its unique design and memory certainly warrant proper preservation. In fact, notwithstanding all the developments carried out on the Damacus Road and in Sodeco thus far, a solution for the Barakat building, be it preservation or destruction, is essential for a successful overall upgrade of the area.

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Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.

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