Passing through the bustling Gouraud or Pasteur Street in the Gemmayze neighborhood of East Beirut, one cannot help but notice the hive of activity in what was formerly one of the area’s biggest car parks. The site is walled off from the public but, peeking through the gate as a dump truck leaves full of dirt, the curious onlooker can see bulldozers and construction workers in early stages of excavation of what is slated to be one of the largest residential developments in the area.
Dubbed “Gemmayze Village,” work on the 7,000 square meter gated residential community was started last October by Conseil et Gestion Immobiliere (CGI), the real estate arm of Audi Saradar Group. Scheduled for completion by 2014 or 2015, the 37-floor tower will be surrounded by gardens and five housing blocks ranging from three to 10 floors each.
Real estate developments in Beirut proclaiming to set a new standard in luxurious living have become commonplace cliché in recent years, but two aspects of the Gemmayze Village make for less-than-ideal development. First is the discovery of archeological ruins at the site, which the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) is studying to determine their significance and how they can best be preserved.
Second — an issue that has increasingly loomed over Gemmayze in recent years — is the fact that the construction of another towering edifice will further erode the historical nature of the neighborhood, which contains clusters of traditional, low-rise buildings.
As architect and heritage activist Habib Debs asked: “Aren’t there other neighborhoods in Beirut where they can build towers?”
He and fellow campaigners have fought against the construction of new high-rises in old neighborhoods for a number of years, but it has been a losing battle in the absence of adequate laws to control such developments. CGI declined Executive’s request to comment on the issue.
Archeology on site
According to Assaad Seif, coordinator of archeological research and excavations at the DGA, both archeological and construction excavation are happening simultaneously in different areas of the Gemmayze Village site, with the former working where artifacts have been found and the latter where they have not. The ruins unearthed so far date to the Roman period and include irrigation channels and water basins. Seif explained that the findings are being cleaned and assessed, and a report is being prepared to find an adequate method to preserve them. The directorate also found two tombs at the site’s entrance on Pasteur Street, which will be excavated later.
Officially, there are several approaches the DGA could take to preserve the ruins. If the remains are significant and need to be kept on site, the state could expropriate the land. If not, the artifacts could be integrated within the development, dismantled and reinstated within the site, or removed to be studied in archeological labs and scientifically recorded. The minister of culture has the final decision, which mainly depends on the department’s assessment and recommendations.
“Nothing is thrown away into the sea or done in a subjective manner,” said Seif.
As Executive went to print, the DGA had not officially announced its intentions.
Seif explained that on any land plot in the Gemmayze vicinity there is a high probability of archeological finds, given that the area has been inhabited for thousands of years. He advises prospective investors to consult with the DGA before purchasing land to limit the risk of lost investment opportunities in the case of land being expropriated.
Helen Sader, professor of archeology at the American University of Beirut, is worried about how archeological findings are being treated, mainly because rescue excavations – those carried in areas where construction of development or infrastructure projects are taking place – are largely being carried out by students and unqualified staff, while findings are not consistently reported. Consequently, the public has not been kept well informed of what the directorate is uncovering.
“We never really hear of what is going on; when we do know, it is from the newspapers,” she said, adding that she is unsure whether the DGA is taking the appropriate course of action.
Once or twice per year the DGA issues a scientific journal called Baal, which includes scientific reviews and details of excavations that have taken place around Lebanon.
The information contained in the publication, however, can be more than a year old, as findings are only published when the studies are complete. The DGA’s Seif said that the Ministry of Culture was working to upgrade its website to include more up-to-date information.
Seif denied that workers at the excavation sites were unqualified, but conceded that there was a lack of archeologists in Lebanon and therefore the number of people working at the directorate is insufficient.
“We have 90 percent of all those who are graduating from Lebanese universities” working in the archeology excavations teams, said Seif. Currently those teams comprise some 45 people, or about one third of department requirements, he added.
The lack of staff members, particularly of people specializing in urban archeology, means archeological losses are occurring, said Seif.
“We prefer not to have losses but we are obliged to accept them,” he said. “We are working according to our potential.”
Impacting the past and present
Along with the Gemmayze Village’s impact on ancient ruins from bygone civilizations are the present-day implications of a 135-meter monolithic stone-clad tower dwarfing the quaint, low-rise ottoman and colonial-era structures which characterize one of Beirut’s few remaining heritage areas.
That developers want to build high-rise towers in Gemmayze is not new, however, and neither is residents’ and activists’ struggle to stop them by trying to deny them building permits.
Back in August 2005, the director general of urbanism (DGU) announced that it was putting Gemmayze under study due to the high demand for tower construction in the area, explained Joseph Abdel Ahad, head of the DGU at the time. The directorate has never actually had the funds to hire a private company to carry out a detailed survey, however, and to this day the study has yet to be implemented. A year after placing Gemmayze under study, Abdel Ahad said the DGU issued a circular laying out strict building specifications, which, if applied, would limit building heights.
“These conditions were preliminary until a study was done, but it never happened, and we are still applying the circular,” he said.
The circular includes many specifications, mainly forbidding merging several plots into one – which could lead to an increase in built square meters allowed and the rise of more towers. It also sets the building height limit at two times the width of the street and prohibits the practice of retreating from the street, which would allow developers to build taller buildings.
Despite the circular, however, tower permits are still being issued.
What went wrong?
As with many sectors in Lebanon, conflicts of interest abound in the real estate industry, with the lines blurred between developers and those meant to regulate development.
Take Ziad Akl for instance, who is both a member of the higher council of town planning at the DGU and the architect behind the Sursock Residence tower – the cause of much controversy in 2006 when the permit was issued due to its location between the historical Sursock Museum and Villa Linda Sursock.
Akl argues that due to Beirut’s high exploitation factor – the maximum percentage footprint of a plot of land that a building can occupy – owners of large land parcels have to build high-rise buildings in order to take full advantage of their investment. He explained that the Gemmayze Village sits on one of the largest plots in the neighborhood.
“Those who have large land parcels and the right to build on them, they have to build high-rises, or else where are they going to put their square meters?” he said, adding that none of the towers currently in Gemmayze breached the DGU circular in any way. Akl said he would like to see the historical cluster of buildings preserved as well, but authorities should first find a way compensate land owners for the loss on investment.
Debs, the architect and heritage activist, disagrees, saying that full utilization of the exploitation factor is not a given right, and authorities should be able to lower it if needed.
“Authorities have the right to lower the exploitation factor to protect an area,” he said. “The public interest should come before the private one.”
Still, every development in the neighborhood is studied case-by-case and altered according to DGU’s request. As Akl points out, the original design of the Gemmayze Village included just two high-rise towers; the directorate asked the developer to change this to one tower and several low-rise building blocks to better blend with Gemmayze’s aesthetic.
Does history have a future?
Whether towers should be built in Gemmayze or not, or whatever the steps the authorities should take in order to preserve historical clusters of buildings, what is almost certain is that building permits once given will not be taken away, and what is demolished will not be rebuilt in kind.
It also remains to be seen whether the Lebanese authorities will manage to begin the urban study of the Gemmayze area before new development obscures the historical character of the neighborhood forever.