|E: The Souks Project is a quite misleading name. What is exactly meant by the term?|
Contrary to what many people think, the Souks Project does not refer to the SOUKS in the traditional sense of the word. It is a high street retail area that is going to blend into the Beirut Central District and complete the retail scene. It is like the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle that had been missing so far.
E: When exactly did Solidere obtain the permits? And when will construction start?
The Souks project consists of a northern and southern part. We obtained permits for the southern part, which is the retail area. Works will start in January. As all underground facilities, including the parking, have already been completed, we only need to build the superstructure. Delivery time is some 16 to 18 months, so we expect the project to be completed in the summer of 2006.
E: How come you did not obtain permits for the project’s northern part?
The northern part consists of a cinema and department store. The design for the cinema stems from 1996 and just needs updating. The trend has changed. Today, a cinema needs to be done like an arena with at least 1.10 meters of leg space, so people can pass without stepping on each other. That’s why the initial plans had to be revised. The updated design for the department store has been handed in and we’re waiting for the final permits.
E: What can we expect in the retail area?
It will be a self-sustained and complete retail area with underground parking facilities for some 2,500 cars. The complex will be covered, but not like a traditional SOUQ. It will be a pedestrian area with some 250 shops both inside the complex, as well as outside along the streets. The whole structure has a very beautiful architecture and will offer a clean and secure environment for the whole family, both day and night. As the area is constantly guarded, shops do not need any shutters, so people can even visit at night to go window shopping.
E: What will be the main retail features?
The area will have four anchors. First of all, there will be the jewelers’ corner, where most Lebanese and international jewelers have taken an option on both retail and office space. There will be no specialized streets in the area, but for security reasons, all jewelers will be based in one area. Jewelers at the SOUQ are a major magnet. Shoppers from the region who have a personal relationship with jewelers will come to shop and then use the rest of the SOUKS. The second anchor will be a gourmet supermarket, which will be based in what used to be the old French SOUQ. Thirdly, there is the cinema complex and fourthly a department store.
E: Is there demand for such a large development in the downtown area? What would be your immediate catchment area?
First of all, in residential terms, there is the Saifi Village, which has been a highly successful project with some 240 apartments sold. Then there are the seafront apartments, many of which have already been bought by high-end individuals. Zeitouni Street will become a residential area, geared up for both medium and upper income individuals. The same is true for the Wadi Abu Jamil area, while Zoukak al Blatt is already fully occupied. Secondly, there are some 3,500 hotel rooms on the western end of the project, which will be increased to some 5,000 in the near future. Visitors can walk from their hotel into town to go for a meal or to go shopping. Then, there is the business and public sectors. All government institutions are based in downtown. If you need to be at the finance ministry, at the prime minister’s office or at customs, you have to come to downtown. Most foreign embassies are located in downtown. Most Lebanese and foreign banks have their head office in downtown. The same is true for insurance companies. And there are all the Lebanese and foreign companies which have their offices here.
E: But in terms of office space, the BCD has so far not experienced the success as expected?
That’s a misconception. There is a lot of demand. Starco is full. Azariah is almost full. Atrium is full. In fact, 95% of all smart office space is occupied. This is why [Joseph] Mouawad is building a second Atrium. And, contrary to what people think, some 85% of all old buildings has been booked. The thing is that a lot of clients own office space, but haven’t moved in yet. At the moment, I have only five or six offices for rent. That’s it. And so, the situation for offices is similar to the residential one, where 95% is occupied and 5% is natural recycling.
E: Are you not afraid of competition with malls such as ABC in Ashrafieh and the new Admic mall in Dora?
Only time can tell what will happen, but I think the Lebanese retail market is becoming more mature. I think each has its market and critical mass.
E: In 2001, Admic was considering taking the department store plot and opening an outlet of the Les Galeries Lafayette? Are they still interested?
We’re currently talking to a number of international players. I can’t say more than that.
E: Can you tell us about the pricing strategy.
That is also too early to tell, as we only got the permits a month ago. As soon as the tenant strategy has been determined, we can decide on prices.
E: A lot of people in the country have been wondering why it took so long to obtain permits. Maybe you can give us the definitive answer. Was it a political issue?
I’m not the one to ask this question. All I can say is that this is an extremely complicated project, with both private and public spaces. What’s more, we’re not just talking about constructing a building here. We’re regenerating streets and recreating the heart of the city, which not only promotes Beirut but the whole country, and which has to compete on a regional level. That’s why it received a lot of political attention from all sides.
E: Did you lose business because of the delay?
The SOUKS were always supposed to be the driving force, the engine, of the refurbishing of downtown. Today, Solidere has succeeded without. Already we have some 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a day, and these are people not living within the project. Especially when downtown Beirut will be residentially mature, the SOUKS will only complement what already exists and only push Beirut further into being a regional magnet.
E: Will Beirut be able to compete with for example Dubai?
It is not about competition. Dubai has its market and we have we ours. However, apart from things like climate, geography and history, Beirut as a retail and entertainment center offers one big difference with Dubai. I was in Dubai recently and ended up eating in the hotel restaurant for three days in a row. Not only was I tired from work, but it would take about 20 minutes to go to the restaurant of my choice. In Beirut you leave the hotel, go for a walk, and you have an overwhelming choice.