Four years from now, Beirut will have a new community adjacent to Saifi Village. District//S, a 50,000 square meter residential and retail development, will occupy a 13,200 square meter site and promises 22 five-story luxury buildings, with cafes and shops facing onto Italian-style courtyards. Executive sat down with Namir Cortas, chief executive officer of Saifi Modern sal, the Lebanese company that owns District//S, to find out more, while Anthony el-Khoury, CEO and co-founder of the property development firm Estates sal, joined the conversation to offer a sneak peak behind the curtains of District//S.
E Why did you decide to devote the plot to low-rise buildings instead of building high-rise towers like so many other developers have done in the Beirut Central District (BCD)?
NC: This project is in the BCD so already it has to fit with the general master plan. It was an obvious extension of Saifi village and therefore we, and the master planner, decided that the best use for this land would be a more contemporary interpretation of the same original urban directive. Also, the land allows for a district, as it eventually came to be called, because of its size and location.
This site links Saifi Village, Gemmayze and Martyr’s Square and is the gateway to the shopping and central area. The solution that we came up with is nothing revolutionary but essentially creates a city-like atmosphere through functional aspects as opposed to just building a high-rise or a tower. This is why we call it a city within a city. A city is about how people live, which is why we use this slogan: “architecture is inhabited culture.”
E How did you finance the project?
NC: Like other developers, we use investors, financial backing from several banks and presales to finance it. We’ll tell you [the proportion] when it’s over!
E the architect, Graham Morrison of London-based Allies & Morrison Architects, likened the feel of the project to “simple Italian palazzos” whereby the mixture of courtyards and alleys with residences leads to “inside/outside living.”
Is this how you see it?
NC: A modern architectural language has been used to provide project specific solutions. The intent is to preserve traditional features like raised balconies, loggias, raised gardens, terraces [and] meandering alleys. These are all local features but they have not been repeated here in what I call a generic matter. They have been applied in ways that have been adapted to the project itself so that it would have sufficient harmony and patterns, but within such patterns, be varied enough.
It’s a form of contemporary Mediterranean architecture — I wouldn’t call it Western or European [architecture], it is beyond that. This is now a global world and it’s more interactive.
E How is District//S laid out?
NC: Practically every building has a raised garden on the first floor. And some buildings have a garden on top, as well as on different levels. The ground floor is all retail: above the retail spaces starts the residential areas. There are no offices in this project. There is a cultural center and a gallery to show off artisan’s work and hold exhibitions.
E Around 30 percent of the project has been sold – are most buyers Lebanese?
NC: All of our initial customers were Lebanese. There has been, more recently, some interest from others. We sold to one European and one Gulf person recently. I think [the Lebanese] will remain the main buyers and users because they are more likely to understand it better.
The Lebanese expatriates who bought [in District//S] are the kind that are constantly here, even if their work is outside. The idea that [local] Lebanese can’t afford an apartment is untrue, even though there is a disparity. Indeed, some Lebanese have become rich because they own property.
AK: You have people who bought [apartments] who didn’t know what the [final] project will look like. They bought solely based on the story we told them.
E What was the role of G, the sustainability consulting NGO, in the project?
NC: Hopefully we will have a green neighborhood. We do that through G by adhering to certain guidelines, which we will use to obtain a [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification.
E Tell us how you went about planning the penthouses. What are some of their amenities?
NC: The guideline for the area [dictates] the height of the penthouses or “sky villas.” We chose to have [higher buildings] only in certain locations, generally around the corners, to use them sparingly and to lower the density of the project, and give them the additional amenity of an adjoining terrace on the roof of the adjacent building. Each one has a pool, and they enjoy an open terrace area. We have sold one penthouse recently. But we notice there is higher demand on smaller units.
E Is this trend for smaller apartments here to stay?
NC: This is a general feature we will see more of, partly due to demographics: there are younger people buying. Prices have gone up not just for property, but for construction and power and fuel. So the running costs of the larger apartments have become… a consideration in people’s decisions.
E What kind of retail tenants are you targeting?
NC: Interest has been coming from various parts [of the retail sector]. This will be an attractive, arty area. A little like Saifi Village, but more animated. We expect to have more cafes, more walking space, galleries, gift shops and boutiques. It’s helped by the fact that all the internal alleys and courtyards are pedestrian. Car access will only be to the underground [parking] or the external pavements.
E Once the units are occupied, how do you plan to control traffic in the vicinity?
NC: We have one double-ramp [whereby two lanes can exit and two lanes enter] and one single ramp. Obviously we have done all the traffic impact research. We have been generous in providing parking spaces and provided more than what is required to address the needs, [something that has] not been sufficiently addressed by other developments.
E In terms of design, how flexible are the interiors for end-users?
NC: We worked on the design of the project with input from our marketing and sales people and direct input from actual or potential clients. As such, aided by the shape and size, we designed the flats from the inside and then added the facade. This makes it easier to have modular solutions and I believe it has helped us come up with more adequate layouts for the interior. For instance, people can buy two apartments on the same floor and merge them.
E Tell us about the process that the architects went through, since it was their first time working in Lebanon?
AK: The architects came and visited Beirut, we invited them on several occasions. They visited all of Beirut and the old Ottoman sites, even visiting cafes to understand the lifestyle… how people interact. We want to preserve the ideas of the old style and modernize and create continuity for our heritage. They redesigned several models, in fact they adjusted it four times, to make sure even the sunlight and wind circulates well. They were very precise about the angles of the street corners, the views from each unit, and making sure the horizontal and vertical lanes that run throughout the plot are unobstructed so there are no blocked views from alleyways.
E the architect also mentioned that none of the buildings are parallel, creating informal alleyways between them…
AK: We want to keep people interested by having different widths of pedestrian walkways. At the plot entrance they are 4 to 5 meters wide and then open up to 8 meters wide creating “meandering alleys,” and thus none of the buildings are exactly parallel.
NC: When you live in such proximity, vibrancy has to happen.