Lost in translation: the Elyssar plans

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The large majority of building stock in any modern society needs to consist of affordable, social, smart residential units, which means a massive presence of low cost apartments. This is an inescapable attribute of the highly populous and predominantly urban human existence that defines our world. Lebanon, with its very high degree of urbanization and population agglomeration, underprivileged masses and overall young citizenry, is at least as dependent as any developing country on improving and increasing its metropolitan living quality through provision of inexpensive but humane housing.

At the peak time of drafting great post-war reconstruction programs, this urgent necessity was recognized in one single key project for creation of urban living spaces – Elyssar. Under the patronage of the mythically enlarged figure of the Phoenician princess and founder of Carthage, Elyssar was initiated as a development project for the capital’s southwestern realm with a preliminary master plan in June 1995. In the area between Beirut International Airport and the new Sports City – both at the time two of the largest construction sites in a construction-happy city – Elyssar was to create a mixed environment with commercial and recreational qualities and at the very minimum, 2,500 units of quality housing for low and middle income families. Nine years later to the month, and well over half into the project’s “global estimated time frame of 14 years” for accomplishing this development, Elyssar in reality remains the forgotten twin-sister of Solidere that was lost in the slums. Not a single low-cost apartment, workshop and shop appropriate to the economic situation and needs of the poor has been built. The BHV-Monoprix shopping complex on the airport highway across from Sports City is the only element of the concept that stands accomplished. Today, outside of some references in highly academic but incompletely researched papers from international conferences on urban development, Elyssar doesn’t even exist. Or does it? Amazingly, the administrative offices of Elyssar are operating in 2004 and according to PR-responsible Fadi Moucharraf, do so with a staff of “around 40.” The entity has prepared a large amount of engineering studies and plans, said Moucharraf, but central management has put a moratorium blocking all media inquiries and interview requests due to the absence of new activities.

This leaves it anybody’s guess as to what the real status and future of the Elyssar project might be – a viable question of public concern not only because of the project’s theoretical importance but also because of its obligation to meet public scrutiny. Created explicitly for improving both the social and physical fabrics of Beirut’s suburban areas that had borne long-term damage from Lebanon’s internal conflict in form of illegal settlements and unacceptable living conditions, Elyssar is, by the decree that defined its legal status in 1996, “a public agency with administrative and financial autonomy.” As such, it ought to be directly accountable to the sovereign public and its political organs and representatives. Some reasons for the utter failure in implementing the Elyssar project to date are common knowledge. The realm under the agency’s responsibility has in critical aspects not been accessible to normal state authority. Sect-related influence spheres in the area and active resistance by people living in the concrete slums over years made it prohibitive for government representatives to instigate measures, such as the tearing down of illegal buildings that stood in the way of road and infrastructure construction. On occasion, government officials setting foot in the area, namely entering the Ouzai quarter, were confronted physically by outraged crowds. The financing formula for building the affordable housing units, which were to be offered to the displaced and underprivileged people living in the slums north of the airport, hinged on the plan to find commercial investors willing to pay large amounts for developing the neglected and run-down Elyssar seafront into chic resorts. But as Beirut reconstruction and commercial development activities began to slacken in 1997 and 1998, this concept fell victim to the less-favorable-than-expected circumstances. The worsening crisis stemming from the government’s overestimation of economic growth coupled with exploding reconstruction costs and rising public debt subsequently eliminated any rational possibility that sufficient government “allowances” would be available to increase the Elyssar project’s viability.

In addition to these immediate political and financial problems, the concept drew suspicions from an increasingly skeptical populace and became the target of opinion makers alleging that underneath the veneer of social development and promotion of economic opportunities for the masses, “dirty hands” were manipulating the project for corrupt self-enrichment. These allegations may not have been presented with full and verifiable evidence but they left large population groups with an image of Elyssar as a scam run by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Until today, and in the minds of some students at top Lebanese universities, Elyssar is nothing but another exploitation scheme by which the ruling clique wanted to amass more money, power and control over some of the most valuable real estate in metropolitan Beirut. All above factors played a role in turning a proposed grand Lebanese solution for an important socioeconomic challenge into a Lebanese problem exemplifying the national struggle with administrative inefficiency, distrust of politicians, internal disunity, and massive suspicions of corruption and squander of the people’s monies. Elyssar wanted “to set new precedents of the government will and dedication to promote balanced growth and to provide social equity to all Lebanese citizens,” stipulated the officious document that can be read on the agency’s website. “The success of Elyssar is also crucial for the future of Beirut. Its redevelopment should provide back to Capital [sic] its distinguished character along the waterfront while setting higher standards for quality of living,” it said.

In light of the unabated housing crisis in Beirut’s poorest suburbs and the danger of increasing social tensions among impoverished segments of society, such words constitute bitter and involuntary irony on part of a public agency that will not or cannot explain what options remain for rescuing its forgotten project, which it is managing PRO-FORMA at a cost to the public that must have accumulated to millions of dollars over many wasted years. As things stand today, it seems increasingly difficult to envision a new future for Elyssar under its original mission. Some real estate experts now expect the project to be reborn as an upscale commercial development venture, because they see the land between Beirut Airport and the city as prime real estate with potential per square meter values comparable to downtown. While the assuredly well-paid, seven-member board and general management of Elyssar and their superseding political decision makers are not available for comment, it is not possible to do anything but speculate about such possible fundamental changes in Elyssar’s orientation. The uncertainty is made worse by the fact that neither public nor commercial alternatives to the scheme are in sight, which would have the much needed capacity to serve as a model for low and middle income urban housing creation. Opinions among developers today differ whether such a project could be feasible. Some reasoned that all such projects require public subsidies and no investor would be able to venture into a socially responsible residential development of the required proportions, while others claimed that too much government involvement is the main obstacle to making social housing projects work.

There is also a growing argument for fundamental questions on orchestrated housing projects. Town planning specialists continue to discover from evidence in developed and developing societies that mega-projects in social housing run up an incessant bill of negative social and economic results, from growing crime rates to failure in motivating both job creation and job acceptance. The challenge resulting from the human limitation to centrally plan urban life and implement compatible schemes for mass-living places all deliberations on this important issue in a bind to come up with what modern marketing-speak likes to call “innovative solutions.” The progress of commercial developments of large real estate projects in Lebanon is slowly extending from top-end wealth communities down the income ladder. It may one day reach the point where social projects become satisfactory under both profit and humanitarian considerations. But the urgency in alleviating the plight of Lebanon’s slum inhabitants in the meantime gives a multitude of reasons to ask about the vision and weakness of Elyssar. On paper, the Elyssar mandate is concise and unchanged. The area under this public agency’s care is outlined in its official FINAL MASTER PLAN from May 9, 1997 as being bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Beirut International Airport road to the east and stretching from Adnan Hakim Street (where BHV is located) in the north to the airport’s boundary. This rectangular area comprises 560 hectares of urban and waterfront properties, including three kilometers of sandy beaches.

The mandate stipulates that three sources of funding are to be used for developing the area: · Allowances from the fiscal budget

· Profits from real estate developments

· Loans or investments from public or private sources

The core development objectives of the mandate are, in order of presentation on the agency’s website:

· Creation of a vision

· Building affordable housing units

· Upgrading of infrastructure

· Creation of development opportunities

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.