Road to nowhere

The full story of the controversial Fouad Boutros Road in Ashrafieh

When the plan for Fouad Boutros Road came to the Lebanese public’s attention this spring, activists and public officials clashed, with claims from both sides growing in volume and aggression. The administrative authorities support the Fouad Boutros link, an estimated $75 million project that they say would improve traffic flows through Beirut’s densely populated Ashrafieh district. Opponents of the plan cry foul over the idea, saying the project will not alleviate traffic, but will instead destroy the area’s social fabric, old building stock and hidden patches of serene nature.

Executive took both sides to task, analyzing the likely impact the Boutros road would have if constructed. At the outset, it became clear that there were no real facts to deliberate on, because detailed project plans and impact studies were either hopelessly outdated, kept confidential, incomplete or non-existent.

Without such data, it is not possible to give a reasonable assessment of social impact or cost estimates, as well as the effect on traffic flow, business and air quality. It is worrying is this project was nevertheless put on the people’s doorstep.

A road apart

The project’s leading exponents are the Municipality of Beirut and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR). The municipality owns all streets in the capital and is interested in having more roads to ease Beirut’s growing traffic problem. It denies that the Boutros road would ruin Ashrafieh’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood, saying the only way the project could be described as a failure is if it is not completed to its current specifications.

The CDR, as the governmental steward of the post-1992 master program to recover and expand various infrastructures in Lebanon, wants to do its job, which includes completion of the network of traffic arteries that are mapped out on its various blueprints dating back to a Greater Beirut Transportation Plan devised in the 1990s.

At the forefront of opposition to the Boutros project are two conservationist civil society organizations, the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage (APLH) and Save Beirut Heritage (SBH), and a newly formed group named after the two neighborhoods that will be most directly affected, the Civil Coalition Against the Hikmeh-Turk Link. They have succeeded in creating outrage and protest against what they describe as a highway project that will only make life worse for residents of east Beirut. Vigorously mobilizing media, the detractors have drawn enough attention to their case that MP Nadim Gemayel, one of the deputies representing Ashrafieh, tells Executive, “[Members of Parliament] will not accept [any action] if there is a huge opposition about this and if the residents [of Ashrafieh] are not beneficiaries of it.”

Driven out

Squeezed in the middle of the scenario are those residents, who have been barred from expressing their views in an educated discussion on the Boutros project because they have not been given the fact base for such a discussion.

Even residents along the route are in the dark about their fate. Two families living in the presumed construction path told Executive that they had received no official notices of a pending eviction, and that, if asked to leave, they would expect compensation.

The municipality’s legal reasoning is unambiguous. Along the first 540 meters of the route — between Charles Malek Avenue and Armenia Street — most properties have been expropriated and owners were partially compensated in the 1960s or 1970s. Squatters or renters living today in such properties will not receive any compensation, says Rachid Ashkar, a council member of the Municipality of Beirut and the head of its Committee on Transport and Lighting.

A map of the affected areas in Beirut

 

He tells Executive that owners of expropriated houses have a legal right to stay on on as long as construction of the Boutros project does not commence. The same is not true for renters because it was and still is illegal for owners to lease these properties after expropriation, but Ashkar admits that the municipality looked the other way when owners took on tenants. When the time comes to vacate these premises, however, non-owning residents will get no compensation from the government. “They had deals with the owners. We are not involved,” he says.

There are residents living in expropriated buildings who don’t see things his way. One such family resides in a modest home near the Orthodox (Saint George) Hospital. According to Fuad, the head of the family, which asked to remain anonymous, their tenancy began during the Lebanese Civil War, when they were looking for a place to stay in 1982, one of the darker years of the conflict. They paid about half of the house’s estimated value to the previous occupant ­— who was himself a renter ­— took the keys and moved in.

Not long afterward, they were told that the municipality had expropriated the land years before. “How did they expropriate it? What did they pay the owner? Did the municipality reserve the land? What portion? These are things we don’t know,” says Fuad, sharing the family’s uncertainties with Executive.

In the intervening 30 years, the family says, they have not once been asked to leave and haven’t collected any compensation from the municipality. Fuad’s family is aware that they are not the rightful owners of the home — when a tree smashed their roof last winter, they knew they could not make substantial alteration to the exterior, so they jury-rigged a repair. But if they have to leave their home of 31 years to make way for the bulldozers, they unequivocally expect to be compensated by the municipality.  

“You can’t just throw any person onto the street. Sorry, not in any country can you do this,” says Fuad’s daughter Samar. “Now us, maybe, to avoid a fight, we’ll be quiet for a small amount. But others will not be quiet, because there is no alternative.”

Their feelings about the issue were heightened by the uncertainty that for all these years has kept them from renovating their home. “Suppose the municipality came and told you that it is going to take the house to build a road. Okay. A year passes. Two. Five. Still no road. 30 years?” son Majed asks with incredulity. “After 30 years, they come to say, ‘Yes, I had told you?’”

Kept in the dark

Fuad’s house and those like it have no real heritage value, but conservationists say that the Tobagi house on Armenia Street, which is slated for destruction, is historically significant to the neighborhood.

Residents have received warnings that their buildings are to be destroyed

 

According to Ashkar, though, arguments to keep the house have no legal ground because the building was properly expropriated. The fact that the building’s owners, who have continued living there, restored its façade in the 1990s, is irrelevant and the act was even illegal, he says. “They have had the pleasure of having a nice facade for the past 15 years; that’s good. But, officially speaking, they didn’t have a right to restore the façade, because this is no more their building.”

Adjacent to the Tobagi house are two buildings: one that was to be torn down under the original road plan and one that was supposed to be partially affected. Among the tenants in this second building is Souad Bared, a grandmother in her 80s. She moved in 50 years ago and for the past three decades expected that some day a room in her rented apartment might be lost to the Boutros flyover.

Under the new plan, her whole apartment will have to go. Bared found out recently from media that the project might commence imminently but claims she has not been told anything by officials of any level of government. “They are supposed to give me notice to leave the house and to tell me how much they will compensate me,” she says. “I live with my son. We haven’t discussed any plans or anything. We know nothing.”

 

A dated solution to a modern problem

Not only is the time delay in implementing the project the crux of the social problem surrounding the Fouad Boutros project, but it also explains a whole basket of other issues. It was sketched into the Beirut cityscape plan as an urban highway no later than 1964. In those days, car traffic was seen as a promise of prosperity and highways were hip.
The Beirut municipality began expropriating land for the Boutros highway in 1966, according to the CDR. By 1975, the path between Charles Malek Avenue and Armenia Street was expropriated, but the explosion of the civil war put further expropriations on hold.

Two decades later, it was reconstruction time. The CDR was tasked with rebuilding Beirut’s transportation infrastructure as a core development mission. Planning for the capital region was laid out in the 1995 Greater Beirut Transportation Plan and later augmented by the World Bank Group’s Urban Transport Development Project (UTDP) for Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The planning frameworks proposed a mass transit scheme and a network of primary roads and highways — Fouad Boutros among them.

The plan entailed a traffic model backed by comprehensive survey and traffic data. It made projections to 2015. According to the municipality, it remains the most recent traffic model for Beirut.

TEAM International, the lead consultant of the 1995 transportation concept, says the plan’s underlying traffic model is now outdated. Tammam Nakkash, managing partner of TEAM, explains, “When we did the original study, only 10 percent of the traffic crossed the Green Line. The whole pattern of travel has changed. A new model has to be calibrated. [The old model] is like a squeezed lemon. Don’t try to get more juice out of it.”

Elie Helou, a senior traffic engineer at the CDR, says a 2001 traffic study for the Boutros link was updated in 2011 and confirms that it will ease traffic flows away from overused Charles Malek Avenue and the nearby Akkawi hill. But he does not tell Executive how much traffic the CDR expects Boutros Road to carry nor how much of a relief Charles Malek and other roads would see. Moreover, citizens, reporters and public interest groups do not have access to the study in question, or other technical studies. “It was never customary to disclose any [technical] study,” Helou says.

 

Heritage activists are certain that the new road will add to the existing congestion in Ashrafieh. “You are bringing people coming from [Charles Helou] highway who want to go to Hazmieh, and putting them on this already congested access [Alfred Naccache],” says Giorgio Tarraf, the spokesperson for SBH.

With no access to CDR data and technical studies, APLH recently went to count cars at streets around the critical Spinneys intersection where the new road would link to the existing Alfred Naccache thoroughfare. Raja Njeim, a member of APLH and the general coordinator of the Civil Coalition, insists that basic calculations show that Charles Malek Avenue will need to be widened by two lanes in each direction to accommodate the new traffic patterns enforced by the Boutrous project. Street parking accommodations will also have to be made, Njeim says, pushing the price of the project from $75 million to $200 million and encroaching on the Sagesse school.

But traffic experts dismiss both CDR and APLH projections. Zaher Massaad, a transport engineer at TEAM, says they are meaningless without a new, city-wide model of traffic. “I can update these numbers [of previous local studies on Boutros road], but it doesn’t help. If you don’t have a model, how can you describe how this traffic will move?”

“Don’t trust anything… until somebody gives you a study that can be reviewed by qualified people,” Nakkash adds.

A partial solution

The municipality argues that constructing the road is in the public interest. “You have to have it in order to free other streets all around in order to have dedicated lanes for the buses,” Ashkar says.

Proper public transport for Beirut is indeed something that has been long desired. The idea is actually anchored in the CDR’s 1995 master plan, and the CDR’s Helou concurs that the city and country desperately needs a public transport system. “But that doesn’t mean you stop the work on your road,” he says. However, he concedes that while the CDR has been able to realize about 50 percent of the plan’s road building program, it has yet to implement a trace of an urban public transport system. The plan had called for a network of 13 bus lines — running alongside traffic and not on dedicated lanes — to be implemented before 2005.

For TEAM’s Nakkash, there is no doubt that the highway solutions of the past two decades needed to be “accompanied by parallel investments in public transport.” He adds, “As a transport systems expert, I am absolutely against any investment in more grade separations or tunnels within the city of Beirut. The increasing congestion in Beirut cannot be curtailed except with a substantial investment in public transport.”

Legal entaglements

As things currently stand, the Boutros project requires additional lands, which are currently in the process for expropriation. With legal decrees for their transfer into public property signed in May 2012, the determination of compensations due to landowners are now in the courts. This affects the 250-meter long and 30-meter wide stretch between Armenia Street and Charles Helou highway, minus the area of the existing road that Boutros will supplant. Compensation amounts for the properties expropriated before 1977 could also still increase.
Besides the issue of compensation, the project also needs to conduct an environmental impact study, a legal requirement that came into effect for all developments above a certain size in the middle of last year.  

The CDR’s Helou confirms to Executive that both processes will run their legal course and that no construction action will be taken prematurely. “I don’t expect [the project’s commencement] before the end of the year,” he says.

In the meantime, a lot of discussion is expected on everything related to the project. Opposing stakeholders such as the civil society coalition have already put forth alternative proposals, but these are not well grounded in hard data.

Costs of the undertaking are projected by the municipality at $23 million for the roadworks and two parking structures in the southern portion of the development, $12 million for a proposed parking garage near Armenia Street, and $40 million for compensating expropriated land and building owners.

Construction and engineering experts polled independently by Executive corroborate that the cost projections for the roadworks are in line with their expert opinions. However, the cost of expropriation could easily escalate total project costs to between $90 million and $100 million, Executive estimates, based on input from real estate experts.   

Two components will drive expropriation costs. First, courts have yet to decide the amount owed to property owners north of Armenia Street and south of Charles Helou Highway. Second, the municipality still owes 25 percent of current land values to expropriated owners along the longer route from Armenia Street to Charles Malek Avenue. This is because under Lebanese legal provisions, final settlements are due when development of an expropriated property is implemented. Completing all expropriation could thus cost as much as $65 million, assuming land values of $7,000 per square meter, as real estate advisors observed from new building projects.

Knock-on effects

The Municipality of Beirut is not known for poverty, though, and shouldering of a higher compensation cost may be well within its means. Another point entirely is the cost to businesses and impact on property values in the directly and indirectly affected areas. Developer Zardman has a project in Mar Mikhael that will not be directly affected, but prices in residential towers with direct exposure to the new traffic streams are likely to suffer negative impacts, says Zardman chief executive Makram Zard. “It will help some projects but other projects will be affected negatively. It might help the project’s value go up if the project is not affected directly by facing the bridge [across Armenia street], because there will supposedly be better access.”

Some developers could actually benefit from the widening of the road between Armenia Street and the Charles Helou highway, says architectural consultant Abdul-Halim Jabr. “The [permissible] height of a building is a function of the width of the street onto which it fronts. If a lucky developer … manages to buy more than one parcel in this settlement, then they have more elbow room to go … taller,” he says.

Civil society interests are to divert the use of the project’s state-owned land into something totally novel: a public park for Ashrafieh. According to Najat Saliba, chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut, particulate pollution levels along a congested Beirut thoroughfare range between two and 4.5 times the limits recommended by the World Health Organization. The park alternative would bring Ashrafieh rare things such as playgrounds, benches, grass, shrubbery and trees.

However, cancelling the Fouad Boutros link could just as well have the totally unintended effect of filling the neighborhood with more high rises, warns CDR’s Helou. If the land is not used in accordance with the original expropriation purpose, old owners will have the right to buy back their land at 75 percent of current market prices and offer them to developers at full prices, he says. “In no time, you will have buildings going up there.”

Potential for maneuver

The now mandatory environmental impact study will include a public hearing for residents affected by the project, the Ministry of Environment emphasizes. Helou confirms that the impact report will examine pollution levels and the impact of the project on the neighborhood’s social and urban fabrics, architecture and local flora and fauna. He doesn’t believe that these assessments will dislodge the project but concedes that they might result in improvements.

“We tried to maintain the urban fabric, to maintain the culture of the region, to put trees up where we can — we tried to do all that without an assessment,” Helou says. “So maybe we have had half the story correct. All we have to do is correct the half of the story that is missing.”

Where he admits that the public officials erred was in expecting people would just swallow the project as they did so many times in the past.

Civil society stakeholders aroused public opinion by calling Fouad Boutros a ‘highway’ — which it was in the original design, and what Helou sees as overstating its detrimental impacts on heritage and people in the Ashrafieh neighborhoods.

While the CDR and municipality were caught off-guard by opposition from civil society, all necessary expropriation decrees have been acquired and, save for the environmental impact study, the Fouad Boutros project can be pursued. However, Ashrafieh’s MP Gemayel has a word of advice. “I would like to have… answers from the CDR and the municipality about the traffic study and the environmental assessment — these are main questions where we need answers in our hands in order to have a clear and direct position about this project,” he tells Executive, adding that Parliament has the ability to communicate its views effectively to both the Beirut municipality and the CDR. “I think they will not do anything without our approval.”

Lebanon’s balance of influences aside, the debate over the Fouad Boutros road is far from over. Authorities and activists need to reground themselves in facts, negotiate and propose a solution that will serve the public’s wellbeing. Without an assertion of hard data, people will be stranded on the streets, either in a car or without a home.  

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