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French Version

Beirut plans law to help owners preserve special old homes

Legislation includes financial aid

A new law proposed by the Ministry of Culture offers financial incentives to buy, sell and restore buildings officially designated as "heritage sites,"...

A new law proposed by the Ministry of Culture offers financial incentives to buy, sell and restore buildings officially designated as "heritage sites," a solution that may save endangered Lebanese architecture while opening a potentially lucrative niche in the real estate market. The proposed law seeks to address the concerns of property owners and conservationists, who have long complained that the government gives no compensation for buildings it deems too culturally valuable to be altered or torn down.

"Its very easy for the government to say 'this is protected,' but then the owners of the property can't do anything but sell it as a house when it's worth millions of dollars as a property," explained Dmitri Anid, a real estate agent based in Beirut.

"Maybe they love the house and would like to see it preserved, but there's a financial matter," he said.

The law, which was submitted to the finance minister in April, would make property owners who restore protected buildings exempt from all construction-licensing fees and 50 percent of the value of evacuation and moving out fees.

They would also be exempt from property tax and registration fees when renting or selling for a period of one to 10 years, "depending on the value of the house."

The law would also provide for the creation of a national restoration fund outlined in the budget law of 2003 by adding 2 percent to all building licenses. The fund would be available to the owner of any building under protection to assist in the costs of restoration.

In addition, owners would be able to charge tenants 15 percent of any personal expenses incurred by the restoration.

In cases where the owner is unable to undertake restoration, the Culture Ministry would reserve the right to carry out the necessary construction. The cost of restoration would appear as a debt on the building's registration papers to be paid out of any profits from the sale of the house thereafter.

The proposed law, however, must be approved by the finance and justice ministries and the council of ministers before it can be voted on in Parliament.

The debate between developers, homeowners and 'heritage activists' has been escalating since the end of the Civil War when the rebuilding process threatened to demolish many old buildings.

Mounting concern led the High Council of Urbanism in 1993 to commission a group of architects to conduct studies of each area in Beirut and come up with a "heritage list" of buildings to be preserved, according to Toufic Yannieh from the Culture Ministry.

"There were about 1,016 houses after the first inventory, and then they added some to complete certain clusters and streets - it was done comprehensively, not building by building," said. "It was a good study that could have preserved a whole area."

But the original list encountered strong opposition from homeowners, who could not afford to renovate their newly protected buildings, and from developers, who wanted to build on land they occupied.

A second study was commissioned to assess the physical condition of each house individually and assigned them classifications from A to E: A being the best preserved and E the worst. The council then removed all buildings classified as D or E from the list, breaking up the cohesive clusters and reducing the heritage list to just 220 structures.

The lack of area preservation led to an overall devaluation in the market value of traditional structures, according to Fadlallah Dagher, an architect and member of the heritage preservation group, Association pour la Protection et la Sauvegarde des Anciennes Demeures.

Infrastructural problems associated with old neighborhoods, like sewage and parking, were compounded by the fact that most of these areas are close to the city center where the highest building rights are, creating a strong incentive for developers to build as high as possible on those properties.

"Developers were allowed to build with no respect for context," Dagher said. "If there were a plan to enhance the whole surroundings, of course there would be a market for old houses."

In addition to a lack of comprehensive urban planning, cumbersome inheritance laws that allow properties to be split among numerous heirs makes transferring properties difficult, stifling a burgeoning real estate market.

Recently, however, the success of neighborhoods like Gemmayzeh, with its "old Beirut charm," has demonstrated the market value of renovated buildings, and spurred demand from Lebanese who would like to see them preserved.

Beirut 06-06-2006
Meris Lutz
The Daily Star

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