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French Version

Coalition protests selective restrictions on construction in Gemmayzeh

'We are only asking that regulations apply to all buildings'

A coalition of architects, engineers, business owners and residents of Gemmayzeh submitted a petition to the Public Works and Transport Ministry this week protesting the planned construction ...

A coalition of architects, engineers, business owners and residents of Gemmayzeh submitted a petition to the Public Works and Transport Ministry this week protesting the planned construction of 10 high-rise residential towers, which conflict with both the "the neighborhood's historic character" and a long-awaited set of urban-design regulations issued by the Directorate General of Urbanism (DGU) on September 13.

New building permits for Gemmayzeh had been on hold for a year pending the release of a DGU study, but less then a week after the freeze was lifted rumors began circulating that the government was planning to exempt 10 private landowners from new guidelines, said one

of the group's organizers.

"The problem is the ambiguity," said architect and heritage activist Fadllallah Dagher.

"Nothing has been announced officially but we hear the government is preparing to issue permits to developers, and in parallel the urban planning authorities have implemented regulations for Gemmayzeh that prevent any other developers from building skyscrapers."

Dagher also faults the possible exemptions as they contradict the logic behind the government-imposed, decade-long freeze on building permits for the 75 designated heritage sites in Gemmayzeh. As culture minister, Michel Edde first introduced the idea of regulating development in Gemmayzeh but no governments took initiative to conduct a feasibility study until 2004, under the authority of the former DGU director, Joseph Abdel-Ahad. During the intervening period, owners were deprived of the right to build on their land under the pretext of preserving the area's historic character.

Under the DGU's new guidelines the size of each plot of land should determine the scale of each development to maintain the proportions of the neighborhood. Buildings should cover a maximum amount of land area, so they are wider then they are taller. To maintain the character of the neighborhood and the street profile, no setbacks should be allowed, and the style of each development should be in keeping with the architectural typology of the area. No buildings with an open ground floor are permitted as they would alter the spatial character of the street. The DGU also calls for all buildings to fall within a designated building envelope, and requires developers to submit a scaled model of all proposed projects in their environment for approval.

"Everyone was relieved because for the first time in the modern history of Beirut a law was passed to preserve a part of the capital's heritage, but one week later we heard that towers were to be exempted from new regulations. They chose precisely this moment to try to issue permits," engineer Habib Debs told The Daily Star in a phone interview. Debs believes the government has decided to issue permits now, because public attention is diverted to reconstruction needs in the South. According to Debs, the government argues that building regulations were different when developers purchased land, so they should not be subject to new rules. But he rejects this, claiming that no builder has rights until a construction permit has been issued.

"We are only asking that either all buildings are subject to regulations in keeping with the DGU's study, or that all owners be allowed to build skyscrapers, but they can't give rights to some and not others," he said.

"You have to go to I don't know what kind of banana republic to find a government that selectively imposes regulations that apply to all buildings in an area."

Beirut 29-09-2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star

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