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French Version

Souqs of Beirut set to get green light (Daily Star)

Souqs of Beirut set to get green light
Solidere source says project is back on track

Construction on project that symbolized row between Hariri and Lahoud set to resume

The rusted reinforcing rods sprouting from the dormant construction site slated to become the Souqs of Beirut - the flagship project of Lebanese real estate giant Solidere - will, in the coming days, witness construction crews for the first time in over four years, according to a high level source in the company.

After years of political wrangling, Solidere, the publicly traded company in charge of the multi-billion-dollar drive to rebuild historic Beirut Central District (BCD) - has finally secured a permit to finalize work on much of the 100,000-square-meter shopping complex, the source claimed.

Building on an existing underground parking structure, which has evolved into a downtown valet business, work should be completed by 2006, the source explained, adding that a permit is still pending for a planned entertainment complex.

Real estate agents met the news with a mix of excitement and cautious enthusiasm, saying the long-awaited souqs, if actually back on track, would usher in a new era of booming business for the BCD.

"It's a shame it took so long but I truly believe it's the best thing to happen to the city," said Michael Dunn, head of Beirut-based real estate consultants, Michael Dunn & Co.

"It's going to have an enormous effect on the market," he added. "It's going to put a sort of heart and soul into the city. It will change everything."
The repeated stalling of the Souqs has been a troubling saga for Solidere since it completed the superstructure and underground car park in 2000. The project was intended as a primary element in the redevelopment scheme with a view toward attracting interest from tourists and investors.

Although no official reason has been given for the delay, most observers say the move was related to political infighting, namely the notorious feud between President Emile Lahoud and recently resigned Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who established Solidere and remains its largest single shareholder. The company has faced a number of legal and architectural challenges since its inception in the early 1990's.

"Any project needs all of its elements in order to be a success," said Karim Makarem, a partner at Ramco real estate advisers. "Some retailers hesitant about opening downtown were waiting for a location in the Souqs," he said.

With its mix of shopping, archeological sites and entertainment, the Souqs of Beirut is Solidere's contemporary version of the original souqs, a set of traditional marketplaces that brought together social groups from across the country.

However, Solidere has said previously that it intends to draw upscale French retailer Gallery Lafayette as an anchor department store. There has also been talk of creating a massive Imax theater for viewing large format films. Solidere said it would release more details about the project in the coming days after the start of an advertising campaign.

"If it comes online, it would be great for the city," Makarem said.

Beirut 15-11-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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