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French Version

Gemmayzeh : is the quarter becoming 'less and less convivial'?

Some try to keep the old neighborhood s traditional look even as it becomes more gentrified

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series looking at the changing face of the old Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeh.

There are buildings of recent vintage in Gemmayzeh.

Rue Gouraud in particular, though, is recognized as a charming ensemble of historic buildings dating from the late-Ottoman era (mid-19th century is a conservative estimate) and the Mandate years.

"It's a beautiful neighborhood," agrees resident Jad Karam, "but now it's becoming less and less convivial because there are so many bars and restaurants. At night, it's not Gemmayzeh anymore. It's no longer a residential area."

One of these older structures houses Kazan, a seller of fine-quality arak, on the south side of Gouraud. For the past couple of months Kazan has shared his storefront with Gholam's camera and photo-finishing shop, formerly on the north side of Gouraud. The Gholam's short migration presents an example of the impact commercial opportunity can have on Gemmayzeh's old leaseholders.

Hoda Gholam sometimes tends the shop, owned by her brother Elias. She explains that in 1988 they paid $100,000 for an open-ended lease that fixed the rent at $1,500.00 per year. A couple of months ago the Gholam's landlord, Antoine Massoud, bought out their contract for an undisclosed sum.

They didn't want to move out of Gemmayzeh, she says, because they have a reliable client base here and because people know them. So they moved across the street until they move into their new location. Massoud, she says, has rented the space to clients who plan to open a restaurant. Evidently the new rent he's receiving is sufficient to buy out the Gholam's old contract and turn a profit besides.

Real estate developer Karim Bassil says it was Gemmayzeh's historic charm that attracted him to the neighborhood in 1998. Bassil has several projects in the area, including an apartment block (Bernard Khoury, architect) near another Khoury creation, Centrale Restaurant, just south or Gouraud. He is also having a glass tower with a modernist motif erected on Rue Pasteur - a block north of Gouraud.

"A tower on Pasteur is appropriate," he says, "because a number of other developers are already committed to building towers along this street."

On Gouraud proper, Bassil's "Convivium Five" project - now an impressive hole on the south side of the street - is destined to be a cluster of five two- to six-storey buildings. Three will be residential, the other two stylish hotels built in the manner of boutique structures like Achrafieh's Hotel Albergo.

The entire cluster will be built in this "neotraditional" style, emulating the quarter's historic architectural fabric. An example of this style can be seen in a pair of buildings he's had built near the Raidy Press, just south of Gouraud.

The developer expresses a strong commitment to preserving Gouraud's historic architectural integrity - whether in terms of building height or materials used. In addition to his development projects he says he's bought up a couple of old houses and the top floor of the building that houses his office (right across the street from Convivium Five), as a way of ensuring that they're not ripped down.

"I don't sell for demolition," he says. "It's our heritage and we should keep it as is."

Bassil says he takes his inspiration from Lady Yvonne Cochrane. The doyenne of Beirut's Sursock family owns a broad swath of property from Sursock Quarter to Rue Gouraud, which she maintains in its original condition.

He also admires the work of heritage preservation groups like APSAD (L'Association pour la Protection des Sites et Anciennes Demeures au Liban) but finds it regrettable that they're so political. He says he's working to make neighborhoods like Gouraud and Clemenceau in West Beirut model neighborhoods of Beirut architectural heritage.

Bassil may well be influential in maintaining Gouraud's architectural integrity but his development projects have likely contributed to changing market conditions. "Market prices have gone up," he admits, "but they're still in control."

He negotiated the purchases of his six properties separately between 1998 and 2005, he says, so the rates varied. The 1998 property went for $1,200 per square meter (psm); he got the 2000 land for $1,500 psm; the three lots he bought in 2004 went for $1,700, $700 and $950 psm, respectively.

The property value of each plot has risen at different rates as well. Nowadays he says the 1998 property is worth no more than $1,500 psm, while the plot he picked up for $950psm is worth $1,700psm.

"Typically I have low prophet margins," he says, but acknowledges that he isn't representative of the industry. Bassil Real Estate Investment groups five complementary firms that operate independently of one another but still work as a unit in his projects. He says cutting out middlemen, real estate agents for instance, allows him to profit despite lower margins.

There are others, though, who wouldn't mind turning over their properties for a wider margin. "Some people are trying to sell for $4,000-5,000 psm. No one will buy at those rates," he says. "Actually I hope nobody does. It will save the heritage."

Further social change in Gemmayzeh does seem likely. Bassil characterizes his buyers as Europeans, returning expatriate Lebanese, young Lebanese professionals, and some Gulf buyers. "Artists, architects and the like," he says, "people with an interest in what Gemmayzeh has to offer."

Beirut clubbers are notoriously fickle, so Gemmayzeh's present levels of bar-restaurant densification will be difficult to sustain. But if the local and regional political environment ever stabilizes, the neighborhood's gentrification - like that of districts surrounding urban centers elsewhere - does seem likely.

Beirut 05-09-2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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