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Booming Beirut struggles to save its past

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Booming property prices in Beirut have led many old building owners to sell up to developers
  • Campaigners are urging the government to do more to protect the city's vanishing heritage
  • Activists have staged candlelit marches to highlight their efforts

(CNN) -- Beirut has long been proud of its reputation for beautiful people, nightlife and beaches but, as the city re-emerges as a cosmopolitan capital, the furor that has erupted over its architecture is distinctly ugly.

After putting years of conflict behind it, the Mediterranean city is enjoying something of a renaissance, recapturing the pre-war glory days that once saw it named the "Paris of the Middle East."

This reawakened popularity has contributed to soaring property prices, prompting developers to reach for the sky with dozens of new skyscrapers containing apartments, office blocks and hotels.

Though great for Beirut's economy -- Lebanon's Central Bank says the property sector is worth $10 billion a year -- the construction boom has come at a price: the destruction of much of the city's ancient heritage.

With legislation aimed at preserving Beirut's architectural heritage making faltering progress through the parliament, according to pressure groups, they say it has fallen to them to try to preserve what remains.

In recent months, thousands of activists -- recruited using Facebook -- have joined a campaign that has already successfully put some pressure on the government and brought the situation to international attention.

We feel like Lebanese identity is slowly being bought for quick cash.
--Naji Raji, campaigner

"Developers are transforming the city in the image of Dubai," said Pascale Inega, a Lebanese artist and co-founder of the newly-established Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage.

"Each country has its own image, and we cannot be the model of Dubai. We are not a desert, we have our own culture."

With architectural influences dating back beyond the French colonial era of the previous century through 400 years of Ottoman rule, Beirut's urban landscape was once a reflection of its rich history.

Many historic buildings were destroyed damaged during the 1975 to 1990 civil war, but those that survived have been increasingly under threat.

Lebanon's Ministry of Culture says that of 1,200 old mansions and buildings surveyed in 1995, only 400 still stand. Campaigners say that number is dwindling each year.

The Ministry has pledged to protect what remains, but faces an uphill struggle trying to rein in an industry worth billions of dollars until firm legislative measures are in place.

According to a 2010 survey of prices by global property consultants Cushman and Wakefield, Beirut ranks as the most expensive city for retail locations out of 10 Arab cities listed.

Ahmed Haddad, a Beirut real estate consultant, says the boom is largely driven by wealthy expatriates, Lebanese living overseas and Gulf Arab investors seeking a safe investment haven in troubled financial times.

"There's a lot of money coming in and people who own these old buildings are willing to sell," he said. "Sometimes they are in a bad state, so development is a good option. It's simple economics"

It's not an entirely new situation in Beirut. Concern for the city's historic treasures in the 1960s led to the formation of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon, a group that has undertaken several major restoration projects.

But Inega says she has witnessed the situation worsen over the past decade, prompting the need for more action.

"Behind my own house there used to be a kind of old three-story castle, of very nice architectural value. They started to destroy it because it was a little bit in a bad condition. I tried to stop it, but now it's used for parking."

In September, Inega says she mobilized 500 people in a candlelit protest that marched through Beirut's Gemmayze area and Mar Mekhayel Street -- historic quarters that have been targeted by developers.

I'm sure tourists do not come to Lebanon to see skyscrapers.
--Pascale Inega, heritage activist
  • Beirut
  • Lebanon
  • Architecture

Naji Raji, a fellow activist, says the property boom is also causing social rifts in Beirut, with some among the city's two million plus population forced out of the center by rising rents.

And unless the development is checked or regulated, he says the city is in danger of becoming an "oversaturated concrete jungle" with few open spaces.

"We feel like Lebanese identity is slowly being bought for quick cash. It makes us angry but this also makes us work harder to preserve what is left of the heritage buildings," he says.

So far the campaign has scored a few successes, including a new Ministry of Culture hotline for people to report unauthorized demolition work. Many among the Lebanese Diaspora have also voiced support.

In a move that may perhaps also be chalked up as a success, one Beirut property developer -- a firm called Greenstone -- is now proposing to incorporate existing old properties into its new designs. Others have yet to follow suit.

Says Inega, efforts to preserve Beirut's past also amount to an investment in its future if the city hopes to maintain its current in-vogue status as a Middle Eastern hotspot.

"I'm sure tourists do not come to Lebanon to see skyscrapers. This is our country; it is something we have to respect so that we have something to show in the future."