x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lebanon’s oversized homes are metaphor for misplaced optimism

With people leaving Lebanon and the economy in deep freeze, will the massive apartments being built simply become an example of folly and hubris in 20 years' time?

For close to four years now, at the top of my street, on a plot of land once occupied by a petrol station, the 50-storey Sama Beirut has been going up, floor by floor, casting an ever-lengthening shadow.

When the residential, commercial and office tower is built, it will need navigation lights to stop planes flying into it.

In 1976, when the area was less sought after than it is now, the petrol station formed a corner of a mini-frontier, held first by the Syrian army and then, two years later, by troops from the Arab Deterrent Force, comprising mainly Saudi Arabian soldiers.

The Christian National Liberal Party (NLP) occupied the other end of Rue Albert Naccache, creating a de facto no man’s land. Although I am assured by a friend who commanded the NLP position at that time that the residents could come and go as they pleased.

Farther up the hill heading towards Sassine Square is the Rizk Tower, one of the the tallest buildings in Beirut, a distinction that made it ideal for the Syrian army to bombard the good people of surrounding Ashrafieh with mortar shells from its roof.

Big buildings loom large in the collective consciousness of the Lebanese. The half-completed Murr Tower still stands in Qantari, at the entrance to what we used to call West Beirut.

It is arguably the most famous testament to our pre-war hubris and it too delivered death from its upper floors as snipers regularly harassed the good people of what in turn was called East Beirut, in particular the long and narrow Rue Gouraud that runs through the neighbourhood of Gemmayzeh.

The residents of Gemmayzeh who remain – now mainly elderly lower-middle-class Christians from the villages of the North Metn who could afford to spend winter in Beirut – will tell you that to avoid being picked off, they would have to keep to the east side of the street when going about their business.

Many were forced out in the first decade of this century by the invasion of bars, restaurants and clubs that transformed Gemmayzeh into the epicentre of Beirut’s nightlife.

But now the neighbourhood, like Rue Monot before it, has gone to seed. The tourists have gone and the party has moved on, first to Zeytouni Bay and then to the more residential and student-populated Hamra, not far from the old Holiday Inn perched behind the Phoenicia Intercontinental.

Both hotels were gutted during the first years of the war in what was a bloody triangular gun battle that included the equally ill-fated Hotel St Georges.

Only the Phoenicia with its splendid facade, tarboush-clad doormen and affluent pool area was renovated.

The Holiday Inn is as it was – too expensive to either renovate or demolish.

The St Georges is also a wreck, even more so after its bullet-riddled structure was further shredded by the 2005 blast that killed the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, his entourage and a dozen bystanders.

But before his fiery death, Hariri was the force behind the creation of the new Beirut Central District, or the Burj as it was fondly known before the war.

After being part of the biggest urban regeneration project in the world at the time, it too is once again a ghost town. The shops and offices are empty while the mega-residential projects, slated for construction years ago during a brief period of optimism and GCC support, are still being built. But you sense no one is in a hurry to buy.

The residential market has all but dried up and even Sama Beirut has had to shrink some of its apartments to “smaller” 300 square metre units.

Other developers are quietly admitting that most Lebanese have been priced out of the market and that there is a need for smaller, more affordable homes of between 70 and 130 square metres. That, by the way, is still the size of a decent two-bedroom or three-bedroom flat in London.

Have we got it wrong once again? People are leaving and the economy is in deep freeze. In 20 years’ time, will the massive 400 square-metre apartments simply be another herd of Lebanese white elephants?

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut