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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 27, 89

Letter From Lebanon

Beirut Planners Turn to Suburban "Belts of Misery"

By Marilyn Raschka

For years the plight of Beirut's suburbs has been second only to the plight of Beirut itself. Now with SOLIDERE's concentration on rebuilding the downtown area, the time has come for major work on the capital's suburbs.

The southern suburbs were themselves "children of the war." South Lebanon lost much of its population when the activities of Palestinian resistance groups operating along the Israeli border incurred Israeli retaliation throughout the 1970s, culminating finally in the massive Israeli invasion and occupation of all of southern Lebanon and Beirut in 1982.

Invasions, incursions and bombing raids drove thousands of farmers and villagers from their homes. Little was available in Beirut for housing, especially for the largely Shi'i population from the south which found few spaces in areas occupied previously by Lebanese Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims.

The land on which the Shi'i settled, south of the capital, was a stretch of Beirut's finest, sandiest, chicest beaches. There until the 1970s Beirutis tanned and frolicked at a string of private clubs, open only to their Lebanese and foreign members.

A taxi from town whisked you to this area, dropping passengers at the chosen beach club. St. Michael beach was a favorite. Its restaurant provided cold beer and delicious chicken sandwiches served with Lebanese pickles at umbrella-covered tables. The waves of the blue Med tossed along the shores and washed away the troubles of the day. Idyllic to say the least.

In the 1960s signs informed guests that no bikinis were allowed. But by the 1970s bikinis were as hot as the beer was cold. The way of the flesh combined with coconut-scented suntan oil to make this several-mile-long stretch a playground that could easily have hosted the "Baywatch" series.

Then, starting in 1975, came the civil war, and a hodge podge of unplanned and unlicensed building. By the 1980s, not on display, but nevertheless present, were some of the foreign hostages, kept here and there in these Shi'i suburbs and moved whenever their keepers felt their location had been discovered.

Soon the sea no longer was visible from the road and bikinis had long been banned. The sea view was blocked by a wall of cinderblock commercial buildings. Ditto for the other side of the road. Businesses displayed their wares out front and sharp-eyed travelers heading south, always in the mood to shop, would slow down to see what might be worth stopping for.

Now the crowded, potholed road no longer is the conduit to the south. A new road has taken over that traffic, leaving this stretch of beach property, referred to in the press as "a belt of misery," to its own devices.

An eyesore to say the least, which first was the focus of a renovation plan back in 1983 under then-President Amin Gemayel, the area is under scrutiny. The government of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has taken on its reorganization and development with plans for tourism, industry and housing.

Called the Elissar Project, the land involved covers 5.6 million square meters. The project is extremely important because it will be cheek-by-jowl with some of Beirut's most valuable real estate. Nearby, work is going on at Beirut International Airport to the tune of $450 million. The not-so-distant Sports City stadium will cost $150 million, and Beirut's Central Hospital will run $90 million.

Already lending prestige to the neighborhood are numerous U.N. offices, the Post and Telecommunications Ministry, the city's golf course and the classy Marriott and Summerland hotels.

The Elissar Project master plan, caught up in political maneuvering, in late March still had not been approved by the Council of Ministers because of changes in the distribution of areas allocated for tourism, industry and housing. The two largest Shi'i organizations, Amal and Hezbollah, are vying with each other to garner the credit for increasing the compensation for the many residents who will be displaced by the project.

Nevertheless, financing promised by this summer will allow work to begin on water and sewage networks, electrical power and other infrastructure projects.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and Beirut's northern suburbs are equally overdue for reorganizing and development. There, too, the war years allowed for illegal housing, disregard for zoning laws and complete disregard for public works. Displaced Christians by the thousands continue to live as squatters in Bourj Hammoud, Antelias, Zalka, and the other northern suburbs.

In these areas, two projects are tentatively lined up. Linord was created to deal with land reclamation (from the sea) and Kadmous was formed to organize the existing commercial and residential areas.

The Linord Project got itself in trouble because, as an extension of SOLIDERE, it draws the same criticism: private interests are seen as receiving priority over public interests. The solution, to involve the government in Linord, was seen as a way of ensuring that the land reclaimed, a proposed 2 million square meters, will serve the people of the suburbs and not just tourists or already rich entrepreneurs.

Linord's present master plan allots 655,000 square meters, or one-third of the total reclaimed land, to government for two sewage treatment stations, and a property to be given to the Bourj Hammoud municipality. Linord's portion, 1,345,000 square meters or two-thirds, will be used for commercial, residential and tourism development, a free zone, and a fuel storage complex.

Objections to the Linord Project cover just about as much territory as the scheme itself. There are the standard accusations that many of the public works projects have been awarded to acquaintances of government officials. Claims have been made that only Bourj Hammoud would benefit from the land reclamation project and that a tourism complex would deprive some five townships of their view and access to the sea. Property owners foresee the bottom dropping out of their soon-to-be-landlocked seaside properties.

If the cool waters of the Mediterranean seem too hot for the reclaimers of land, however, compare the challenges facing its companion project, Kadmous. Among its many mandates, Kadmous would build homes for the displaced on existing vacant lots, and extend and adjust the course of the Beirut River. It must also deal with an infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair. Land ownership rights and the needs of an expanding Beirut port also fall under its jurisdiction.

Although an exact definition of the Kadmous project and when and how it will proceed is awaited, the mayors of the suburbs, fearing negative effects on their communities, have expressed their opposition.

The tie that binds the two northern suburbs projects is an environmental knot called the Bourj Hammoud dump, an area that stands 50 meters high and covers 150,000 square meters. Much of Beirut's solid waste ends up here, as well as garbage from the northern suburbs. SOLIDERE is also a contributor, because the rubble and dirt from its extensive downtown excavations are trucked to this spot.

Although the seaside dump has become "reclaimed land," as existent property it could fall under the Kadmous project. Smelly and environmentally dangerous, the dump problem has become a rallying point among the critics of both projects, and the key to the futures of both Linord and Kadmous.

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