BEIRUT — Reconstruction at the Mar Mikhael-Gemmayzeh intersection has been suspended after the alleged "political" interference of Lebanese Forces MP Ghassan Hasbani and his brother Elie Hasbani, an influential figure in the area, architect Jade Tabet, and former head of the Order of Engineers told L’Orient Today.
Ghassan Hasbani told L'Orient Today on Tuesday that the works have been suspended until the construction plan is revised, after "families in the area signed two petitions and reached out to us complaining about those works that will cause traffic jams in the whole area."
“There is a whole array of local opinions about the project, but most residents we have talked to, and many of the store owners, actually support the project– unlike what Mr. Hasbani is claiming," Mona Fawaz, a professor in Urban Studies and Planning and co-founder of the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut, told L’Orient Today. "Some just want reassurances that the municipality will not authorize bars to play loud music here, and the Muhafiz (governor) has given this guarantee.”
According to Hasbani and the area's mukhtar (a local official responsible for records) Bechara Gholam, Tashnag MP Hagop Terzian was among the MPs who asked for the suspension of the project after residents complained.
Terzian was unavailable for immediate comment when contacted by L’Orient Today.
Launched in 2020 as part of post-port blast recovery efforts, the Mar Mikhael reconstruction plan aimed at improving the neighborhood's walkability and creating pedestrian-friendly spaces in area.
“We wanted to do a civilized project for a doomed area that was largely affected by the explosion, but we were stopped by the political party that controls the area,” Tabet told L’Orient Today.
Tabet is one of the founders of the Beirut Urban Declaration, a group of intellectual and cultural contributors who are working on the preparation of a comprehensive national vision, which aims at serving as a starting point for reshaping and reintegrating components of the city after the Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, 2020.
Ghassan Hasbani however accused the project of being "an opposite to what the locals want. They reached out to us after signing two petitions stating that works are harmful to the whole area, and we relayed their concerns to the Governor of Beirut Marwan Abboud who ordered the suspension of the works."
Abboud was not immediately reachable for comment on the matter.
Ghassan Hasbani noted that the matter "which is not political, is being politicized."
Tabet, however, explained that they had collaborated with the area's mukhtar (a local official responsible for records), Beirut’s governor and the municipality at the time the project was being prepared and received official approval to kickstart construction one year after the launch of these discussions.
Bechara Gholam, who is also the President of the Lebanese Mukhtar Associations, told L’Orient Today that he was was initially supportive of the project “because I was told by its leaders that it would enhance and advance the area, and so, of course, I agreed.”
“There are a few vocal store and property owners who are opposed to the project because they are accustomed to appropriate parking spots in front of their property or business, they don’t want to lose this privilege,” Fawaz explained.
Gholam, however, said that residents started coming into his office and complaining once the work started. “What kind of enhancement project congests the traffic, and narrows the passageways of cars in order to make a larger sidewalk?” he asked.
Gholam also noted that “the project aimed at making a small garden with seats and trees where people could sit at night. This would create room for drug dealers to roam in the area and immoral actions to take place.”
“The rhetoric of vilifying public space, claiming that any attempt to widen it brings drugs and prostitution is dishonest. There is no space in this site for a garden. The mukhtar knows this. My only interpretation of his attitude is the pressure he received that made him change his mind," Fawaz said.
Walkable and pedestrian friendly
“The project was done by Beirut Urban Lab, an interdisciplinary research center based at the American University of Beirut, and the faculty of engineering at AUB, with funding from France and a group of Lebanese in the United States, mainly aimed at making the area more walkable and pedestrian friendly,” Tabet said.
Ghassan Hasbani, however, said that making the sidewalk more pedestrian friendly will simultaneously make the road narrower and will "cause more traffic and chaos in the area."
He also noted that "pubs and restaurants in the area already close off a large part of the sidewalk with their tables and chairs, and if the sidewalk is made wider they will simply extend their terrace areas to cover the whole sidewalk, knowing that it is hard to control the actions of pubs and restaurants in the area."
Tabet explained how the project was first conceived: “We noticed that there are a lot of triangle spaces in the middle of the road in the area, so after consulting with experts and talking to locals about how they envision their area we set a thorough plan that entails more pedestrian space, solar panels and greenery.”
Tabet claimed that Elie Hasbani talked to residents in the area, convincing them of problems the construction of the public square might cause.
“They also falsely convinced citizens that the sidewalk would create more traffic, which is not true since Rami Semaan who put the new traffic plan for all of Beirut prepared a plan for this project too,” Tabet explained, while Hasbani ensures citizens came to him and his brother with their complaints.
Revision of the plan
Ghassan Hasbani noted that the plan needs further studying and can't be implemented as it is "as it will cause traffic jams in Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, and Achrafieh. I'm not opposed to the works, we just need to revise the plan."
“The city council had approved it, knowing that there are members of the Lebanese Forces in it but it was abruptly stopped and we still don’t know the reason,” Tabet said.
“The work has been suspended until a compromise is found, and we are prepared to rework the design if it means the project can go forward,” Tabet said.
Gholam stated that, “once the project is redesigned to take into account the local’s concerns I would want it to resume. I am all for advancement projects in the area that boost the livelihood of people and businesses.”
“We are now being pressured by Mr. Hasbani to make concessions to be allowed to complete the project. The concessions are being made against the best professional expertise we have in the country. This is sadly the reality,” Fawaz concluded.
This article was edited on Tuesday June 7, at 4.30 p.m. to add Bechara Gholam's view on the project and some additional quotes by MP Ghassan Hasbani, and on Thursday June 15 to reflect Mona Fawaz's opinion on the project.