By Simona Sikimic
BEIRUT: Protests over the demolitions of classified buildings took place in Mar Mikhael Sunday with activists picketing the construction site of the former Cinema Vendome, destined to become a 19-floor apartment complex.
Organized by conservation group Save Beirut Heritage, the sit-in attracted around 75 activists, who chanted slogans and held banners reading “Love Beirut, Love its People. Appreciate the Past, Keep your Identity.”
Low turnout, significantly below the 500 protesters who were expected to attend from the group’s 7,500-odd Facebook members, has been attributed to the simultaneous timing of the May Day protests and beatification of Pope John Paul II.
“The demolished building was previously classified as ‘architecturally significant’ by a committee designated by the Culture Ministry,” said Giorgio Tarraf, spokesperson for Save Beirut Heritage. “[But] Har properties managed to obtain a permit to demolish three significant heritage buildings in Mar Mikhael.
“The new building is totally out of character with the quarter’s traditional feeling. It has no respect for the atmosphere or the height of the surrounding buildings,” he added.
An initial construction permit by Beirut developers, Har Properties, was rejected by the ministry last year but a revamped plan, which incorporated the original building facade into the design, was later accepted, allowing demolition to go ahead last week.
Activists claim that “these permits were obtained through political coercion and gross abuse of power by the owners of the plots” and have blamed Fahed Rafik Hariri, elder brother of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and founding member of the Har properties, for using his political affiliation to obtain the permits.
Save Beirut Heritage, however, deny accusations that they are harboring a political agenda and claim political pressure is used by both political camps to fast track demolitions.
Har Properties have also vehemently denied the allegations and insist that their permits were obtained through normal channels.
The company says it has complied with all requirements of the permit and has kept 4 meters of the building facade as instructed, at considerable cost to them, while also losing out on future revenue from shops that lost street front access in the redesign.
Developers and activists also say municipal parking laws, which require all newly sold buildings to include parking, also make it virtually impossible to retain original foundations.
However, the compromise has been deemed “unacceptable” by conservationists who worry that the construction of the futuristic tower will mark the beginning of the end for the quarter.
“This is the first tower in the area and Mar Mikhael is one of the last parts of Beirut that has not been ravaged by developers,” said Tarraf. “The concern is that as soon as one moves in, the others will follow.”
Campaigners are petitioning for the ratification of a draft law that would guarantee the safety of heritage buildings and ensure resections on height and design in certain areas. They have also called for a reclassification of zoning laws, which have come under fire from activists and developers alike for being vague and outdated.