Beirut: Where the Rich Get Shit Done

by Tony Chavira

For the past week I’ve been plane-hopping my way from Los Angeles to Beirut for a mini-vacation/longtime friend’s wedding. I arrived too late on the first day to sign up for a proper tour, so, in the aimless spirit of the American tourist, I decided to walk through the city of Beirut and just let my haphazard sense of curiosity direct me.

Right away you can see a striking dichotomy in this city. Older buildings are minimally maintained (if maintained at all) throughout the city, and some are blown-out shells left as signature remnants of Israeli missile attacks or the Lebanese civil war. Some parts of the city are in such a mess that the government created a redevelopment agency called Solidere. Since over-politicizing government is, very literally, a dangerous idea in Lebanon, Solidere was left to its own devices—as were its major, private investors, who’ve essentially singlemindedly decided how their masterplan for the redevelopment of downtown Beirut would play out. (Tell me if you’re heard this one before.) Of course, Lebanon’s assassinated former president Rafik Haririone was of the principal stakeholders, and his family still owns a large stake in Solidere, which is traded on the London, Kuwait and Beirut stock exchanges.

Roman ruins
Roman ruins in the redevelopment area (all photos by Tony Chavira)

When you pull together a ton of the richest people in the area, develop a focused plan for the redevelopment of something like 80 square blocks, and then mandate it as a government agency, there’s really nothing that can stop you. And when they got right down to it, nothing did. Despite the fact that the neighborhoods around it are much more organic in their style and inception, Solidere’s redevelopment is something they can be proud of, even if most of the expats I’ve been hanging out with consider it akin to Downtown Disney. Personally, I feel like it’s more analogous to 80 blocks of Rick Caruso development, like an extended version of the Americana in Glendale. Sure, I’ve only seen bankers, tourists, Saudi businessmen, and 18-year-old club kids with Porsches in the area, but, hey, that’s nothing to scoff at in comparison to what it used to be.

What’s more, many of the local historic neighborhood landmarks have been maintained and accommodated for in the redevelopment of the area. It may at first seem strange to find a Dolce & Gabbana next to an ancient Roman column or the historic Amir Assaf mosque, but what is smart urban redevelopment if not the incorporation of several of the things you need in one place. Unsurprisingly, there’s a Starbucks, a high-end market, and apartments within walking distance of both.

Many who live here consider Solidere’s ultimate plan an affront to the macrobiotic arrangement and development of the inner city, but I have to admit that, overall, I’m pretty impressed. For all of the cheesiness, there’s an admirable do-it-yourself sense of responsibility for the upkeep of Beirut that even the extremely wealthy feel. They have money, they have government influence, and they have a city that demands ongoing development to deal with the outcome of so many years of war. And when do developers ever really get the thumbs-up for the singlehanded redevelopment of an entire area? It’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.

blown-out hotel
blown-out hotel that Solidere is trying to control

Aside from the fact that it is so deliberately planned, the Solidere area is extremely walkable, and infused with greenspace and historical restoration. Part of the reason it feels Disneyfied to some is that many of the former bombed-out building shells have maintained much of their original structure and façades. Though this process tends to give the community a “Beirut-lite” taste as you sample and compare it to any of the surrounding neighborhoods, it also has very literally turned a useless and destitute area of the city into something that is worthy of trading on an international stock exchange.

So what’s the moral of this story in relation to Los Angeles? Certainly not that we should hand over the entire Bringing Back Broadway redevelopment in downtown L.A. to a single developer! Remember that the creation of Solidere was expressly for the purpose of redeveloping a war-ravaged downtown space. Remember that Solidere was so easily accepted because the very wealthy and politically-connected had no real, permanent grassroots opposition to stand in the way of steamrolling and reshaping the downtown scene to their design. These are not things that any city outside of the civil war-torn should apply to their redevelopment.

However, too often we look at developers in Los Angeles as the enemy, and our relationships with them tend to be confrontational from the onset. Many (and I’m sometimes guilty of this) look at developers with grand plans for Los Angeles with disdain for no other reason than that a singleminded designer sat down and decided they had enough money and power to do it. But money and power are not always the primary motivators for redevelopment, though proper investment in a community should yield real, quantifiable monetary results. If a developer or masterplanner has found a smart way to redevelop a neighborhood that will make them money, good for them! As long as they don’t displace any of the existing families or businesses, they should be able to use their land as they need to in order to serve the dual purpose of beautifying their city and making a (very good) living.

gentrified area
the most gentrified area of the Solidere redevelopment

Just as important, though, many developments don’t take their roles in the reshaping of Los Angeles seriously enough. The fact that a developer and the city redevelopment agency are different entities does not mean that they cannot have the same goals, or that their separate goals cannot be coalesced into a plan that works for both organizations. The CRA (including the California Redevelopment Agency) is your friend, not your enemy. Treat them like friends and they will yield your company a world of resources. Further, all redevelopment mandates involve design consistency, and developing pretty vanity projects where they don’t belong doesn’t work for anyone. They probably won’t even make you money, since everyone will notice right away how out-of-place your Brutalist building looks in the Art Deco neighborhood. Trust me: in this case a sense of socially-responsible design will do your development public relation wonders.

Solidere has many more years of development to go before the full scope of its plan is complete, and, because it is a for-profit organization, its board is incentivized to seek out more redevelopment projects throughout Beirut. Sure, a not-so-shadowy group of elites are profiting massively from the downtown area’s redevelopment, but don’t we all ultimately want rich people to assist in the smart development process? It may take Solidere a little while to figure out that people actually need to live in their area of the city, but already projects at the outskirts of the redevelopment area are starting to take this into consideration, with a stronger focus on landscaping and streetscaping. Here’s hoping that those lessons aren’t lost on their board of directors, or ours for that matter.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
tony@fourstory.org

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