The American University of Beirut's Neighborhood Inititative

Subject: Urban development
Author: Cynthia Myntti

Universities in North American cities typically have faced two kinds of problems—the decay of the urban fabric around them and conflicts with neighbors over expansion. The American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon confronts an altogether different problem: its flowering campus on hills flowing down to the Mediterranean Sea has contributed to some of the highest real estate prices in Beirut. Skyrocketing housing costs have priced university employees out of the market and threaten the legendary diversity of this unique district. The university’s new Neighborhood Initiative offers a multifaceted response.

Protestant American missionaries founded what was to become the American University of Beirut in 1863. They built the campus outside the city walls on Ras Beirut, a rocky and windswept promontory overlooking the sea. Scrub oak, prickly pears, and modest houses of farmers and fishermen surrounded the solid stone buildings of the new university. Over time, the new buildings multiplied outside the campus walls, first in the form of urban villas and gardens accommodating AUB professors, then as low-rise apartment buildings, and eventually as mixed-use buildings with retail, office, and entertainment functions on the lower floors and residential units on the upper floors.
Over the years, the presence of AUB helped create Beirut’s most glamorous and cosmopolitan district. By the mid-20th century, its cafés, cinemas, and bookshops had become the “breathing space” of the Arab world. Its landmarks in these three categories were legend: Café de Paris, Modca, Fayssal’s, and Uncle Sam’s; cinemas Strand, Edisson, Colisée, Eldorado, and Piccadilly; and Librairie du Liban and many more.
An urban planning study, published by Samir Khalaf and Per Kongstad in 1973, described the neighborhood’s residents as a mix of artisans and shopkeepers, middle-class professionals and a small international business elite, with a diversity of religious backgrounds and nationalities. The neighborhood was like a village: everyday needs could be easily met in small shops on neighborhood streets, and shopkeepers and customers knew each other by name. In a single block, one could find an orange juice and falafel stand, a patisserie/ chocolatier, a laundry, a green grocer, a florist, a haberdasher, a newspaper/stationery shop, a coffee bean “roastery,” an electrician, and a locksmith.
During Lebanon’s civil war (1975–1990), Ras Beirut was somewhat protected by its religious and ethnic diversity although, like the rest of the city, it suffered damage and neglect. Cinemas closed down, cultural activities and nightlife ebbed, small businesses struggled, international companies departed, and many residents left. By the end of the war, the neighborhood was a shadow of itself and AUB a weary inward-looking institution.
After the war, the rebuilding of Lebanon began with a focus on investment in real estate and tourism. The centerpiece of the effort was Beirut’s devastated central business district, which contained the city’s traditional souks (marketplaces) and historic mosques and churches. The central business district is just east of Ras Beirut, which developed in the 20th century as the city’s “modern” commercial, cultural, and residential neighborhood. In 1994, a Lebanese joint stock company called Solidere was formed by local political and business elites to reconstruct and develop 472 acres (191 ha) in the central business district. Solidere set the tone for investment in Lebanon during the postwar period.
Real estate still dominates local and international investment in Lebanon; it is considered safe and lucrative by investors primarily from the Arab Gulf and the Lebanese diaspora.
In fact, even in the current global economic downturn, real estate in Beirut’s desirable districts is considered a safe investment. Prices are not dropping because most construction has been financed by savings, not by mortgages. Ras Beirut continues to be one of the most expensive areas of the city. In early 2009, the price of built-up area ranges from about $930 per square foot ($10,000 per sq m) opposite the campus or along the seafront to $185 per square foot ($2,000 per sq m) on lower levels of buildings in the more densely settled and viewless corners of the neighborhood. Because raw land is scarce, low-to medium-rise historic buildings—primarily 20th-century buildings, with a few significant modernist structures from the 1960s—in premium locations are being demolished to accommodate new high-rise construction.
AUB’s lush 75-acre (30-ha) campus has contributed to the exorbitant land values around it. With its low-rise construction and extensive green space, AUB offers its neighbors parklike surroundings and unimpeded views to the sea. Understandably, developers seek to maximize profitable construction opposite the campus by consolidating land parcels, demolishing existing low- and medium-rise mixed-use buildings, and building luxury high-rise residential buildings with gated private gardens at grade. These new dwellings overlooking the AUB campus represent the most exclusive segments of the Beirut real estate market—expansive flats of more than 3,230 square feet (300 sq m) costing over $3 million at current prices.
This trend presents a threat to AUB. Before the civil war, 80 percent of AUB employees lived in the university neighborhood. Now only about 20 percent live there. Employees, including professorial-rank faculty, can no longer find affordable family housing nearby to buy or rent. The average annual salary for a full professor currently is $70,000, and for an assistant professor, it is $46,000. With these income levels, AUB faculty members are unable to afford today’s prime residential properties in Ras Beirut.
Besides forcing AUB employees into longer and longer commutes, the new upscale properties threaten the very liveliness and diversity that made the neighborhood famous. Ras Beirut’s urban mixed-use buildings, entertainment and cultural destinations, commercially vibrant streets, and pedestrians patronizing local shops may soon be neighborhood history.
How should AUB respond? The school was built following the American model of the college campus as a serene place of learning behind walls. Recently, however, the university has undertaken an extensive redevelopment of its infrastructure, facilities, and academic programs. Physical refurbishment has followed the 2002 campus master plan by Sasaki Associates, in collaboration with Machado and Silvetti, MGT of America, and Dar Al Handassah (Shair and Partners), which recommended that the university soften its hard and defensive edges and revise how it presents itself to the city. At the same time, AUB’s academic leadership began to ask how the university is connected to its surroundings and how engaged its academic programs are with its urban environment.
The AUB Neighborhood Initiative represents the potent convergence of a number of interests: a university president committed to community service and civic engagement; an alumna and former faculty member determined to “break down the walls” between the university and the city; trustees, alarmed by local real estate trends and wanting to ensure that AUB remains attractive to those who matter most— world-class faculty and top-notch students; and a number of faculty and students who want their intellectual efforts to have more direct benefit to the university’s own turf.
Formally launched in October 2007 by John Waterbury, then president of the university, the AUB Neighborhood Initiative has two goals: to protect the diverse, vibrant neighborhood and to engage the university more fully in real-world problem solving. The program operates through three mutually reinforcing strategies: first, seek ways to be a better neighbor by sharing the university’s intellectual and cultural resources; second, support research that helps solve local problems; and third, partner with others in interventions that protect the neighborhood’s diversity and promote its vitality.
In seeking ways to be a better neighbor, for example, AUB has introduced its Greening the Neighborhood project, led by the newly established Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management and its Center for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Futures. The project aims to promote new ways of designing and managing planted spaces in the neighborhood. AUB faculty and students will work with local residents to help them develop and implement effective gardening practices in their residential landscapes and in nearby semiprivate spaces. The project will also encourage faculty, students, and residents to participate in community activities on empty lots and semipublic spaces in the neighborhood.
The second strategy recognizes that AUB, as a university, is in a position of responsibility to advance knowledge and apply it for the public good. The Neighborhood Initiative provides funding to faculty for research on problems confronting the neighborhood. For example, the Department of Civil Engineering and its Transport Research Center are planning a series of studies on neighborhood congestion: defining interventions to improve conditions for pedestrians by striking an optimal balance between vehicular flow and foot traffic; and creating business case scenarios for different solutions to neighborhood parking problems.
The third strategy is the most complex. The experience of other gentrifying locations suggests that the introduction of more housing for middle-income families stabilizes the upward price spiral and results in many positive secondary effects. Given real estate trends in Ras Beirut and the demand by AUB employees for affordable housing near the university, AUB is analyzing its options for the production of affordable housing in the neighborhood. Other future interventions will be determined by the Initiative’s evolving partnerships with local governmental, nonprofit, and for-profit groups.
Founded more than 140 years ago, AUB pioneered American-styled liberal arts education in the Middle East region; it remains a beacon of critical thinking, social responsibility, and tolerance of divergent viewpoints. The AUB Neighborhood Initiative is applying these institutional values to solve the contemporary problems of the neighborhood that the university helped create.
Cynthia Myntti, a social anthropologist and an architect, is project leader, the Neighborhood Initiative, Office of the President, American University of Beirut.
This article was first published in Urban Land Middle East - Spring 2009

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