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Beirut reconstructs a touch of Paris

Construction

The following article was originally published in The National on April 1, 2011, written by Kevin Brass

A bright red banner on the Beirut waterfront proclaims: "Stop Solidere."

Launched in 1994, Solidere is the ambitious, often controversial redevelopment scheme for Beirut's central business district. The project is described in promotional materials as a "model in post-war reconstruction, urban regeneration and waterfront development".

Walking around the central business district, there is little evidence the opposition to Solidere is having much of an impact.

The streets are lined with new buildings, most of them in a Parisian style of faux old stone and wrought iron balconies. Blocks of pedestrian walkways feature shops offering the latest in luxury brands, including Cartier, Fendi, Chanel and Hugo Boss.

Solidere listed 263 projects completed, covering 1.2 million square metres, at the end of last year. Another 39 buildings are either close to completion or under construction, representing an additional 330,000 sq metres.

That compares with 256 projects completed at the end of 2009. A total of 338 projects are in development for a total of 2.9 million sq metres. It is a massive undertaking. Few big cities in the world have attempted redevelopment on such a grand scale, never mind in a country with a history of civil war.

The project has been hailed by business leaders as a resounding success, turning a bombed out area of the city into a thriving commercial district and a meeting place for community events.

Yet, the project attracted criticism from the start. Corruption charges dogged the development agency, creating animosity and suspicion about the business plan.

Thanks in part to Solidere, central Beirut's retail rental rates are the highest in the Middle East, averaging US$1,800 (Dh6,610) a sq metre, according to Cushman & Wakefield, a property firm

Little of the city's history is captured in the airconditioned souqs and chain stores of the new district. But sitting under the shade of the freshly planted trees, Solidere is simply a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

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