In a public statement last January, Beirut’s mayor reiterated his electoral promise to protect and harness the city’s coast as its most important resource. Yet, nine months after he assumed office, Mr. Itani has yet to make an announcement about how he will address forty illegal buildings that distort and privatize the city’s seafront.
In fact, Beirut’s municipal council has so far been publicly unresponsive to activists’ demands, namely that it intervene to stop encroaching development along the coast (and elsewhere). More alarming, the council and its president have remained mute about the Eden Rock/Eden Bay resort saga, the blatantly illegal seven-floor touristic development that was the subject of two decisions from the higher court council (Majlis al-Shura) before the city’s governor—ironically once a judge on the council himself—issued a statement ordering the developer to stop construction.
This open letter to the elected Beirut municipal city council calls on the council to take a proactive, forward looking position regarding the regulation of development along the city coast in order to recover the seafront’s role as an open-access, unbuilt shared commons. It decries the current approach, under which the Beirut Municipality acts as a subdued regulator, checking case by case the compliance of submitted building permits with (legal and extra-legal) rules in response to pressure exerted by developers and politicians (two often overlapping categories). This letter argues that the Beirut Municipality should instead lead with a palette of urban and landscape interventions that equip the seafront with public amenities; enhance its social, cultural, ecological, and economic values; and improve its accessibility for all.
Consider the ongoing saga in Ramlet el Bayda. Much of the discussion on the construction of the Eden Bay resort has centered on an investigation of historical facts and legal jurisdictions, namely, the basis on which permitting processes were conducted. In the decision-making framework championed by the city governor, the discussion has focused on who holds property titles to land and which volume and density can be built according to existing documents and laws, including the full scope of exceptions, exemptions, and so-called incentives.
In the spirit of a diligent clerk, the governor first initiated an investigation of historical and contemporary documents. Having analyzed its findings, the governor concluded by recognizing the private nature of the beach and the rights of developers to benefit from a basket of laws and exemptions that they and previous owners had secured to expand construction on these specific lots. The planning task was hence reduced to a mere compliance check, with the full knowledge that many regulations had been dubiously issued due to political interference on the part of powerful planning actors with direct vested private interests in the project.
In doing so, those entities entrusted with carrying out the municipal permitting process were effectively abdicating the authority (Building Law, article 13) to deny a permit for any building activity that brings negative environmental and/or social externalities, as is blatantly the case here. Furthermore, faced with unresponsive public agencies, particularly the Ministry of Public Works—the custodian of coastal properties that had been approached by officials at the governorate (muhafaza) level to redefine the boundaries of the public domain—the governor opted to recognize existing property boundaries, despite the fact that he had recognized in earlier statements that these property boundaries were drawn in contradiction of public property laws (144/S, 1925). Finally, once the project was deemed “possible” and “legal”, the governor adopted the neoliberal stance of an entrepreneurial city government eager to attract private investments at any cost. As a result, the issued permits overlooked blatant illegalities such as allowing additional built-up areas and dismissing the absence of legally mandated environmental and social impact studies as inconsequential.
An alternative, more constructive discussion about developments on the city coast would begin with the municipal council articulating a holistic vision of what its aspirations for the seafront are, how it should function, and which role the council should play in the development of the city. The council should keep in mind the actual aspirations and expectations of its electorate (and city dwellers more generally) and address a number of questions. Is the Mediterranean only a multi-million-dollar view? Should it be turned into an array of privately managed resorts targeting rich tourists from Lebanon and perhaps abroad? Should it be considered an economic opportunity to accumulate capital for a handful of investors who can employ a few hundred of the council’s electorate to clean tables and mop floors?
There should be little doubt that the vast majority of Beirut’s dwellers aspire to an open access, uninterrupted seafront. This is evidenced by their practices, namely, the large number of city residents who regularly visit and enjoy the coast despite closures and poor public equipment. As such, the municipal council and its president need to work arduously to respond to this need. How can this be done?
Let us start with the evident truth that laws are made by people. In the context of any democracy (as lacking as it is), laws need to reflect at least some of the aspirations of majorities, in this case Beirut city dwellers, many of whom have made clear their aspirations for the coast to be an inalienable, open access space and reaffirmed it (as noted above) through their regular practices. Let us also assume that laws should respect at least some international agreements that Lebanon has signed, which recognize the right to the environment as a human right. Such agreements echo principles of Roman law that held for thousands of years that the sea and its shores are “common to all mankind […] by the law of nature”.
These are the same legal frameworks that support public trust doctrines in the United States and international environmental regulations and agreements (of which Lebanon is a signatory), and serve as the basis for numerous campaigns and decrees to protect seafronts across the world.
Given these assumptions, it should be concluded that since the current legal framework implemented by the city council allows for the privatization and enclosure of the coast, it contradicts the will of majorities as well as universal principles of environmental rights. In this context, it should also be concluded that the primary role of the municipal council should be to freeze ongoing developments and revise and update the coastal development framework according to the vision of city dwellers. So what should a city council that truly shares city dwellers’ aspirations for the seafront to be protected as an open access, shared urban heritage do? Let us conclude with a few recommendations, all largely possible within the existing legal framework but politically unviable due to the current geometries of power:
1. The city council (on the basis of 2004 Building Law) should place Area #10 of Beirut’s coast “under study”, effectively freezing for a maximum of three years, all building activities. (Given that Area #9 is not buildable, the legal conditions are already ideal in this area, and they should not be changed).
2. The council should articulate and forward to the Directorate General of Urbanism revised regulations for Area 10 with the aim of reducing, to the extent possible, all building activities along the coast, protecting its ecological assets and recognizing its heritage value. This should include annulling all exceptions, exemptions, and building bonuses that intensify construction along the city coast.
3. The city council should articulate a strategy to dismantle existing structures that obstruct access and views of the sea along the entire city coast incrementally (surveys can be acquired from the Ministry of Public Works).
4. The city council should demand that the Ministry of Public Works immediately retrace coastal lines according to the 1925 principles of public domain and should further establish a long-term plan to reacquire every private property that falls within the public maritime domain at its actual fair market price: As an unbuildable terrain where all exploitation ratios are null.
5. Recognizing the role of the seafront as a direly needed social integrator, the council should develop a holistic urban and landscape vision for the coast and articulate accordingly several targeted urban design interventions (including in Ramlet el Bayda). This could entail sidewalks being redesigned to prioritize pedestrian activities over car traffic and parking; introducing standardized kiosks and bicycle paths to link beaches; the installation of public amenities (e.g. public restrooms, waste disposals, signs); building lighting systems that illuminate roads, sidewalks, and beaches; and encouraging the practice of a variety of daily and nightly recreational activities, including sunbathing, fishing, swimming, jogging, and other sports.
6. The council should involve city-dwellers through open competitions, public debates, and participatory planning schemes that ultimately bring them on board as partners in the design of the entire seafront, both as its users and custodians.
7. The city council should encourage, organize, and regulate both fixed and ambulant commercial practices on both sides of the seafront boulevards (Corniche), while articulating a scheme to enhance the coast as a redistributive engine of growth.
8. In the long run, the city council needs to study the accessibility of the coast to the rest of the city, designing pathways and pedestrian/biking links that make the coast a central connector to numerous soft pathways in the city.
See the report from the Ministry of Public Works for a full list of illegalities along the coast.
To offer one example, the Higher Council of the Directorate General of Urbanism was pressured to reduce the 25 meter setback from the boundaries of the public domain to only 2 meters.
Poirier, M. 1995-96. “Environmental Justice and the Beach Access Movement of the 1970s in Connecticut and New Jersey: Stories of Property and Civil Rights.” 28 Connecticut Law Review: 719-812.