German companies’ $5 billion Beirut port redevelopment proposal won’t be realized without political reform

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L’Orient Today / By https://today.lorientlejour.com-Abby Sewell

The plan as currently envisioned would entail shifting the port to the east. (Credit: Joseph Eid/AFP)

BEIRUT — A group of German private companies, accompanied by Lebanese and German officials, presented an ambitious proposal on Friday to redevelop the Beirut port alongside a new commercial and residential site, but like many other things in Lebanon, execution of the plan is contingent on political reforms.

The proposal presented by Hamburg Port Consulting and Colliers Germany would require an investment of about $5 billion for the urban development portion of the project and generate a projected profit of about $2.5 billion, which the team suggested could be put into rebuilding other explosion-damaged areas surrounding the port, preserving cultural heritage sites and creating affordable housing, as well as to help finance the reconstruction of the port itself.

While there has also been interest from the French company CMA CGM in taking part in the reconstruction of the port, the Germany companies’ proposal for reconstruction is the most fully formed initiative to emerge to date. The group came up with several potential configurations for the redevelopment, but the one presented Friday was identified as the preferred option.

The plan as currently envisioned would entail shifting the port to the east, with the storage area to be moved to land on the east side of Beirut River currently occupied by a landfill, and the main port access would be moved from the city center to the industrial area. The hulking grain silos that famously shielded the west half of the city by absorbing much of the shock of the explosion at the port on Aug. 4 of almost 3,000 tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate would be replaced by smaller ones intended for shorter-term storage.

Meanwhile, the west side of the present-day port would be redeveloped into a project that would include a large public park, residential and business buildings, and public and private beach areas.

“The area to be redeveloped is entirely from the port,” Lars Greiner, associate partner for the Middle East and North Africa with Hamburg Port Consulting, told L’Orient Today. “We’re not touching any private land right now.”

Based on the timeline of similar projects in other countries, such as the post-apartheid development of the Capetown waterfront in South Africa, Greiner said the projected timeline for the Beirut project — assuming it goes forward — is 15 to 20 years to completion.

As currently envisioned, financing would be managed by an independent trust company with international supervision, a component that the proponents said would be key to gaining the confidence of potential investors as well as the Lebanese people.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said the proposal had helped to restore hope after the period following the port blast when “we were not seeing anything in front of us but ruin and destruction. We were thinking that the future was closed in front of us.”

Now, Abboud said, “We say to all people who are interested in helping Beirut … welcome to them and their initiatives.”

However, German ambassador to Lebanon Andreas Kindl noted that any international financing for the project would be contingent upon political and economic reforms.

Kindl noted that the proposal is a private initiative and not an initiative of the German government, but said that “there is willingness from the international community, I’m sure, from Germany, from the European Union, to support the redevelopment of the port and redevelopment of the city of Beirut where it was destroyed.”

But, he said, before the proposal can progress to more advanced studies and to eventual implementation, “we really need to see reforms in this country. We need to see accountability and transparency.”

Meanwhile, the proposed redevelopment approach has found critics within the country, particularly among urban planners wary of a repeat of the privatized redevelopment of downtown by Solidere, which is widely criticized as having created a sterile and lifeless city center.

Abir Saksouk-Sasso, an urban planner and co-director of Public Works Studio, told L’Orient Today that she thought the plans lacked an understanding of the local context, describing the proposal as “a privately owned and internationally controlled project that aims to sideline local big developers but in fact does not propose a different model.”

From what she had seen, she said, the project fails to consider who the eventual residents and users of the proposed housing and facilities would be but is rather “a European urban development model parachuted here.”

Beyond that, Saksouk-Sasso said that the county needs to embark on a national discussion of the reconstruction process that would put those harmed by the blast at the forefront.

“What is our national policy for reconstruction?” she said. “Before we start delegating or giving out packages and bits and pieces to foreign donors and foreign investments and foreign proposals, there is a local debate that needs to happen on what is our reconstruction policy.”

Alia Fares, a local archeological and cultural heritage expert who is coordinating between the German team and local stakeholders, told L’Orient Today that she remains skeptical but sees the proposal as the best option at this point to fund the needed rehabilitation of the blast-damaged neighborhoods. The German group’s proposed plan would entail creation of a restoration fund to be used for rebuilding damaged areas surrounding the port and preserving heritage sites.

“You need to generate income to bring this area back to life,” she said. “Where is this money going to come from?”

Still, Fares said, “I’m not completely convinced until they actually sit with the architects who know Beirut by heart and who know what were the mistakes that took place in Solidere.”

“The project must be inclusive and discussions with all of the city’s stakeholders is extremely crucial from the very beginning of its initial conceptual design,” she added.

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