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Activists say new law needed to protect heritage sites.

Summary: Following the start of demolition work at Beirut's Grande Brasserie du Levant building, the latest in a long line of historical buildings to undergo development.

BEIRUT: Following the start of demolition work at Beirut's Grande Brasserie du Levant building, the latest in a long line of historical buildings to undergo development, preservationists called for legal loopholes to be closed to prevent further cultural loss. A closer look at the legal framework surrounding the preservation of heritage in Lebanon reveals a reality that leaves the buildings -- and at times their owners -- trapped in a bureaucratic maze.

For those who wish to knock their buildings down to build new properties, the law is relatively straightforward, at first. "A property owner has the right to enjoy full rights of ownership," Joseph Zgheib, the president of the Union of Owners in Beirut, told The Daily Star. This, he said, includes knocking the building down. However, buildings deemed historical by the Culture Ministry can be given heritage status and are therefore protected. But these measures are weak and poorly enforced.

According to heritage activists, in recent years the Shura Council -- an administrative court that oversees decisions made by the state and its agencies -- has increasingly taken the side of the owners who wish to demolish their property. This includes buildings covered by Culture Ministry protection orders for culturally important sites.

Zgheib, himself the owner of an old building, concedes that the owner's right to dispose of the property should be limited by public interest and argues that preserving heritage is economically advantageous in the long run.

"I rent my property at 30 percent more than the market price now, because of its unique beauty," Zgheib said. However, owners who do not have the means or are not willing to invest the considerable sums for renovation work cannot be forced to do so. This has left many historical buildings in a poor state of repair and often leaves it cheaper to demolish buildings than to renovate the old sites.

"The government should carry out [compulsory purchases of important buildings for protection], but this necessitates adequate compensation [for owners]," Zgheib said. He added that various laws to introduce economic incentives such as lower taxation for owners of such sites and state contributions to help preservation of old buildings have been drafted but have never been discussed in Parliament.

Draft laws filed by former culture ministers and by NGOs have attempted to strike a balance between supporting personal property rights, preserving heritage buildings and compensating owners. One of them was put forward by a group of organizations that includes the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon.

"The present legislation is not enough and it is not enforced," Raya Daouk, president of APSAD, told The Daily Star. "It is the physical reflection of the political mess we are in."

At present, the law defining the relationship between antiquities and real estate is the Law of Antiquities, which dates back to 1933 and envisages the protection only of buildings built prior to 1700. In 1995, as the postwar reconstruction frenzy precipitated the unregulated destruction of historical buildings, the Culture Ministry commissioned APSAD to draft a list of traditional buildings in need of preservation, and required all demolition requests to be studied by the Directorate General of Antiquities.

This first study found 1,051 buildings in Beirut to have cultural and historical relevance, but a subsequent committee later trimmed the number down to 459. Organizations estimate that the number of heritage structures still standing is down to 200. Even fewer of the officially listed buildings remain.

The classification of buildings according to their alleged cultural and historical value has been, until now, a point of contention. Hamra's "Red House" was taken off the list in March by Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury, reversing a decree issued by former Culture Minister Raymond Areiji. Contacted by The Daily Star, Khoury was not available for comment on his decision.

According to Raji Naji, founder of NGO Save Beirut Heritage, "This is ridiculous [because] heritage buildings just don't become normal buildings overnight." While legal procedures to declassify buildings exist, the group claims these are often misused to enable demolitions and pave the way for new real estate projects.

Historically, the real estate market has been one of the backbones of the Lebanese economy. Despite the worsening security situation and political impasse, this sector accounted for 14 percent of Lebanon's GDP in 2013, according to data collected by Blom Bank. Construction is also considered a key sector of the economy and is the second largest loan beneficiary in the private sector.

The project to build the Mar Mikhael Village -- a 99-apartment complex composed of studios, rooftop villas and commercial spaces -- is the latest example of a profitable real estate project replacing a historical landmark. The demolition of the Grande Brasserie du Levant brewery, which the project required, was halted after it commenced in March, following safety concerns for the neighboring buildings.

The recent teetering facade of an art-deco building located on Gemmayzeh's Gouraud Street also prompted authorities to seal off the street for days, after the owner failed to properly secure the listed front as the rear of the building was demolished despite the Culture Ministry's refusal to grant a demolition order.

According to activists, demolition permits are a near useless tool of deterrence as their breach does not result in legal action. "No one was ever convicted for tearing town a building without permission," APSAD's Raya Daouk said. According to Save Beirut Heritage, owners are sometimes fined but the amount is not enough to make it economically inconvenient, in the short term, to build a new building rather than renovating an old one.

According to organizations and owners alike, if economic incentives to protect heritage buildings are not instituted and existing laws are not efficiently enforced, the loss of cultural heritage is destined to continue unabated.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Apr 14, 2017
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