March 03, 2014
By Venetia Rainey

BEIRUT: Activists and residents are calling for the funding planned for the Fouad Boutros Highway in Ashrafieh to be spent instead on improving urban planning and public transport, after protests against the controversial project over the weekend drew hundreds.

More than 2,300 people have signed an online petition against the project, which would see a 1.3-km four-lane highway built to link Ashrafieh’s Alfred Naccahe Road with Charles Helou Avenue by the Beirut Port.

“The goal, the dream if you want, is to improve urban planning in Beirut,” Joana Hammour, project coordinator at non-governmental organization Nahnoo, said at the protest Sunday. “This project doesn’t take into account the urban fabric of the area, the environment or the people who live here.”

“Our objective for the campaign is to stop the highway and build the Fouad Boutros Park,” Hammour said. “We need public spaces, not more roads. … Public transport is what we should be focusing on, because there is a big lack of this.”

Around 300 people protested Saturday in Hikmeh against the highway, with 100 showing up for a second demonstration Sunday.

“This is our home, our life,” local resident Amal Awad said indignantly. “I lived with my children and the rats underground during the Civil War, and we still didn’t leave this area. Now they are forcing us to leave it because they will demolish part of our building.”

The project, which was originally proposed more than 40 years ago, is intended to ease congestion in Ashrafieh, but a civil coalition of NGOs, professionals and activists argues that it will in fact increase traffic by facilitating access for cars to the neighborhood.

The coalition has suggested the government construct a tunnel under Charles Malek Avenue to link Downtown with Emile Lahoud Avenue in the east. It says this would do more to reduce congestion and cost less than the current plan.

The coalition also points to the immense damage that will be done to a historical part of Beirut, with 30 buildings scheduled to be demolished and 10,000 square meters of gardens and orchards to be paved over.

Activists warn that the quality of life would fall even for residents of buildings that would remain structurally intact.

“I would live right next to this highway,” Joe al-Khoury said, as he gestured to a narrow, quiet backstreet. “It’s not just the noise that would be a problem, it’s the pollution, the access to my own flat. It would be unbearable. I would be forced to move if it happened.”

Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad told news website Elnashra Saturday that nothing would happen until a consultancy company finished conducting an environmental impact assessment. However, the Council for Development and Reconstruction is going ahead with preparations, according to coalition member Raja Noujain of the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.

“So we are not going to work with the EIA until this stops,” he said. “Don’t worry, this is going to work. We are going to stop them.”

But Noujain, like other members of the coalition, was keen to emphasize that they were looking to create something in place of the highway.

“We will not let the project pass, but further, we have to replace it, because some 14,000 square meters of land has already been expropriated,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 03, 2014, on page 4.

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