Depending on whom you ask, a new waterfront development in Tripoli  with high-end restaurants, shops and accommodation will either give a badly needed boost to an impoverished city, or it will further divide an already fragmented society.
“Unfortunately for the past 20 years, there has been no plan for the revival of Tripoli,” MP Robert Fadel, who is facilitating the project, tells The Daily Star. “People are concerned for very good reasons. They haven’t seen anything of this magnitude in 20 years.”
Dubbed by some locals as “Tripoli’s Zaitunay Bay” after the Beirut development near Ain al-Mreisseh, the new project, still in early planning stages and yet to be given an official name, would cover 1 million square meters, the vast majority of which would be landfill, and part of which would be on the seaside promenade, the corniche .
Tripoli Development Holding along with its subsidiary, the Tripoli Seafront Company, were established last year by 14 of the city’s business leaders for the execution of the project, which has raised $1 million in seed funding and needs a total of $300 million. They expect the new marina will boost the local economy by bringing tourists, residents and around 10,000 new jobs to what has essentially become a neglected city.
The government will benefit from at least half of the landfill, which the company plans on developing for state use. This could include infrastructure such as roads, rehabilitation of the corniche, a public garden and a dry dock at the cost of $50 million that could generate over a 100 jobs. A percentage of the generated profits will be divided between the private investors and a reinvestment fund, which would possibly help establish a technological business incubator.
“This is a strategy to work together for the good of Tripoli,” says Samir Chreim, managing partner in Beirut at SCAS, Inc., the financial consulting firm drawing up the plans for the vast new marina on the southern edge of Lebanon’s second city.
“If Tripoli’s image is polished, then people will want to visit,” predicts Chreim, who likens the project to one for which he previously consulted, Jumeirah, the luxury waterfront development in Dubai, which includes the man-made palm tree-shaped islands.
Even at this early stage, some residents have already mobilized against the project, fearing that it will create a cluster of shops and restaurants that locals cannot afford, harm the coastal environment and intrude on space where all classes from the destitute city can take a walk along the waterfront.
“Of course I’m against it. It will change the whole peninsula. People come from poor areas for this million-dollar view,” says Sahar Minkara, an interior designer and cafe owner in Tripoli, who agrees that her city needs to be developed, but worries that this will be at the expense of the environment and regular Tripolitans. She is part of Masha3, a nationwide campaign aimed at reclaiming Lebanon’s public property. They say that lax enforcement of existing laws has led to unchecked development along some of Lebanon’s nicest areas of coastline.
Mira Minkara, Sahar’s cousin and another member of Masha3, wonders if the developers can live up to their high expectations.
“They say they will create more than 10,000 jobs. I don’t know how realistic or how economically sustainable it is,” she says. She thinks that developers should instead revitalize some of the city’s ailing infrastructure, such as the port.
Tripoli resident Jihad Jneid, also a member of the group, says he would support the project if it were not on the sea, which he says is the only place for poor people to get away from their basic, cramped housing. Now, he believes, it will be a place for Tripoli’s wealthy to have an escape from their city’s poverty.
“I don’t think anyone should touch the corniche, even if it improves the face of Tripoli,” says Jneid. “We need empty spaces where people can go for free and have coffee. There isn’t anyone from Tripoli that doesn’t go there.”
After learning about the new waterfront project, the members of Masha3 held a public meeting last month with the Tripoli Holding Group, in which the initial design plans were discussed. The next scheduled meeting is Friday.
Chreim says he is disappointed with the reaction of some activists, and he believes that all of their concerns are addressed in the proposed plan. For example, he says that the area’s flora and fauna have been depleting for years due to longtime neglect of Tripoli’s coastline. They plan on developing a hatchery for flora and fauna.
He also questions the logic of the argument that the project will segregate Tripoli’s social classes, something that he believes is inevitable anywhere.
“There are already different classes in different areas. This happens all over the world. A Burj Hammoud person won’t live in Ashrafieh. It’s the nature of the area,” he says, adding that he doesn’t see a problem with a relatively exclusive area if it results in a greater good for Tripoli’s economy.
Mona Harb disagrees. The urban planning professor at the American University of Beirut says that economic and class diversity is a normal part of a city’s “urban fabric” and such projects are a result of “failed urban policies for decades” in the country’s postwar reconstruction.
“Usually [it’s] when people are busy with politics [that] these projects get done,” she adds. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the decree [to reclaim public land along the coast line] were done during intense conflicts in the area.”
The government has yet to issue such a decree.
Indeed, despite the scale of the project, many people in Tripoli, including those who spend their days on the shore, are still unaware of a new plan for the waterfront. Fishermen along the corniche voiced surprise upon hearing of it.
“This is the first time I hear about it,” says Mohammad Abdallah sitting on his boat, scaling a fish. “I hope it happens so that we can have better work.”
Nearby, Ammer Azzedine, a Syrian who has been selling coffee on the corniche for the past 20 years, says, “They’ve been talking about developing the waterfront for 20 years. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Labib Shalak, a longtime resident and software development CEO based in Tripoli, also says he hasn’t heard of the project, but that he is already skeptical of the plans.
“To help the economy, we need to have production, not services,” he says. “Maybe it would create jobs for a couple of years. But after that, what? It could crash like Dubai.”
Referring to Lebanon’s highly educated workforce which tends to travel abroad for better opportunities, he says, “Human resources are Lebanon’s biggest asset – not hotels.” Although he says he would welcome a new hotel, he doesn’t think it should be a priority.
But some people think that fellow Tripolitans should give the new development a chance – especially given the economic stagnation of their city, ranked among the poorest in the Mediterranean basin.
“I don’t have a stand yet,” says Khaled Merheb, sitting at a cafe in Tripoli with some of his friends who oppose the project. “When I first heard about the project, they said it would damage Tripoli’s environment and it would prevent poor people from coming to the corniche. But the corniche is already filled with litter, and girls can’t walk there alone – so don’t talk about the environment and poor people.”
He thinks his friends should be open to the new project.
“These are wealthy Tripolitans who want to do something good for the city,” he says, calling it hypocrisy that people complain about politicians doing nothing for the city, then try to stop them when they do. “If it’s good for the city, let them make money. But let my city bloom.”
For Mu’taz Salloum the project can’t come fast enough.
“I’m with the project until I find enough proof that it’s not eco-friendly,” says Salloum, a film director from Tripoli, noting that the local municipality already deems the water too polluted for swimming.
“I’m always with any project that brings job opportunities to town. I’m sure if people from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen were offered jobs, they wouldn’t refuse,” he says, referring to the city’s two most impoverished neighborhoods, the backdrop to sporadic armed clashes.
“I’d support the project if it created a thousand jobs – or even 10 jobs. People are dying and starving in Tripoli.”
Meanwhile, Fadel, who for more than two years has been studying the feasibility and laying the groundwork for the project that he hopes will boost his city’s economy, says he needs the backing of the local residents.
“The project in the end,” he says, “would require the support of the Tripoli community.”
Facts on new marina planned for Tripoli
Size: 1 million square meters
Location: on the southern end of the city, near the stadium
Development cost: $300 million
Seed money raised so far: $1 million
Target audience: Lebanese from the area, expatriates, Gulf residents
Possible attractions: a luxury hotel, shopping, water sports
Architects: Dar al-Handasa, Nazih Taleb
Potential contractors: Mouawad-Edde and Khoury Contracting Co.