Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Street smart in Gemmazieh

Commentary - Executive magazine

If you believed Lebanon's ad campaign, you'd think the country is a paradise of pristine nature, beautiful shorelines and night time cavorting. On touring the country you wouldn't see the Saida rubbish dump that regularly collapses into the sea, the smoggy haze over Beirut at sunset, or the belching fumes as you sit in yet another traffic jam. Neither would you experience the raging torrent of traffic heading north from Beirut, or the long line of cars crawling along nightlife hotspot Rue Gouraud in Gemmazieh. Such images would not be good for Lebanon's brand identity.

This is quite understandable, no country would highlight such downsides. But with tourism to contribute directly and indirectly an estimated $7.78 billion to the Lebanese economy this year - equivalent to 28.1 percent of GDP - such images should be embarrassing to the sector. Resolving Lebanon's environmental woes requires macro efforts and capital to invest in infrastructure improvements. Yet there are initiatives that can be taken on a more local level.

Take Gemmazieh street (the official name is Rue Gouraud). To drive the one kilometer long, one way street that runs from the edge of Martyrs' Square to the Electricite du Liban building, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour as people search for a parking space or hand over keys to a valet. For an essentially straight and flat street, close to areas with parking space, like downtown and Charles Helou Station, such a log jam would seem a major urban planning oversight.

But in Gemmazieh's case, an area of 'traditional character' as the sign posts tell us, the street turned into a nightlife hub haphazardly, bar by bar, restaurant by restaurant. The one kilometer long traffic jam is also not solely down to a lack of planning. A big contributer is the Lebanese penchant for valet car parking, a combination of unwillingness to walk and, two, to show off.

What if Rue Gouraud were to follow the example of cities as far apart as Shanghai, Cape Town, York, Copenhagen, Montreal and Curtiba, Brazil? What all these cities have done is pedestrianize streets or whole blocks, whether for retail, nightlife or areas of historic interest. Neither extreme temperatures, rain, sunshine or humidity have made these areas less popular.

But Gemmazieh would not need to look abroad to see how pedestrianization was implemented – half a kilometer away is pedestrian friendly downtown Beirut. With the upcoming opening of the Beirut Souks, the pedestrian area will be extended even further, and it could spread eastwards if Rue Gouraud followed suit.

How this could work would be for Rue Gouraud to have rising bollards at either end, making the street pedestrian but also accessible at specific times for delivery trucks and residents with parking permits.

Parking space could be found in Martyrs' Square, and if Charles Helou was given a lick of paint, fumigated, and linked via a bridge, several hundred more vehicles could be parked. For those unwilling to walk, a fleet of golf carts could be added to the current half a dozen that ply downtown to transport people. Pedestrianized, bars and restaurants could spill onto Rue Gouraud, and there could be live music, buskers, dancers, and street artists. People would mix and mingle, no-one would be aggravated from a traffic jam or altercation with a valet, and air pollution would undoubtedly be reduced.

While this sounds desirable there are always obstacles to contend with, particularly ones unique to Lebanon. In other cities, when pedestrianization has taken place, gentrification has also occurred, changing demographics. Lebanon's 'old rent' laws, where rents were frozen at a particular monthly rate prior to the civil war, has prevented this from happening. It has also meant demand by more elderly residents for vehicle access. Noise pollution is another potential issue, although if the demographics changed would be less of a problem, with those moving in aware of the neighborhood's lively night time atmosphere. The valet car parking mafia, which attempts to control the parking spaces that line Gouraud and surrounding streets, could also oppose such a move to pedestrianization.

Then the night-goers themselves may very well resist such an idea, too used to valet parking and reluctant to give up a perceived convenience – although it may take 40 minutes to get to the valet, as opposed to a 10 minute walk from parking lots on the easter edge of downtown, or if it was renovated, Charles Helou.

But that are indications some nightlife patrons are willing to forgo their valet. A bar owner, not overly in favor of pedestrianization, admitted that out of the 150 cars usually valet parked every Friday, on one particular night there were only 15 as people shunned their cars to walk. While anecdotal, this does suggest that people are willing to forgo the valet to save time.

For access to Gouraud to improve – whether by improving parking or opting for pedestrianization – this would require a united front by residents and business owners to surmount the biggest obstacle, bureaucracy and vested political interests.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for International News Services

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