The un­touch­able ho­tel

Ur­ban ac­tivists view Eden Bay as a sym­bol of dys­fun­tion

Executive Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Pre­ston

While it is widely as­sumed that Le­banon’s real es­tate busi­ness is rife with un­eth­i­cal deal­ings, only a few de­tailed ex­am­ples of wrong­do­ing ac­tu­ally come to light. In the case of Eden Bay, a re­sort sit­u­ated along Ram­let al-Baida—Beirut’s last pub­lic beach—ev­i­dence of vi­o­la­tions and fraud piled up through­out 2017.

The dis­clo­sures cul­mi­nated in the form of a re­port compiled mid-2017 by the pres­i­dent of the Beirut Order of En­gi­neers and Ar­chi­tects (OEA), Jad Ta­bet. The re­port al­leges eight vi­o­la­tions re­lated to Eden Bay and is in­formed by build­ing doc­u­ments re­leased by the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Beirut. The re­port’s al­le­ga­tions range from the in­fringe­ment of pub­lic prop­erty to the forgery of per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion ma­te­rial. As a whole, Ta­bet’s re­port por­trays a de­vel­op­ment project for which le­gal ob­sta­cles were fudged or ig­nored en­tirely to de­liver the lu­cra­tive seafront ho­tel. Pub­lic pres­sure from me­dia cov­er­age, a uni­fied civil so­ci­ety move­ment, and even law­suits ini­ti­ated by NGOs and the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry have not pre­vented the com­ple­tion of the ho­tel.

With the façade com­pleted in re­cent months and the re­sort aim­ing to open this April, Eden Bay’s op­po­nents now view the in­ef­fec­tive­ness of these ef­forts as proof of the pub­lic sec­tor’s fail­ure to ad­e­quately gov­ern the real es­tate mar­ket.

CRAZY EIGHTS

Ac­cord­ing to Ta­bet’s re­port, vi­o­la­tions re­lated to the ho­tel date back to be­fore it was ac­tu­ally con­ceived.

Ini­tially, the real es­tate gi­ant that owns Eden Bay, Achour De­vel­op­ment, had planned to es­tab­lish a larger re­sort in the same lo­ca­tion. To man­age the project, Achour cre­ated a com­pany named Beirut Ma­rina Gate, which set about pur­chas­ing two plots of land in the area. In 2011, Beirut Ma­rina Gate signed a con­tract to buy two parcels— num­bered 3689 and 3687 by the Direc­torate of Land Reg­is­tra­tion and Cadas­tre (LRC)—from a com­pany called Eden Rock Real Es­tate and Tourism.

But, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, Par­cel 3689 was the prod­uct of an il­le­gal merger that com­bined four smaller plots ear­lier the same year. Two of these com­po­nent plots were cat­e­go­rized as non-build­able and there­fore could not be merged with the oth­ers that were el­i­gi­ble for de­vel­op­ment.

How­ever, in a let­ter dated June 6, 2012 and seen by Ex­ec­u­tive, Beirut Gov­er­nor Che­bib re­quested that the LRC re­move the non-build­able sta­tus clas­si­fi­ca­tions from the prop­er­ties. The LRC com­plied, merg­ing the plots into Par­cel 3689 with­out the re­quired ap­proval from the ju­di­ciary.

Lama Karame, a lawyer with the non-profit Le­gal Agenda that mon­i­tors pub­lic pol­icy, says that the uni­fi­ca­tion of the parcels is one of sev­eral vi­o­la­tions that should have pre­vented the con­struc­tion of Eden Bay from mov­ing for­ward.

CRE­AT­ING SPACE

De­spite the ap­par­ent il­le­gal ori-

Mona el-Hal­lak, an ar­chi­tect and ac­tivist, be­lieves that the com­pany tried to pass off lev­els now mar­keted as lux­ury beach­front chalets as un­der­ground park­ing space

gins of Par­cel 3689, it was sold in 2011 along with Par­cel 3687 to be used for Achour’s re­sort, which was also named Eden Rock. Cyn­thia BouAoun, an ar­chi­tect that has con­trib­uted to the coastal pro­tec­tion cam­paigns of the her­itage ad­vo­cacy NGO Nah­noo, says that Achour then pooled Parcels 3687 and 3689 in a move that grouped them but did not for­mally merge them in the records of the LRC. This, she says, was done in order to meet the 20,000 square me­ter min­i­mum de­vel­opable thresh­old that was re­quired to build the Eden Rock re­sort in the zone.

For rea­sons that have not been pub­licly dis­closed, Achour later dropped its plans for Eden Rock, hav­ing only com­pleted the nec­es­sary En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact As­sess­ment (EIA) for the project, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. The devel­oper in­cor­po­rated a new com­pany, Eden Bay sal, to over­see the es­tab­lish­ment of a smaller re­sort. Karame says that Parcels 3689 and 3687 were un­grouped by the LRC and the former was trans­ferred to the new Eden Bay project; how­ever, she ex­plains that the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Beirut was not in- formed of this change, so when Par­cel 3689 was trans­ferred to Eden Bay, the project was en­ti­tled to a larger build­ing than what would have been al­lowed if the de­ci­sion had been based on the size of Par­cel 3689 alone.

An un­usual de­ci­sion by the Direc­torate Gen­eral of Ur­ban Plan­ning (DGUP) also fa­cil­i­tated the cre­ation of a re­sort that would have been too large by nor­mal stan­dards. Mona Fawaz, a pro­fes­sor of ur­ban plan­ning at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity of Beirut who helped re­search Ta­bet’s re­port, ex­plains that de­vel­op­ment projects close to the shore­line are by con­ven­tion set back from the sea by at least 20 me­ters in most places along the Lebanese coast. But in 1964, Fawaz says Beirut’s zon­ing reg­u­la­tions were changed, and the set­back from the pub­lic mar­itime do­main was no longer spec­i­fied. Since the change, how­ever, the DGUP has gen­er­ally ap­plied the old 20-me­ter stan­dard.

Fawaz says that in the case of Eden Bay, the DGUP in 2015 sud­denly dropped this stan­dard and in­stead de­ferred to the build­ing law, which states that the set­back for most pub­lic prop­erty is only two me­ters.

Even with the di­min­ished set­back, Ta­bet’s re­port al­leges that Achour went on to in­crease its build­ing size be­yond what is al­lowed by lo­cal zon­ing reg­u­la­tions. The re­port high­lights a sub­stan­tial dis­crep­ancy be­tween the ground el­e­va­tion claimed by Eden Bay and the el­e­va­tion from state sources. Mona el-Hal­lak, an ar­chi­tect and ac­tivist, be­lieves that the com­pany tried to pass off lev­els now mar­keted as lux­ury beach­front chalets as un­der­ground park­ing space, which would legally be omit­ted from the project’s tally of build­able area.

Ta­bet writes that the to­po­graphic map that was sub­mit­ted for the re­sort’s con­struc­tion per­mit de­fines the ground height at 7.7 me­ters above sea level. How­ever, geo­graph­i­cal im­ages from the Direc­torate of Geo­graphic Af­fairs of the Lebanese Armed Forces mark an el­e­va­tion of 1.4 me­ters.

The re­port ac­knowl­edges that the Eden Bay de­vel­op­ment was orig­i­nally meant to be built into a hill, which means one side of these floors would

have been par­tially be­low ground. How­ever, Hal­lak says the earth has since been cleared away, ex­pos­ing the two lower sto­ries meant for park­ing, lead­ing Ta­bet to con­clude in his re­port that Eden Bay had planned the al­ter­ations from the start.

Ta­bet cal­cu­lates that the ad­di­tion of these two lev­els and the ap­par­ent il­le­gal uni­fy­ing of prop­er­ties in Ram­let al-Baida dou­bled the project’s built area from 5,251 to 10,439 square me­ters. That would mean that Eden Bay ex­ceeded the max­i­mum build­ing size by about twice what was al­lowed for Par­cel 3698.

But even with­out the afore­men­tioned vi­o­la­tions, Ta­bet ar­gues that the lo­ca­tion should never have been cleared for de­vel­op­ment in the first place, as the coun­try’s na­tional ur­ban mas­ter plan, de­creed in 2009, specif­i­cally de­clares that Ram­let al-Baida should be pro­tected from real es­tate con­struc­tion works.

TO THE COURTS

In spite of these is­sues, a con­struc­tion per­mit was is­sued by the Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal­ity for the Eden Bay re­sort in Septem­ber 2016. Yet, Ta­bet’s re­port states that Eden Bay failed to com­mis­sion a new EIA to ac­com­pany the per­mit.

In a 2015 in­ter­view with Ex­ec­u­tive, Achour’s lawyer, Bahij Mja­hed, claimed that the EIA from Eden Rock would cover the con­struc­tion of the Eden Bay project. How­ever, Ralph Had­dad, an at­tor­ney at Bou Chaaya Law Firm who spe­cial­izes in real es­tate lit­i­ga­tion, and is un­con­nected to the project or re­lated law­suits, con­tra­dicts this view. Look­ing over Ta­bet’s re­port, he says that a new EIA would have been re­quired, and that re­gard­less the old EIA had ex­pired be­fore con­struc­tion be­gan. For this rea­son, the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry filed a law­suit against Eden Bay on May 5, based in part on in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by Nah­noo.

On No­vem­ber 28, 2016, the Green Line As­so­ci­a­tion, an en­vi­ron­men­ta­l­ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, ini­ti­ated an­other law­suit that con­tested the build­ing per­mit held by Eden Bay sal, which the group sus­pected was in­trud­ing on pub­lic prop­erty. Green Line As­so­ci­a­tion, rep­re­sented by Le­gal Agenda, is also chal­leng­ing the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Beirut and the Lebanese Govern­ment over the project.

On Fe­bru­ary 8, 2017, the State Coun­cil or­dered a con­struc­tion freeze on the re­sort in re­sponse to the Green Line As­so­ci­a­tion’s law­suit, un­til the le­gal­ity of the de­vel­op­ment could be de­ter­mined. Ac­cord­ing to Karame, Eden Bay con­tin­ued build­ing none­the­less, even when a sec­ond stop order was is­sued by the coun­cil on March 6, 2017.

She says that Eden Bay cited mul­ti­ple tech­ni­cal­i­ties to avoid com­ply­ing with the coun­cil’s de­ci­sion. For ex­am­ple, Karame says that Achour ar­gued the build­ing per­mit that Green Line As­so­ci­a­tion was con­test­ing no longer af­fected it as the com­pany had filed for a mod­i­fi­ca­tion per­mit that amended their orig­i­nal. Al­though mod­i­fi­ca­tions are not tech­ni­cally con­sid­ered sep­a­rate con­struc­tion per­mits, the Coun­cil is­sued an­other order to halt the build­ing on March 6, 2017. This too had lit­tle ef­fect, says Karame.

Le­gal Agenda then asked Jad Maalouf, a judge of ur­gent mat­ters, to oblige the con­struc­tion com­pany to halt its ac­tiv­i­ties un­der threat of a $100,000 fine for each day that work con­tin­ued. By March 18, the order was in place, and Karame says Achour stopped con­truc­tion soon afer.

Mean­while, the coun­cil re­quired the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Beirut to hand over Eden Bay’s build­ing per­mit and re­lated ap­pli­ca­tion ma­te­rial. The in­for­ma­tion gar­nered from this dis­clo­sure largely con­trib­uted to ex­pos­ing the vi­o­la­tions al­leged in Ta­bet’s re­port, which he compiled at the re­quest of Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun and Min­is­ter of State for Com­bat­ing Cor­rup­tion Nico­las Tueni.

AGAINST THE CUR­RENT

But less than a month later, on April 11, the State Coun­cil re­versed its ear­lier de­ci­sion and al­lowed con­struc­tion

Crit­ics say Eden Bay ex­ceeded the max­i­mum build­ing size by about twice what was al­lowed for Par­cel 3698.

to go for­ward. Karame says the State Coun­cil did not ex­plain the de­ci­sion.

The Green Line As­so­ci­a­tion’s law­suit is still await­ing a fi­nal rul­ing from the State Coun­cil. Karame ex­plains that Le­gal Agenda sub­mit­ted Ta­bet’s re­port to the court, but one of the coun­cil mem­bers de­cided to ap­point their own ex­perts to in­ves­ti­gate the ho­tel. She says that so far, the ap­pointees have been un­able to con­duct site visits be­cause Achour’s at­tor­ney claims that the com­pany was not no­ti­fied and the state main­tains that it has not yet se­lected a lawyer to at­tend these visits.

Me­dia re­ports on Eden Bay have also been re­stricted based on or­ders from a judge of ur­gent mat­ters who barred two TV sta­tions from dis­parag­ing the com­pany.

All sides of the Eden Bay con­tro­versy have been re­luc­tant to pro­vide in­ter­views for this ar­ti­cle. Only the lawyer from Achour agreed to speak, on the con­di­tion he was not recorded. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity was un­re­spon­sive and an of­fi­cial at the DGUP was un­avail­able. For his part, Ta­bet told Ex­ec­u­tive he had no fur­ther com­ment at this time.

WHO HOLDS THE REINS?

Ex­ec­u­tive asked Mja­hed to re­spond to the charges pre­sented in the re­port. He stated that the only au­thor­i­ties that can eval­u­ate whether the com­pany’s ac­tions were le­git­i­mate are the Beirut mu­nic­i­pal­ity—which ap­proved the nec­es­sary per­mits— and the ju­di­ciary, which ul­ti­mately al­lowed con­struc­tion to pro­ceed. Mja­hed dis­missed the ac­cu­sa­tions of vi­o­la­tions as a “fan­tasy,” say­ing that it is im­pos­si­ble that all the rel­e­vant Lebanese agen­cies are al­lied in a “con­spir­acy” with Eden Bay.

Mean­while, Eden Bay draws closer to open­ing. One Achour em­ployee, dur­ing a re­quest to be in­ter­viewed, put the open­ing as soon as early April. At the time of this writ­ing, Achour had not an­nounced whether an in­hab­i­tance per­mit, which cer- ti­fies a build­ing’s com­ple­tion and en­ables its oc­cu­pa­tion, had been is­sued. The de­liv­ery of the per­mit, if granted, may rep­re­sent both the fi­nal­iza­tion of the ho­tel and yet an­other reg­u­la­tory vi­o­la­tion, says BouAoun. “When you [ap­ply for] the in­hab­i­tance per­mit, [the mu­nic­i­pal­ity has] to ver­ify that what you re­al­ized con­forms to what you got a per­mit for. [Eden Bay] didn’t abide by its per­mit, so of course, the in­hab­i­tance per­mit is not le­gal,” she says.

Had­dad, the un­af­fil­i­ated at­torny, says the vi­o­la­tions out­lined in Ta­bet’s re­port are clear, and that they are com­mon through­out the mar­ket. With con­struc­tion of the first ma­jor real es­tate project on Beirut’s last pub­lic beach nearly com­plete, the ques­tion is not only how many Eden Bays are out there, but how many more there will be.

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