According to multiple measures, Mar Mikhael is one of Beirut’s most distinctive neighborhoods, defined by a unique assortment of art galleries and car repair shops, a network of brightly-painted staircases and a long-abandoned train station, and a diverse mix of older, long-time residents and young newcomers. Yet on the issue of gentrification the case of Mar Mikhael is more familiar, as the neighborhood has recently seen a rapid influx of new bars and restaurants, as well as real estate investors and high-rise apartments, all of which have contributed to a neighborhood where:
▸ Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable.
▸ Long-time residents face a risk of displacement.
▸ High-rise apartments detract from the neighborhood’s unique human scale.
▸ Shared spaces such as sidewalks, streets, and the stairs are increasingly overtaken by private actors.
▸ Creative industries remain economically vulnerable and socially disconnected.
▸ Residents have little influence over public policy impacting their neighborhood.
By analyzing these recent developments (all of which could be worsened by the implementation of the 2014 New Rent Law) in light of the more long-term, structural processes of change at work in the city – including the development of a powerful growth coalition in the mid- 1990s – this report argues that Mar Mikhael is just the most recent example of a cycle of urban change and gentrification that is transforming the city of Beirut, often in a manner that reduces housing affordability, dramatically alters the built environment, and weakens long-established communities. Therefore, this report offers numerous strategies and solutions for the alleviation of these problems in Mar Mikhael, inspired by the notions such as the right to the city, fieldwork conducted in the neighborhood, and case studies from other rapidly-gentrifying and creative cities around the world. Together these strategies offer a vision for a socially just Mar Mikhael, creating a neighborhood where:
▸ Long-time residents can afford to remain in their homes.
▸ New sources of affordable housing are accessible to both current and future residents.
▸ All residents have access to shared spaces.
▸ Formerly restricted public spaces receive a new life as parks, affordable housing, or cultural centers.
▸ The “human scale” of the built environment is retained.
▸ Arts, crafts, and design industries (ACDs) are economically resilient, and actively invested in the community.
▸ Residents can effectively work together to direct the future of their neighborhood.
Thus the strategies presented in this report center around five main issues. First, on the issue of making Mar Mikhael more affordable, these strategies include:
▸ Building upon the precedents set in Tripoli for state-led affordable housing projects, and Tyre for community-led projects.
▸ Engaging private and philanthropic actors to create non-profit affordable housing developers in Mar Mikhael.
▸ Using Waqf land as a site of affordable housing in the neighborhood. Second, to increase access to Mar Mikhael’s shared, public spaces, including the sidewalks, streets, stairs, and the train station, this report recommends:
▸ Conducting a GIS survey and walkability audit to encourage city officials to enforce existing sidewalk regulations.
▸ Using legal claims under Law 220/2000 as a means of retrofitting the neighborhood’s existing sidewalks.
▸ Closing Armenia Street to cars every Sunday morning to allow residents to walk, bike, and rollerblade freely.
▸ Listing Mar Mikhael’s still-unprotected stairs as worthy of preservation.
▸ Advocating for plans that would permanently transform the Mar Mikhael train station, while implementing short-term uses such as an open-air cinema or weekend market.
Third, on the issue of maintaining Mar Mikhael’s human scale, this report recommends:
▸ Designating Mar Mikhael as a protected zone, with regulations to limit building height.
▸ Creating incentives such as transferable development rights to encourage developers to preserve the neighborhood’s scale. Fourth, to foster a neighborhood-based creative economy in Mar Mikhael, some strategies include:
▸ Raising the awareness of the arts, crafts, and design industries (ACDs) regarding local concerns through joint cultural events and a community-based platform for communication and cooperation.
▸ Highlighting the link between creative activity and the larger urban environment through regular urban tours of Mar Mikhael.
▸ Developing systematic, consistent opportunities for training and assistance for the ACDs through workshops and conferences. Finally, creating a neighborhood council for Mar Mikhael represents this report’s fifth solution, which necessitates:
▸ Broadly defining neighborhood council membership and authority.
▸ Finding a political ally who can give it the institutional legitimacy necessary to successfully influence government policy.
▸ Employing Beirut-based universities, foundations, and private parties as sources of funding and administrative support.