14 February 2001
Samar Kanafani Daily Star staff
Controversial decision to extend life of Hippodrome has environmentalists up in arms
A decision to have the Beirut Hippodrome remain a racetrack has angered local environmental groups who want to transform the location into a public garden. The Beirut Municipal Council voted late last month to renew a three-year agreement with the track’s managers, the Association for the Protection and Improvement of Arab Horses (SPARCA).
Given the capital’s dire need for public parks and green spaces, environmental groups are furious. They have been lobbying for a public park since 1998 and say the move reflects the council’s irresponsibility. “This decision implies that horses are allowed to run but children are not,” said Green Line’s secretary-general, Salman Abbas. In 1999, his organization collected 16,000 signatures and received more than 12,000 e-mails supporting a plan to turn the track into a seven-day a week public garden. “Does all of that not mean anything to the municipality?” Well, perhaps.
Of the 24 council members, 14, or just over half, voted in favor of the agreement. Six others abstained, leaving only four to actually vote no. Beirut Mayor Abdel-Monem Aris argued that the agreement strikes a “happy medium” between concerned interest groups, while raising the municipality’s share of the track’s revenue from 0.5 to 5 percent.
The new revenue plan grants 15 percent to SPARCA and 80 percent to winning bettors, and stipulates that when the municipality’s annual share exceeds $500,000, it receives only 40 percent of the excess money. The racetrack’s maintenance costs will be covered with the remaining 60 percent.
“What surprises me is that the agreement imposes a ceiling and not a floor for the municipality’s profits,” said Abdel-Hamid Fakhoury, a council member who voted against the agreement. “The municipality’s profits are far less than the track’s real-estate value. This is folly!”
Aris and Roula Ajouz, the council members in charge of green issues, argue that they are overseeing campaigns to plant trees on streets and road medians, but Fakhoury is unimpressed.
“Greenery is not just trees,” he said heatedly. “It means the social concept of making room for children to play somewhere and providing young and elderly people somewhere pleasant to sit, like in any other country.”
Aris has also offered to use part of the Hippodrome for a 60,000 square meter children’s play area near the track but when this would be built remains uncertain. Occupying less than half of a 210,000 meter-square green area near Mathaf, the track is regarded by many as one of the city’s rare and endangered public properties, which if open to the public, could serve as a much-need recreational outlet for up to 1.5 million residents.
Studies show that urban congestion in the capital is frighteningly high. Currently, the amount of public space per resident is as low as 0.8 square meters, 50 times less than the recommended healthy average under international standards.
But environmentalists are not the only ones with a vested interest in the Hippodrome. Those who favor maintaining the current racetrack say the facility is an important economic enterprise and work for 5,000 people. Regardless of the jobs however, Abbas remains adamant that the city desperately needs the green space. “They have their priorities all wrong. It’s a shame that the municipality should favor the interests of 5,000 over the interests of 1.5 million, especially when it isn’t even guaranteed a set profit.”
Those hoping for a change face a tough battle next time, too. According to Fakhoury, plans to preserve the racetrack were backed by political interests from day one. Run since the 1940s by SPARCA, whose current president, Beirut MP Nabil de Freij, is an ally of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the track suffered financial losses and threats of imminent closure, prompting Hariri, in 1998, to suggest a build-operated-transfer scheme as a solution.
Fakhoury, the only council member on the opposition ticket who won office in 1998, suggests consulting social groups and NGOs to find out what the public wants. Radical change for the Hippodrome appears to face an uphill battle. Beirut Council member Mohammed Kheir Qadi told The Daily Star that “people can go up to the mountains for greenery,” although he said on television last month that “the shores of Lebanon are the birthright of our children,” in response to a question on the issue of seafront property.
Asked why this same right does not apply to greenery, Qadi, denounced environmentalists’ demands as nothing more than “a new craze.” “These are imaginary demands … Beirut has plenty of gardens; people just don’t go to them,” he claimed.
Aris also claims it would cost $15 million to transform the Hippodrome into a park, despite the fact that Abbas has a garden design proposal estimating the cost at one-fifth of that. “Sure, if we want to have golden benches in the park, it might cost $15 million,” Abbas mocked, “but if we’re looking to build a park for people to enjoy, it is not as impossible as Aris makes it out.”