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The Daily Star: Greens and council tangle over future of racetrack

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.”

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