The leaning towers of Alexandria
Wildcat building and the widespread flouting of conservation regulations are threatening the urban fabric of Egypt's second city, finds Ameera Fouad
The city of 100,000 illegal buildings or the leaning towers of Alexandria: the article could be called either or both of these titles. These are the facts, and the statistics could not be more accurate. Unfortunately, even a simple glimpse at Alexandria, or a walk through its streets, is enough to indicate the truth of either. The statistics may even be underestimating a bare truth people have been trying to overlook: the beautiful city of Alexandria, once one of the Mediterranean's most cultivated, is falling into disrepair as a result of illegal building and chaotic planning.
Things really started to get out of hand following the 25 January Revolution, when illegal buildings started to go up from the east of the city to the west, and from Ras Al-Tin to Abu Qir, including Al-Max, Agamy, the north coast, Borg Al-Arab and even King Mariout. It has become all too easy to spot chaotic planning along the Corniche, with the illegal construction of skyscrapers, of buildings on agriculture land, the demolition of historic villas and their replacement with towers more than 22 storeys high, and an escalation in the addition of further storeys to already very high buildings.
All this strikes a chord when one finds Mahmoud, a 27-year-old hairdresser, beaming with happiness because he has finally been able to get married after finding an apartment in Agamy at a reasonable price. "I finally found an apartment at a very good price in Agamy," Mahmoud said. "It's in a newly constructed building in Paradise district," one of the more upmarket parts of the area.
Mahmoud explained all when he added that the builders there had "demolished all the old villas on Paradise beach over the last eight months and started building illegally by taking advantage of the absence of the police and municipal officials. An entire tower has been built there in less than three months. I don't know if this is a good thing, but it has certainly made apartments cheaper."
To Mahmoud and many like him, an apartment at a cheap price in an upmarket part of Agamy is a dream come true. However, this dream could turn into a nightmare if the authorities get their way. What Mahmoud perhaps does not know, says Fouad El-Touni, a consultant engineer, is that there is a shortage of well-maintained infrastructure in Agamy. "The illegal buildings there could collapse, as they have not been built with any consideration for the existing infrastructure. The current sewage and drainage system will not bear the towers that are going up to replace the villas that used to be there, and the government will not furnish them with the services that are essential for health and well-being, such as piped water, roads and public transportation."
In fact, El-Touni added, it is more likely to punish the builders for violating building regulations. There could be a colossal disaster in the area, and this could impact on all the buildings, both the legal and the illegal ones.
It may be hard to believe that Egypt's second city has become so endangered in less than a blink of an eye, after being founded as long ago as 331 BCE by Alexander the Great. Yet, the problems started when former Alexandria governor Abdel-Salam El-Mahgoub allowed the construction of towers in narrow streets and alleys. Such defiance of the planning rules encouraged builders and contractors to break other simple rules, and now streets like Luxor Street, Tanees Street, Lagitee Street, Roshdi Street and Bakous Street, in both urban and suburban areas, have witnessed stark violations of planning regulations. There have been more than 100,000 violations of planning regulations having to do with the illegal construction of buildings in Alexandria over the past eight months, and more than 150,000 breaches of conservation rules designed to preserve the city's old three-storey buildings.
Districts like Kafr Abdu, Roshdi, Louran, Gleem and Zizinya have seen the demolition of more than 100 villas, many of them finely built and all irreplaceable.
Am Ali, a porter in the Roshdi district of Alexandria, said that he had seen an illegal building being constructed just a few feet away from his own dwelling. "I have lived here for more than 50 years," Ali said, "and I have never seen a building being constructed at such high speed. Workers were working day and night to finish it. Bulldozers and sand trucks came late at night, and the tower replaced a beautiful villa surrounded by gardens."
"We have not been able to get any sleep for months because of the construction, and we have complained and complained to the authorities, but no one listens. The building has already reached more than 30 floors in less than three months."
Ali pointed to cracks in his building, commenting that these had appeared as a result of the illegally constructed building next door. "One day, it will come crashing down on our heads. Then maybe these builders will be satisfied."
Observers like Ali see little hope that the illegal construction boom can be stopped, and he thinks that a disastrous scenario is in the making, especially if it is supplemented by important rainfall or by a powerful earthquake. The storms that hit Alexandria in December 2009 led to the collapse of a textile plant in Moharram Bek District, as well as of a 30-year-old building in Manshiat. These events resulted in the deaths of 10 men, with 50 other people being injured. Subsequent reports showed that the buildings had not collapsed because of the storm alone, but that they had been weakened because of an adjacent structure under construction. The same thing could happen again at any time, with even more serious consequences.
According to Osama El-Fouli, current governor of Alexandria, legislation is in the pipeline to put an end to the wildcat building, at least according to statements made in last Friday's edition of Al-Ahram. "Putting an end to the illegal construction in Alexandria is one of the main priorities I have as governor," El-Fouli said, adding that the problem lay in the weak penalties imposed on those who broke the regulations, whether they were developers, contractors or builders. "Often, these people get away without paying any fines or penalties whatsoever, and I am concerned about the effects their activities are having on the city's infrastructure."
No planning had been carried out to study traffic flows, the governor said, and there were no parking spaces or garages to service the new towers. "I ask people not to buy apartments in these buildings and not to work with them professionally. I ask all Alexandrians to act as one against these greedy builders, such that they will come up against a wall of resistance erected by society as a whole."
If the builders need to be reminded of their obligations, they could do worse than to remind themselves of ancient rules that say that "if a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house firm he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirement and a wall falls, that builder shall also strengthen the wall at his own expense." (The Code of Hammurabi, c. 2250 BCE)