Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Hideous heights

The Cairo district of Heliopolis is losing its low-rise buildings, threatening the area’s architectural heritage, writes Abeya El Bakry

Hideous heights
Hideous heights
Al-Ahram Weekly

Heliopolis was built in the early years of the 20th century by the Belgian entrepreneur and amateur Egyptologist Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain. He established the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company to develop the suburb outside Cairo, in what was then desert.

The district’s English name of Heliopolis (City of the Sun) comes from ancient Greek. In Arabic it is called Masr Al-Gedida (New Egypt), and is one of the major starting points in Egypt for modern city design.

 When Baron Empain built the new suburb, from 1905 onwards, he had the support of Boghos Nubar, the son of Prime Minister Nubar Pasha. Once finished, the district was known for its beauty and high level of services. It had its own oriental architectural style and leisure facilities, and residents had access to such utilities as electricity, water and sewage.

Heliopolis also offered a variety of leasing and purchase options, making it a practical choice for Cairo’s well-heeled society. This upscale character has remained the area’s hallmark, and for over a century it has been a prime property location in Cairo. Today, there are no empty plots available in Heliopolis, and property prices are among the highest in Cairo.

Recently, however, the suburb’s older European-style buildings, reaching a height of only three or four floors, have been being torn down and replaced by high-rise buildings. What were once spacious residential neighbourhoods have become densely populated streets. The exploitation of loopholes in housing laws has led to the destruction of Cairo’s urban landscape and some of the area’s heritage is being lost.

 Due to the high property prices in Heliopolis and the scarcity of empty plots, the prices of older properties have been soaring since the 1980s. In 2011, and following the 25 January Revolution, real-estate developers seized the opportunity to buy up old villas in the area, demolish them and build high-rises in their place. This was despite the establishment of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony in 2008, which aimed to preserve the country’s urban heritage.

“The organisation specialises in the co-ordination and preservation of Egypt’s national landscapes,” says Mohamed Shehata, a lecturer at Cairo University’s Faculty of Urban and Regional Planning.

“Chapter four of the present building law is concerned with urban harmony. It aims to record heritage and cultural buildings. If buildings are ancient they are referred to the Ministry of Antiquities, and when a building is listed as a historical or heritage building, it is no longer regarded as a property that can be sold or demolished. However, the situation today is that the only way to list these buildings is by listing them as likely to collapse.”

Since the revolution, there have been various attempts to try to save the area’s architectural heritage, among them the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative on Facebook. However, while Korba Street has remained mostly unchanged, aside from new stores built onto the front of buildings, in Horreya Street a dozen small buildings have been demolished and the sites taken over by contractors.

 The idea is to build high-rises on the sites, which will bring in more money for the landlords. Something similar happened to Abdel-Aziz Fahmi Street when a number of buildings were torn down and replaced with ugly modern buildings. If this process continues, Heliopolis will become an overcrowded urban district without the infrastructure necessary for the new buildings and higher population density.

 Property prices are a key factor in the decision to sell old properties in the neighbourhood. High-rise buildings are appearing in narrow alleys, threatening the quality of life in the neighbourhood, due to insufficient electrical capacity, ventilation and parking spaces. One street so narrow that it is hidden from view by an overhanging tree now has an eight-storey cement building with four flats on each floor.

Nazih Khalifa Street is one of the longest streets in Heliopolis. Property prices are as high as LE6,500 a square metre, and monthly rent can range from between LE5,000 and LE10,000. At one intersection, an old villa of more than 500 square metres was recently demolished to make way for a high-rise. The new property is the work of a real-estate developer from Mansoura who decided to invest in the Cairo property market.

 The new high-rise has eight storeys, in addition to a garage and mezzanine floor that will be turned into offices. But not a single unit in the building has been sold or rented. In fact, construction has been stalled for the past three years. Speculation is that the developer is delaying the building’s completion with an eye to selling the flats at a later date, when prices have gone still higher.

One of the most famous hallmarks in Cairo is Merryland, a leisure park and racetrack built in 1952. The large green space is considered one of the major “lungs” of Heliopolis, even though people no longer go there. During its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, Merryland was a popular attraction. With its lake and spacious green areas, families could enjoy spending a day away from Cairo’s busy life and pollution.

Today, there are many questions around the future of Merryland as renovations are currently taking place in the park. Merryland is owned by a private company, meaning that the company is free to build new structures on the land, should it so wish.

 Park guards explain that there are renovations underway in the grounds, but they know nothing about what is really going on. On 19 March there was a meeting with the district head who informed residents that a new underground garage will be built in Roxy Square to solve the area’s parking problems.

But Heliopolis residents concerned about what was going on in the park demanded to know what was happening in Merryland. The official responded that the park is owned by the Heliopolis Housing Company and the district council has no say over what happens to the park. Residents would be best advised to approach the Administrative Court for a ruling, he said.

 One official at the meeting said that people had shown disrespect by raising an “irrelevant issue.” “They disrupted the meeting by raising the case of Merryland even though Roxy Square was the subject. It is strange that people should not accept decisions and always insist on having a say on what is going on,” he said.

 In 2014, there were rumours about the fate of Baron Empain’s Palace in Heliopolis, an extravagant folly built in an Indian style that has been empty for years. Activists set up camp on the property and demanded its conservation as a heritage building. Currently, the palace remains secure, but it is not known for how much longer.

 A similar situation exists in Alexandria where tens of heritage buildings have been taken off the heritage list by architectural consultancies vying for prime development locations.

“The choice to remove a heritage building from the list lies with the building’s owners,” said an expert on heritage buildings, Mohamed Adel Dessouki. “Heritage buildings would earn millions if they were sold, while putting them on the heritage list freezes their prices as assets.”

 A district like Heliopolis was once considered a modern area, especially when compared to older areas in the city like Old Cairo and Shubra. For example, Mohandessin was once farmland along the Nile. During the early twentieth century, when construction began, buildings rose only three or four floors high. Today, huge towers line the district’s major streets like Shehab Street and Gameat Al-Dowal Al-Arabia Street.
 Historically, these districts were considered to offer the best in social and economic comfort to affluent residents.

Restricting height limits allowed for an open horizon and wide streets provided residential parking and gave residents a sense of privacy. But property developers have used loopholes in the housing laws to exceed the height limits and use parking garages as shops for rent.

 “According to Housing Law 101 of 1996, building heights can be raised to one-and-a-half times the width of a street,” said an official at the local authority in Nasr City, another Cairo district. “These buildings have had the same legal status for nearly 20 years,” he added, referring to buildings on Abbas Al-Akkad Street.

Abbas Al-Akkad Street is one of the best-known major streets in Nasr City. It is a long street, beginning at an intersection with Nasr Autostrada, a central road in Nasr City, and Mostafa Al-Nahhas Street, an equally important street at the opposite end of the road.

But perhaps it is now not wide enough. A six-metre-wide median, with greenery and pavements, runs down the middle of the road. The road is congested with traffic, public and private buses and gathering zones for commuters, shops, pedestrians and restaurants.

 Abbas Al-Akkad Street may be no wider than 26 metres but its buildings are more than eight to ten floors high. Said Shehata, “One-and-a-half times the width of the street is a purely technical specification that refers to the angle through which light and ventilation enter a building.”

According to Shehata, the law covers aspects of living standards such as privacy, health and safety to guarantee that buildings provide a good quality of life for residents. This includes parking garages, safe distances between adjacent buildings, pavement spaces for pedestrians and elevators for residents, in addition to sufficient light and clean air.

 The street was designed as a residential area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Residences along the street should have been four to five floors maximum and include service facilities for the neighbourhood. But only a few buildings that conform with the original specifications remain.

Nowadays, the street is a commercial centre, not just for Nasr City, but also for Cairo as a whole. On both sides of the road, pavements have been claimed by major telecommunications stores, restaurants and famous brand-name boutiques.

A landmark building in Abbas Al-Akkad Street has rented out its garage and first three floors to restaurants and shops. While the law provides for residential needs, responsibility for adherence is split between different departments. As a result, drawings sometimes do not match completed buildings, and builders sometimes evade the law.

“The laws are tailored to be broken by people who have already broken the law by building without permits,” Shehata said. “There are two types of legal breaches: one is building without permits on land that is not allotted to building, and the other is breaking a building licence and paying a fine to redress the breach.”

Most buildings on Abbas Al-Akkad Street fall under the second category. In the case of legal breaches for over-height buildings, the government’s practice has been to legalise breaches after the fact, leading builders to believe that breaking the law is acceptable.

 “The elections threaten a new wave of legalisations for buildings built without permits during the period since 25 January 2011. Over 550,000 buildings were built without permits during the period, 30 per cent of them in the Daqahliya governorate and the rest spread across Egypt,” according to the Centre for Building Monitoring, part of the Ministry of Housing.

Legalisation usually follows an election period when elected members of parliament are expected to make good on their campaign promises. A common promise is to issue building permits for structures that were built without a licence.
Said Shehata, “While legal measures can be taken against law-breakers, they have no impact on preventing legal breaches.” Occasionally, new business owners include heritage preservation in their investments, thus conserving architectural and heritage value, but such cases are rare.
One bookstore, for example, has renovated an old villa in Heliopolis, creating a shopping space in a novel environment. Such initiatives should be encourage

“What is required is a systemic remuneration system to satisfy building owners, as well as preserve the city’s cultural heritage,” said Dessouki. “The building laws should be seen holistically, in terms of their social role, in order to address people’s property needs.”

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