|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
4 - 10 June 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Straight and narrow course"I do not give statements about plans, as long as they have not been implemented. I only speak of things when they have been accomplished," says the governor of Alexandria, Mohamed Abdel-Salam Mahgoub, when asked about a project that is radically and literally to alter the face of Alexandria -- the on-going widening and redesigning of the Corniche. For a project with such far-reaching ramifications, there is considerable confusion surrounding the plans, approach and possible consequences. The issues at stake include the project's impact on the city's marine and urban environment, tourism, underwater archaeology, as well as the socio-economic consequences of privatisation.
It was evident last year that the Corniche was in for a face-lift of sorts, when the previous governor of Alexandria, Ismail El-Gawsaqi, had the cabins of Sidi Bishr and Miami Beaches demolished on the grounds that they harboured unsavoury types in winter and had become "dens" of sin. This winter, his successor, Governor Mahgoub, showed signs of turning his attention seaward with the mandatory whitewashing of seafront buildings and the laudable decision to plant palm-trees on the Corniche along the Eastern Harbour. Such measures, however, were mere cosmetic touches compared to the scope of the current project.
The lack of public access to information on the project is partly due to the haste with which it has been conducted. Begun in March, Phase I, entailing the widening of the Corniche road from El-Mahrousa Hotel in Laurens all the way to the intersection of Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Street with the Corniche at Sidi Bishr (covering some 2,600m), is already nearing completion. The project consists of a five-phase plan to be implemented over a number of years, covering the Corniche from Montaza to Ras Al-Tin, a distance of approximately 19.5km. According to a press spokeswoman at Alexandria Governorate, the budget for the entire project "is 50 million pounds", a fund provided by "the State Investment Plan, as approved by the Ministry of Planning." Commissioned jointly by the Alexandria Governorate and the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and New Urban Communities, the new Corniche was designed by Dar Al-Handasa and is being implemented by the Arab Contractors.
When Sidqi Pasha, Egypt's prime minister in the 1930s, commissioned the Italian entrepreneurs Dentamaro and Cartareggia to extend the Corniche from Silsileh, the limit of the Promenade de la Reine Nazli, to Montaza, Alexandria's population was approximately 300,000. Ten years later, it had reached 340,000. Now with a population of over five million, Alexandria's only three arteries (the Corniche, Abu Qir Street and the Tramline street) are blocked during rush hours in winter and throughout the day in summer, with the seasonal increase in the city's population.
The primary target behind the project, explains engineer Mahmoud Abdel-Rehim, deputy director of the Alexandria Branch of the Arab Contractors, is to solve the city's traffic problem, which is reaching crisis proportions: "Four years from now, if nothing is done about it, traffic will be at a standstill in the city."
The choice of the site for Phase I bears out this stated aim, since it covers a portion of the Corniche which, though integral to the now densely populated areas east of the city, and essential to summer traffic heading toward beaches such as Montaza and Ma'moura, is too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic. Town-bound traffic was, therefore, channeled along the Corniche while east-bound vehicles had to drive through the jam-packed Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Street. Traffic on the rest of the Corniche is alternately one-way and two-way. Hence the widening of the Corniche, intended to allow for two-way traffic in four lanes, here and elsewhere.
Says Abdel-Rehim "the original Corniche road was about 12m wide, and is now 19.5m in width. Originally, the width of the pavement ranged from 2.50 to 2.75m; in the new design, the pavement is five metres wide." This, of course, begs the question whether the extensions have encroached on the beaches. Abdel-Rehim is categorical: "No, we have not incorporated any portion of the beaches in the construction work; the extensions occupy the site of the previously demolished cabins."
At Dar Al-Handasa, the project designers give a somewhat different answer. "Yes, in some places we did take part of the beach; and in fact we proposed to both the governorate and the contractors the extension of the beaches to restore some of their original width, but we were told that this would be a separate study to be undertaken at a later stage," explains the project structural engineer, Yehia El-Azabi, who was also responsible for a similar transformation of Beirut's Corniche.
A walk along the revamped stretch of Corniche reveals sporadic encroachments on the beach. Still visible in the sand, parallel to and beyond certain segments of the sea-wall, are parts of the old sidewalk that extended in front of the now demolished cabins. Jutting out beyond that sidewalk and into the beaches at regular intervals, however, are incomplete construction sites -- sun shelters for beach-goers, according to the workers. The new sea-wall is composed of vertical slats, allowing for a glimpse of the sea, topped by a low, bench-like horizontal slabs punctuated by obelisk-capped trapezoid dividers. Mike Nason, the architect in charge of landscaping the Corniche, said "we had a geometrical matrix in mind: a hexagon that we used as inspiration for all the shapes, because it's a modular design that's flexible... It's very pedestrian-friendly, it's fluid and informal."
The same motif is indeed echoed along the new pavement in the form of clusters of concrete gabled pyramid-like shelters -- three when the structure is to function as a sun shelter and nine for bus stops. Nor will the project consistently follow the winding, scenic course of the original Corniche, long the subject of poetic epithets and rhapsodies (Durrell, for one, referred to Alexandria's "female bays"). "There are sharp turns in the Corniche which cause accidents, and we intend to fill in and smooth out some of that sharpness" says Abdel-Rehim. Should this be the case, entire bays, such as Stanley, with its as yet extant three-tiered cabins, are likely to cause something of a problem.
Alexandria's environmentalists, oceanographers and coastal protection experts are alarmed by the project on different counts. Foremost among them are professors Alfi Fanous and Omran Frihi, respectively director and deputy director of the Coastal Research Institute. The institute should have been -- but is not -- the institution charged with conducting surveys and research prior to any construction work on the Corniche. "No one can dispute the project's value in terms of the traffic," says Fanous, "but it needs to be based on sound scientific foundations. We have not been asked to conduct any studies, and in fact there are no studies on the Corniche."
From afar, Fanous and Frihi have been monitoring the project and have noted that "there are areas where the new Corniche is very close to the water-line -- only two to five metres away. This is at the headlands, which are the critical areas because the water is strongest there," according to Frihi. "The cross-section of the sea-wall is architecturally attractive", says Fanous, "but as far as construction goes it is not sound. When the water rises in the future, it is likely to hollow out the sand beneath it and the wall can collapse." A bit alarmist? The two scientists have been approached in the past to conduct studies on part of the Corniche at Glymenopoulo, where erosion is causing subsidence in the street, as well as in the Eastern Harbour, where there are cracks in the sea-wall. After drawing up charts of the area where the project is being conducted and identifying the critical areas, Fanous, Frihi and their colleague, Murad Fahmi, went to meet the governor of Alexandria.
"We showed the governor photographs of how close the new wall is to the sea in certain areas, and the danger, particularly at the headlands. The governor said that the international consultant had made the same kind of extensions to Beirut's Corniche, with great success," says Fanous. "But," adds Frihi, "the climatic and topographical conditions of Beirut are very different from those of Alexandria." Fanous and Frihi do not know if an Environmental Impact Assessment of the project, "as stipulated by the Environment Law of 1994," has been undertaken.
Yehia El-Azabi of Dar Al-Handasa is candid about the conditions under which the project was undertaken. "Our involvement [with the project] began in early March and by mid-March they [the contractors] started working from our drawings while we went on developing the design." He adds that the design had to be altered whenever problems arose during implementation, and some of the phases "had to be reshuffled to meet the tight schedule." Asked whether an Environmental Impact Assessment study was conducted before implementation, El-Azabi said no; "since we are not altering the activities of the area and introducing drainage and so on, it was not necessary. In any case, because of the tight schedule I don't think there was time for Environmental Impact Assessment -- if it was necessary."
Architect Mohamed Awad, head of the Alexandria Preservation Trust, takes issue with what he sees as a limited conception of remodelling the Corniche. "The widening of the Corniche solves the traffic problem, but then the Corniche has to develop in terms of its recreational facilities -- by creating marinas and beach sports, playgrounds for children, places where people can relax and so on." Awad also discloses that he "had suggested to the governor that they hold an international competition for the remodelling, and the governor took the idea to the prime-minister... But I think the prime-minister said there's no money for it -- although the Alexandria Businessmen's Association could have raised funds." It has all been "done in a rush," says Awad, and although "we don't doubt the governor's intentions... we should not surpass certain phases of public participation and creativity... people should be allowed to express themselves."
Awad's words are reiterated by Adel Abu Zahra, head of the Friends of the Environment Association. "The governor has good intentions, but a lot of things are done in a slap-dash manner. I never tire of emphasising the importance of 'partnership', because people are totally taken by surprise by major changes in their lives without anyone having taken their opinion and without access to information." Abu Zahra recommends that public hearings with Alexandria's citizens and experts be held, that there should be "more transparency and accountability. The idea is good, but the approach should be one of partnership, to ensure that all alternatives have been looked into and that solutions to problems are not merely temporary."
A stroll poll on Sidi Bishr No 1 Beach last Friday yielded mostly favourable reactions towards the project. The few reservations expressed seemed cases of privatisation anxiety, as it were. Mohamed Ali, Corniche vendor of embroidered cushion covers, originally from Sohag, says the gates to the beaches are far apart and therefore not easily negotiable by the elderly and the infirm. Although he otherwise approves of the changes, he is worried that, with the revamped Corniche, substantial sums will now be demanded of him as "key-money" to the beaches. Said Hamed Abu Heiba, an employee at Cairo University who has come to Alexandria to arrange for his colleagues' annual bookings, is wholeheartedly behind the governor -- "Alexandria is lucky to have him, he's doing an excellent job." To Qadri Azmi, an Alexandria wood turner spending the day on the beach with wife and in-laws, "the changes are very attractive, but if there's going to be an entrance fee, it won't be nice... and of course it will be at the expense of Alexandrians: Cairenes save up to come to Alexandria, but we, who have the sea in front of us all year, won't be able to afford it." Na'ima Ahmed, a nurse who lives in the vicinity of Sidi Bishr, finds the project "a big step forward. It will do wonders for the flow of the traffic." She adds, however, that "when I saw the gates on the beach I realised that there will be entrance fees; I just hope the fees will be symbolic, otherwise it can be prohibitive for large families, and some are as big as 10."
At the governorate, the press spokeswoman says that "entrance to the beaches will be free of charge", but "some beaches are to be loaned out and run by private sector outfits." Already, in at least two beaches, the newly privatised Camp Cesare and Sidi Bishr No II (the latter part of the revamped stretch of the Corniche), there are governorate-determined rates for beach furniture: LE5 to rent a parasol; LE3 for those who bring their own; LE 2 per chair; LE1 if the chair is brought in; LE3 per table. As many interviewees point out, only when Phase I is complete, on 30 June, and the summer season is in full swing, will it become clear which beaches will be privatised.
Phase II of the project, covering the stretch of Corniche from the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid intersection to Montaza, is scheduled to begin next October. It is with Phase III, from El-Mahrousa Hotel westward, that the project is likely to encounter a whole new constellation of problems. Unless fly-overs are considered, any widening of the Corniche road in Phase III and beyond would entail pulling down a number of buildings on the beach, ranging from syndicate clubs, such as the Engineers' in Glymenopoulo, or hotels such as San Giovanni, to cabins as in Stanley Bay and typically Alexandrian "casinos" all along.
Another explosive issue that awaits the project as it moves westward is the presence of underwater antiquities. The head of the Underwater Unit of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Ibrahim Darwish, seems to think that the project might have a beneficial side-effect for underwater archaeology, particularly in the Eastern Harbour (Alexandria's main harbour in antiquity), as it would entail the removal of concrete blocks that have been dumped atop archaeological remains, thus allowing for a survey. "But," interjects a member of his team, "do you really think we'll be given time to do a survey?" It is yet another good question, for which no one seems to have an answer.