Parking Heliopolis for development
 
 
Courtesy: Hatem Gobrail
 

An automated screen in front of the Khulafa al-Rashedeen mosque in Cairo’s Heliopolis neighborhood read “The District of Masr al-Gedida.” The guard pointed to the Merryland celebration hall adjacent to the mosque, where a crowd had gathered and the new district head, General Hesham Kamal Khashaba, was addressing residents via the microphone with a quest to reassure them. The sound was inaudibly loud.

Engineer Ragab Megahed then took the floor. He spoke calmly of a high-tech, fully automated underground parking garage. Behind him a PowerPoint presentation echoed his words. The district authority and the investing company had appointed him a consultant for the project, he told the crowd as he proudly presented the parking garage facility with capacity for 1700 cars. He described it as a “first-class civilizational project.” Murmurs filled the space and the residents’ concerns echoed in the hall.

A resident interrupted him mid-sentence. “Explaining the project should start by telling us its location,” he shouted from the rear of the room. “And the name of the company undertaking it.”

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A view of the construction site from one of the surrounding buildings

The meeting took place last month. One day, the residents of the Ghernata block in Roxy had been asked to remove the cars parked under their houses. They later learned that the public garden in front of the entrances to their buildings was now owned by the Arabian Capital Investment and Finance Company (ACI).

ACI is a Kuwaiti company that describes itself as an Islamic investment company striving to be “the leading provider of Sharia-compliant real estate” in the MENA region. It also states that it commits itself to “a structured program of social responsibility aimed at giving back to the community.” But as ACI’s construction site expanded rapidly to overtake the public gardens in the vicinity of the Ghernata block, residents remained out of the loop.

According to the company’s website, it obtained the land of the gardens from the Cairo Governorate in July 2010 through a build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract worth LE100 million in order to build the automated Roxy garage. BOT contracts are often awarded by government entities to private-sector companies to build and operate infrastructure projects for a certain period of time, during which the company retains all revenues and is regarded as the facility’s owner. In the case of the garage, this period is 25 years.

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The billboard at the construction site of the Roxy garage

The Arab Contractors (Osman Ahmed Osman and Co.) were contracted by the Kuwaiti company to build the garage. “There are only two companies who could carry out such a project: Orascom and the Arab Contractors. The latter was awarded the contract,” Megahed said. “Article 118 of the Building Law mandates that the contractor revises the building plans to ensure the safety of the surrounding buildings,” he added, to a storm of questions of whether the surrounding houses are safe from the deep digging.

Gehan Attalah, an engineer who resides with her family in a building that dates back to the 1930s, mobilized for the meeting with the district and the residents to get an explanation. She asked the Engineers Syndicate to form a committee to conduct an independent study on the safety of the houses surrounding the garage. The residents signed and sent a petition to the syndicate, which in turn sent a formal complaint to the governorate requesting it cooperate by providing the necessary building plans and soil studies to assess the old buildings’ safety.

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“We want a formal document from an independent party stating that our houses are safe, and we want them to provide alternative routes to go about our daily lives,” Attalah says.

Yet the governorate did not respond to the Engineers Syndicate’s formal letter, sent on behalf of the residents, requesting it answer the residents’ inquiries about the garage. Acting independently, as part of its effort to rejuvenate its role as a civil society organization, the syndicate contacted the garage consultant and engineers on site, who cooperated by sending a few engineering drawings and a sample soil report. It concluded that the project is technically safe according to those documents.

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The syndicate, however, also clearly stated that it was in no position to re-evaluate the building design, reports or engineering drawings, and does not have the authority to oversee the project’s execution. It is after all not a government entity.

The question of safety aside, residents also came to the meeting seeking alternative solutions to their quotidian needs: a safe passageway to the entrances of their buildings, places to park their cars, a solution to the sanitary problems resulting from the transfer of drainage pipes. The construction site has paralyzed and littered the area.

Residents had a more fundamental question too: Why build such a huge underground parking garage in the middle of a historical residential spot in the first place?

“I’m worried that they will build cafés and commercial stores and aggravate the traffic problem. It won’t be a garage then, but a catastrophe,” one resident said, echoing a concern that the garage will soon be complemented with a commercial center, like in similar Gulf-funded investment projects. But both the consultant and the district head vehemently denied that there was any plan to build a commercial center.

When one resident, whose house overlooks the garage, asked whether he will have to pay to park his car in it after construction, there was no reply. It remains unclear how the company will fulfill its pledge to “give back to the community.”

Heliopolis was established in the turn of the 20th century, when Belgian businessmen and industrialist Baron Empain constructed it as a “brave new city.” This was at the height of the cotton boom, which had led to a growing influx of investments and immigrants, and an increasing demand for housing. The accompanying real-estate boom made expanding to the desert east of Cairo to create a suburb quite a successful endeavor.

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An old photo of Roxy in the 1920s.

The suburb was crystalized as a peaceful, middle and upper-middle-class residential hub, laden with a modern European developer’s dream of marrying European and Arabo-Islamic architecture to create a calm desert oasis, connected to the heart of the city via top-of-the-line electric tramways. For these residents, the invasive sight and sound of Gulf-funded cranes digging close to the century-old foundations was the warning shot of an imminent change.

“The Ministry of Finance has had a so-called public private partnership (PPP) Central Unit for the last few years that prepares and guides PPP projects in Egypt, basically supporting any government agency seeking to go in to partnership with a private entity on a project,” Yahia Shawkat, built environment researcher and co-founder of 10Tooba, tells Mada Masr. “So far PPPs haven’t been as successful as the government has hoped, as a raft of project proposals in wastewater, roads and transport have not gone through.”

Asked whether an underground garage is the solution, Shawkat remarks that “It is one component of a solution that needs to include a number of other components, such as: traffic management, public transport reform and strong pedestrian support. Without that, any gains made will be lost very quickly, if not even before the project is completed.”

One block down from the Roxy garage project lies another site of contention. The Merryland Park, the neighborhood’s gem, is also undergoing a major transformation, with plans for another parking project and the cutting down of its century-old trees.

In the early 1900s the Merryland gardens were a horse-racing course. Following 1952, the course was nationalized and turned into a public park. In the 1980s and 1990s, the park was the city’s fairground, and many kids of those generations have fond memories of paddling in its large lake. It was an affordable destination for middle-class family days out. But the park has been closed to the public for over a decade now with no formal explanation as to why.

The residents whose buildings overlook the park, and specifically the older residents who walk or jog around it everyday, have been noticing a disturbing scheme.

“They chop down the trees and carry them away on trucks in the middle of the night,” an old lady told the crowd. “I’ve seen them with my own eyes.”

Maged al-Maghrabi, the projects manager at the Heliopolis Company for Housing and Development, a public company that leases property in the district, took the floor at the residents’ meeting at the mosque to talk about Merryland. Before he could convince the crowd of the merits of Abdel Mohsen Barada, the consultant hired to design the park’s renovation scheme, he was interrupted by shouts.

“The trees are not being chopped down,” he said to calm the crowd, although the projector behind him showed images to the contrary.

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A photo of felled trees in Merryland.

As Maghrabi was assuring the crowd that the trees were safe, the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative was showing slides depicting the violations in the park, including images of old trees being chopped down. The initiative was established three years ago as a working group, according to co-founder Choucri Asmar. Its aim is to lobby to preserve Heliopolis’s historical buildings, electric tramways and green spaces. “The issue of Merryland is not new,” Asmar tells Mada Masr. “In fact we submitted a petition against the Heliopolis Company to the parliament when it was in assembly a couple of years ago because of similar violations.”

Since then, the Heliopolis Company has been in conflict with one of the investors, Nasser Salem, to whom it had leased several feddans of the park. Salem had failed to pay due rent to the company, claiming he incurred major loses after the governorate ordered the demolition of a number of buildings he had constructed several years back. The buildings violated the park’s building code.

Salem rents the five feddans of the park’s main cafes area. He took the floor to explain that only five trees and four palms have been felled, reassuring the crowd that the underground parking garage will only house 120 cars and service the renovated park. He proceeded to explain the marvels of the musical fountains he plans to install, which match those in Las Vegas. “It is a good thing,” he added, before being rebuffed by the resident’s angry shout.

He and other speakers seemed to have missed the core reason behind the crowd’s frustration about the garage in the park. “We don’t want to pay LE50 for an ice cream in the new renovated park,” one resident said loudly. Many residents said they wanted the park to remain public and affordable. The problem here, Shawkat the researcher explains, is that the garage “is meant to serve a commercial project from the beginning, and is not a public service. Even the designation of car parks as a public service is dubious, as it only serves the 11 percent of Cairenes who own cars.”

The meeting came to a close without any resolutions. It has since been reported that the governor and the district head have visited the park and the former ordered all work in the park stopped until the Ministry of Environment is consulted regarding the trees.

A few days following the district meeting, Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy, inspected the park and is now reportedly pursuing legal measures against the Heliopolis Company for failing to acquire the necessary environmental approvals and impact studies. Fahmy has also ordered an investigation to find out who was responsible for granting licenses to the company to develop the park without assessing the project’s environmental impact, in violation of Article 19 of the Egyptian Environment Law.

The ministry is also holding meetings with civil society groups to work with the Heliopolis Company and the investor to plant perennial trees and find less destructive ways of constructing the garage in the park.

The Heliopolis Company for Housing and Development, which owns the park, is currently a public company, listed in the Egyptian stock market since 1995. With the explosion of the Merryland crisis, the company has been moving across dangerous terrain, steering a major clash between development and the environment. A glimpse at the history of its establishment, 109 years back, could tell us more about the dramatic changes the company, the suburb and urban development have gone through.

The Empain Group set up the Heliopolis Oasis Company as a holding company in 1906, to undertake the mega-project of Heliopolis. Its full, formal name was the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oasis Company — the tramways preceded the suburb. The urban development project was only possible after the company obtained concessions for the construction of four electric railways to link the new suburb to the city center. In other words, the vision for urban development then was based on a lifeline of safe, clean and easy public transport — notwithstanding the issues of colonial racism and classism apparent in the blueprints of the endeavor. Today, however, some tramways have ceased operating and the neighborhood’s development vision rests on establishing automated parking garages.

Between then and now, the Heliopolis Company has passed through major changes. It was nationalized in the 1960s, and according to long-term residents has been on a downward spiral ever since. An urban planning manager explains that the Heliopolis Company has lost its executive power over the years and the suburb’s administration has been transferred to government entities. The company’s role now is merely to divide and sell the land — and that it is doing through conspicuous conflicts with both people and environment.

I ask Asmar, whose initiative is involved in the negotiations with the Heliopolis Company, what will make them cooperate. “They have no choice. Their work is halted and they need a way out,” he responds, referring to the last barrier to the company’s and the governorate’s vision for development — the citizens.

This piece has had minor revisions since it was first published. 

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Dina Hussein