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 City of the Sun Under Destruction

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Join date : 2010-03-25
Location : Egypt

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PostSubject: City of the Sun Under Destruction   City of the Sun Under Destruction I_icon_minitimeSat Jul 17, 2010 8:34 am

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Heliopolis has long been known for its garden charm and well-coordinated architecture. Now, just five years after the suburb’s centennial, investor interest and real estate prices have picked up and the villas are coming down

Heliopolis residents used to have a certain pride in their City of the Sun. They took pride in the harmony of Korba, the Baron Palace, the typical Heliopolis architecture, and in those quiet little areas with two story-high villas, small fences and beautiful gardens. A walk through my old neighborhood by the old palace was far from being a walk down memory lane. Only five years ago, as Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain’s planned suburb celebrated its centennial, our block was all villas, with the exception of two seven-story buildings. There were readily available parking spots, the street was wide enough to accommodate kids on bicycles, and it was back when each villa’s garage accommodated all of the residents’ cars.

Today the old block mostly lies in the shadow of tall buildings, with the exception of a few villas still standing either because their owners are proud of the area’s heritage or because they simply can’t sell the premises. The street I grew up on has cars parked on both sides and barely enough room for a pedestrian to maneuver, let alone race on bikes. In the past six months alone, three villas have been torn down, presumably to be replaced by higher buildings with less of that Heliopolis je ne sais quoi, and more of the economically viable housing that will maximize profits.

My old block is not alone. A random check of villas marked for destruction indicates that the hayy (district headquarters) issued at least 20 demolition permits in the first quarter of the year. “Destruction decision number 20 for year 2010” reads one permit dated in April. Hayy officials, however, would not provide specific data during an interview.

When Heliopolis was first built, the town’s original boundaries encompassed the areas around the Baron’s Far-East inspired palace, his Basilique, Korba and Roxy. And these are the same areas where villas are disappearing today, in the streets off the main thoroughfares of Orouba, Thawra, Merghany and Nozha.

While certainly the most celebrated, Heliopolis is not the only neighborhood losing its architectural flavor. Many of the tree-lined lanes of Maadi, built a few years after Heliopolis as another garden suburb filled with European-influenced villas, have started turning into bustling streets shadowed by high-rises. To a lesser extent, villas in Zamalek, Garden City and Mohandiseen are meeting the same fate.

“It is happening everywhere, not just Heliopolis,” says Nagwa Shoeib, a longtime Heliopolis resident who headed the Heliopolis Association’s centennial celebration committee.

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When a villa becomes surrounded by high-rises, the owners may be tempted to move to a more private property.

The aesthetic effect has yet to be seen, but veterans of Heliopolis worry that their city might become yet another Helmeyet El Zeitoun. A posh residential area near one of the royal palaces 60 or 70 years ago, this district is now crammed up with high-rises whose construction outpaced any attempts at urban planning.

But not only aesthetics are at stake here. Beyond the haphazard, uncoordinated architectural designs of the new buildings, there seems to be no thought given to the pressure that new high-rises put on the community’s infrastructure and services.


In 1998, Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri passed a decree banning the destruction of villas to keep the cultural heritage of certain areas across the capital. That decree was overturned in 2006 by the Higher Constitutional Court, which ruled that it violated owners’ rights to sell or alter their properties. That court ruling led to the passing of Law no. 144 of 2006, created by the ministries of culture and housing to protect the nation’s architectural heritage.

According to the mission statement on its website, the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH) was launched in 2004 under the Ministry of Culture to “improve the visual image of cities, villages and new urban societies [] and preserve the architectural and urban features specific to every area.” Among its mandates, the NOUH is charged with creating and maintaining a list of all buildings with heritage value, be it a historic building, one where a famous person lived, one that represents a specific era or one that has a certain touristic value. Those buildings — whether palaces, villas or normal apartment buildings — are not to be torn down or altered.

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As neighboring buildings are torn down, it becomes harder for owners of the remaining villas to stand their ground.

Mohamed Ragab is the director general of housing for the Heliopolis hayy; his office issues demolition and construction permits, as well as commercial licenses for shops. Ragab says that any building can be torn down as long as it is not on the NOUH list.

Although villa owners have had the freedom to alter their properties since 2006, the demolitions seem to have picked up steam during the past year. Investors are seeing fresh opportunities in the historic districts, as property values have steadily risen in the wake of the centennial sprucing that saw facelifts for the Baron’s Palace and the Korba shopping district.

Now real estate companies are looking primarily for a license for destruction. Hany El Shazly, sales manager at HNS Real Estate Company, which has purchased several properties in Heliopolis to replace them with apartment buildings, says that the company would only buy properties for which it can obtain demolition permits. “We wouldn’t buy a property without a permit,” says El Shazly, noting it is not as profitable to rent or re-sell a villa as it is to sell several apartments in a high-rise. Regardless of the state of the villa, a developer would rather tear it down.


It seems less important to invest in restoring villas or preserving the architectural value of quiet villa districts when the reality of decentralized families and an expanding population is factored in.

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A recently passed law sets architectural codes to preserve the visual unity of an area.

Shoeib is concerned about and saddened by the loss of the villas. Nevertheless, Shoeib, who is also the director general of Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement, acknowledges that “the population is growing and we need to accommodate more people. It has become economically viable and lucrative to tear down a space where one family was living and instead build a high-rise to accommodate 50 families.”

In some cases, the people residing in the villas are grandparents whose children and grandchildren have moved away; they are no longer able to financially or physically maintain their home so they end up selling it to make money and move to smaller, quieter places. In other cases, as more tall buildings crop up on the street, the remaining villas lose that sense of privacy, leaving the residents little choice but to sell and move to the suburbs in search of more secluded property. In some cases, villa owners barter with the developers to get an apartment or two in the new building as part of the saleof the villa.

Shoeib notes, “Of course the buyer isn’t as sentimental as the original owner [] he wants profit.”

It becomes even harder to fight change when it seems everyone else has sold and moved out. Shoeib recounts how her parents were among the first to sell the family villa; now the street she grew up in is dominated by tall apartment buildings — there is only one villa left. Shoeib and her family now live in a villa built in the 1940s, which they have renovated and maintained to keep its beauty. Hers is one of a few villas left in her street, and she admits it becomes very difficult to defend keeping her villa when everyone else has torn theirs down: “So what do you do? Do you fight to keep that one villa standing? It is a difficult question to answer. How can you penalize the owner if everyone around him did the same?”


According to Ragab, a building on any given street in Heliopolis can be only 1.5 times higher than the width of the street. So by law, a side street six meters wide allows for a nine-meter tall building — three or four stories. Along Orouba Street and in the airport area, buildings within the first two rows have even more height restrictions, due to security reasons.

Building height is a key concern for a real estate investor, El Shazly says. “We have to know how many stories the [new] building can have to know how much to pay for it.” Investors buying villas tagged for demolition want a return on their investment. Thus, many of the new buildings going up have at least five stories. Most floors have at least two family-sized apartments.

Heliopolis was laid out for villas, and Empain had very strict building regulations for his European-style garden suburb. The maximum built area could not exceed 50 percent of the plot, villas could not exceed 15 meters in height and no building could exceed five stories. The villas typically housed extended families and domestic staff, about 10 people on average.

While the city has grown substantially in the past century, the basic infrastructure — including facilities for water, electricity, gas and sewage services — for a given residential street is still designed to accommodate single-family dwellings. Replace four villas on a six-meter side street with an equal number of four-story apartment buildings, and you have quadrupled the human population to 160 residents, up from 40.

“Of course the infrastructure has to be able to bear the new buildings,” Ragab notes, but declined to give details about how the hayy ensures the facilities and infrastructure of the area can handle more residents.

The 2006 property law stipulates that each new building includes enough parking facilities on the property to accommodate most of its residents. According to Ragab, the law calculates total garage space based on 15 to 20 square meters per dwelling, depending on the size of the apartment. However, that’s not how the builders do the math. While El Shazly says that every apartment has to have a minimum of one parking slot, an informal survey of 10 new buildings indicates that an average apartment of around 300 square meters has only one parking spot on the property.

Some of the old areas in Heliopolis, Korba, Merghany, the Baron Palace area and others, will have land prices averaging at LE 15,000 per square meter. An informal survey shows that a 200-square-meter apartment, the average size for these neighborhoods, runs for about LE 3 million.

Since 2004, dramatic cuts on imported automobile tariffs and increased production by local auto manufacturers have made more people car owners, and it is not at all unusual to have a multi-car family in a single apartment. With only one space allotted on the premises, the ‘spare’ cars must find a home on the street.

Put our six-meter-wide side street with its four apartment buildings in an upscale, multi-car family neighborhood, and you find no less than 40 cars vying for space on the street and sidewalks.

It goes a long way toward explaining the suburb’s increasingly cramped streets, where it has become almost impossible to navigate among the parked cars. The congested streets are a common complaint among Heliopolis residents like Shoeib.


When Heliopolis was planned in 1905, the suburb was zoned with designated areas for villas, others for apartment buildings and others for entertainment and commercial use. Shoeib says that restrictive zoning and adherence to certain architectural styles is what gave Heliopolis its special character that is worth celebrating 100 years later.

“Despite the fact that residential building types vary in shape and size, there is an overall and common theme that binds them together,” architecture analyst and former Egypt Today editor Karim Ezzeldin wrote in his June 2005 article “Sun City,” about Heliopolis’ unique urban character. “[O]verall harmony is achieved using similar styles, architectural vocabulary and/or proportions.”

Shoeib says that this architectural heritage and harmony is disappearing, noting the current amalgamation of villas next to high rises. As developers replace villas with new apartment buildings, it seems the approach to approving new construction is haphazard.

“It isn’t like they said, ‘Okay this area will all be five-story buildings’,” Shoeib says. “There isn’t any observation of zoning and building codes, and the regulations aren’t observed or enforced as they should be. Things are not pleasing to the eye anymore.”

For the existing buildings on the architectural heritage list, NOUH Chairman Samir Gharib says that building owners are informed of the cultural value of their property and that any alteration or destruction may result in a one to five year imprisonment and a fine of up to LE 5 million.

An individual property owner may know his building has historical value, but hayy officials seem unaware. When asked, Ragab estimates there are 719 buildings listed with NOUH in Egypt. Gharib, on the other hand, says there are 3,000 in Cairo alone. While unable to provide specific figures for Heliopolis, Gharib says that NOUH shares the list with district officials so that demolition permits are not issued for protected buildings.

Law no. 144 of 2006 stipulates that the Ministry of Housing must compensate owners whose buildings are listed as heritage sites, but it does not specify how that compensation is evaluated or when it should be paid. Ragab says that the compensation will not be paid until the NOUH appeal committee has finished reviewing people’s requests to remove their buildings from the listing.

Gharib says some owners are resorting to drastic measures to have their buildings delisted. “I see violations on registered buildings every day,” he asserts. The NOUH has brought a lawsuit against a court judge who allegedly sabotaged the facade of his Heliopolis villa so that the appeal committee would remove it from the heritage site listing. “The lawsuit is still on,” the NOUH chief says, “and this is just one example — things like that happen all over Egypt.”

Some buildings that have been successfully preserved from demolition have been converted for use as schools, hospitals or other public facilities. That approach, however, does not stave off the potential for damage.

Gharib says that houses transformed for public use are widely abused. Students aren’t aware of the heritage of their school, patients aren’t interested in who painted the murals on the wall, and government officials don’t see the point in keeping creaky wood floors when they can use tiles that are easier to clean.

Shoeib agrees, pointing to the example of Sultana Malak’s palace in Heliopolis, which was turned into a school. “We went to visit it and it wasn’t well preserved. Inside they made a mess out of it,” she says, adding the students didn’t know anything about the importance or history of their buildings.

“People just don’t appreciate their value, and the organization can do absolutely nothing about it,” Gharib complains. “We don’t have enough budget for maintenance. The organization’s budget for this year is LE 4 million in total — not even enough to maintain one palace.”

Even as many bemoan the destruction of villas across Heliopolis, Maadi, Garden City and other districts, a new Urban Harmony Law put forward by the Ministry of Housing might just help save what little architectural identity remains.

Law no. 119 of 2010 sets specific architectural codes for certain areas. “So although you can tear down a building, you can’t just replace it with anything,” Gharib says. “It has to conform to the specified architectural style.”

However, the law is still in the planning phase of implementation, so results are yet to be seen. Gharib says, “We started with Old Cairo and Garden City and are now planning Heliopolis.”

Government officials are also trying to instill an aesthetic sense in future generations. In April 2010, the culture and education ministries signed an agreement to cooperate on educational programs that raise awareness about the nation’s cultural heritage. Gharib especially wants students who attend schools in old palaces and villas to be educated on the cultural and heritage value of the property; to find pride in it and preserve it.

Shoeib suggests creative thinking is also needed to save quiet residential areas and villas with special architecture. People should be properly compensated to keep their houses in their original condition, she says, “maybe [through] tax cuts.”

Another financially viable way she proposes is to sell the old properties to investors under the condition they maintain the historic facade. She points to the example of the Suez Canal Bank on Orouba Street in Heliopolis; the bank purchased an old villa and kept its palatial European-influenced style. “Even the ATM machine [was designed] to conform to the architecture of the place.”

Getting the people who live, go to school and work in these heritage sites involved, she says, “works better than imposing laws.” et


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