Mar Mikhael, the new Gemmayzeh?
The old streets of Mar Mikhael may be seeing a transformation
Mar Mikhael is tipped to be the new hotspot for Beirut party-goers. Starting where Gemmayzeh ends, the marker was first put down by the now-defunct 961 micro brewery. The torch was then taken up by Behind the Green Door, an edgy pub (rumored to be named after a cult 70s soft porn film) a few meters further down the road, and now at least ten new pubs have either opened or will open soon, starting a trend that could see non-stop nightlife from the edge of downtown Beirut all the way to the Bourj Hammoud bridge.
But while nightlife and tourism is held up as a vital artery of the Lebanese economy, the fear is that Mar Mikhael might morph into a new Gemmayzeh, with property prices soaring and the mostly-unlicensed premises making life hell for those who thought they lived in a relatively peaceful neighborhood.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, only around 5% of the bars in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael are legal, as most do not meet requirements, in particular one necessitating adequate parking spaces for each establishment. Furthermore, the municipality refuses to issue permits to many pubs because they are situated in a designated residential area. These pubs then, for the most part, operate illegally.
Nonetheless, there has been a steady increase in license applications to the Ministry of Tourism since the second half of 2008, and a sharp increase since 2009. But most of these applications are for restaurants. When inspectors from the ministry visit these so-called “restaurants,” they usually discover the minimal kitchen and a well-stocked bar. “We cannot go on like this,” a ministry official told NOW. “We have to find a solution and help legalize the pubs.”
Owners of bars without kitchens – in which case, they cannot even apply for a restaurant license – resort to bribing government officials. “Of course,” said Ramzi, a bar owner in Gemmayzeh, when asked whether this practice is common.
The recent development has already pushed up property prices. Anthony, 25, who recently opened Dessau in Mar Mikhael, says rent is “going up faster here than in any other area.” Tommy Tabib, who opened L’Osteria this April, predicts that people trying to rent and open pubs nowadays will probably pay double what he currently pays.
But what do the local residents feel about their once-sedate neighborhood becoming an adjunct to Lebanon’s tourism epicenter?
“At 2, 2:30 a.m., we’re going to hear loud noises of people getting drunk. It’s not good,” said Joseph, a long-time resident and building owner, who is already concerned about how loud it has become at night. “Everything is not [about] money,” he said. And he is not the only one. A building owner across from Joseph was offered over $1,500 a month by someone who wanted to open a restaurant-pub on the ground floor – much higher than what her current tenants are paying – but she refused in order to keep the calm and not disturb the neighbors.
But even if some decline offers from prospective bar owners as new tenants, others are taking advantage of the area’s popularity. In the eight-story building this reporter lives in at the top of the Mar Mikhael stairs, the landlord has doubled rents.
George, a local real-estate broker confirmed that residential prices in some cases have tripled to $2,000 per m2. He said that an Emirati customer unsuccessfully made an offer of $4,000 per m2 for a 900 m2 house in Mar Mikhael just east of the EDL electricity building.
And those who cannot take a piece of the pie feel cheated. “It’s not fair,” Joseph, the same landlord who disapproves Mar Mikhael’s new development course, complained. He has ten tenants in his building paying him the “old rent” – what they paid before 1975 – of $300 per year. Three of the renters live in Paris and only return for summers.