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Renovating Cairo's Downtown: Contested visions of the heart of the city

Renovation plans for Cairo's Downtown are underway, revealing fault lines in the city centre's identity

Salma Shukrallah , Sunday 7 Jun 2015
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Talaat Harb square after the recent renovations (Photo: Randa Ali)
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Over the past month, Cairo governorate has renewed interest in a shelved plan to renovate the city centre’s main squares and streets. Buildings have been repainted and trees have been planted, but more importantly the roads have been emptied of all parked cars and a new parking space — that took years to build — was finally opened as an alternative.

Street vendors, who had taken up large chunks of the sidewalks and streets since the complete police absence that followed the 2011 revolution, were forced out by authorities. The microbuses that form Egypt’s main public transport service were also forced to change their waiting spots, albeit with much resistance.

Downtown Cairo has become of late an attraction for several urban, social as well as economic development plans that aim to shape the future of the area. 

The revolution’s birthplace, Cairo’s cultural hub, the city’s centre, a commercial attraction, a heritage site, Downtown has despite all of its significance suffered negligence with many of its buildings rundown and its infrastructure compromised.

State efforts to renovate Downtown

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The newly renovated Al-Alfy street (Photo: Randa Ali)

According to Cairo governorate spokesperson Khaled Mostafa, the underway renovation plan is a pilot project for the renovation of Khedivial Cairo, historically constructed by Khedive Ismail in the 19th century.

Influenced by French architecture, Downtown Cairo was first built by Khedive Ismail (ruler of Egypt 1863-1879) as a new place for Egypt’s elite. This period in Egypt’s history has left many until today nostalgic about the area and how Cairo one day resembled a modern European city, or a “Paris along the Nile”.

Considering its historic value, Cairo governorate has given special interest to renovating the 19th century buildings that extend from Tahrir Square up to Abdeen Square, where the old royal palace is located.

Al-Alfy and Oraby streets were turned into pedestrian roads with small cafes and restaurants located on their sidewalks and their buildings’ façades repainted. The buildings on Talaat Harb Square, up until Mohamed Farid Square, have also been repainted. Sidewalks are being newly paved and shop signs that distort the view of the buildings, according to Mostafa, have been removed.

These efforts are not those of Cairo governorate alone. Contributions are made by the area’s main real estate owners, including Misr Insurance Holding Company, which owns over 100 buildings in the area, banks as well as companies such as El-Sewedy, which owns a major building in the area.

The National Organisation for Urban Harmony, which follows the Ministry of Culture and includes staff members of the Faculty of Engineering as well as the Faculty of Fine Arts, together with bank CEOs and the Cairo governorate hold weekly meetings to supervise the implementation of the plan that they also helped put forward.

The state’s interest in renovating Khedivial Cairo is not new, but has been part of a 2050 vision formulated by the government in 2008 and supported by the Policies Committee of Gamal Mubarak, believed then as being groomed to follow his father as president of Egypt. The plan, which then faced much criticism for its top-down class-biased approach, involved the idea of gradually reviving the old spirit of Downtown as a fashionable commercial centre.

The plan included turning it into a mostly pedestrian area and reducing traffic by redirecting cars to underground tunnels and parking spaces.

Accordingly, private investors have since taken an interest in Downtown Cairo.

A new private investment model

Namely Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, which takes its name from Ismailite Cairo, or that built by Khedive Ismail, has been under the spotlight in recent years as a main player in Downtown Cairo.

Founded in 2008, in tandem with the 2050 vision, Al-Ismaelia now owns 22 Downtown buildings. The most recently purchased is one on El-Borsa El-Gedeeda Street, off Talaat Harb, known as the French Consulate — the building’s previous owners.   

The company, whose shareholders include Egyptian and Saudi Arabian investors as well as Beltone Investment and Amwal Alkhaleej, a regional private equity firm, has set aside EGP125 million for renovation works.    

“Our vision is to bring this area to its heydays where all Egyptians used to live, work, shop and socialise. We revive the area through acquiring and refurbishing properties,” says marketing manager Moushira Adel.

While according to Adel, Al-Ismaelia only owns around five percent of Downtown, the idea is to set an example of a new renovation model.

There is interest in what Al-Ismaelia is doing, believes Adel who says the company was offered a platform during the Egypt Economic Development Conference in March. There is also growing cooperation from local authorities.

“Downtown is now back on the map … Now that there is more political stability there is a renewal of interest from the government in the area, which will definitely encourage real estate investors and tenants.”

After four years of social upheaval, with Downtown acting as the centre for protests and subsequent violent clashes with authorities, the area has witnessed a retreat in political action.

“Our aim is to have a coherent strategy for Downtown that engages all the concerned stakeholders and assures sustainable restoration for the area based on scientific research … We have already started the first steps and started lobbying with other stakeholders and hopefully we can come up with one unified urban plan in alignment with the government,” says Adel.  

Al-Ismaelia is propagating a new model, Adel explains — one that not only focuses on economic development, but also on social development.

The relatively young company has invested in multiple cultural projects that have attracted a considerable number of youth from Egypt’s arts and culture scene.

Its Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) alone has attracted around 30,000 visitors, according to the company’s estimate.  

The aim is to attract "positive traffic," says Adel, targeting the attraction of cultural and arts interested groups. 

Brushing off fears that the company is working towards gentrification of a lively city centre, Adel says Al-Ismaelia on the contrary aims to diversify projects to target Cairo’s different social segments.

“We are offering a diversified mix of projects that serve different segments, we believe that Downtown is not exclusive to one segment and accordingly we are looking forward to create diversity in the social fabric, and in the tenants mix as well.”

While Al-Ismaelia works on targeting the urban artistic youth scene, it also seeks to make the area economically viable and an attraction for investment.

For example, Adel explains, one project is to renovate the facades of buildings, maintaining their historical look but restructuring and dividing the insides to accommodate more modern needs for businesses by creating common administrative spaces for small companies.

The company’s first development phase included the renovation of Cinema Radio, located on Talaat Harb, which used to host prominent satirist Bassem Yousef, forced to suspend his popular TV show in 2014 for his critical views of authorities, and now hosting the comedy programme Abla Fahita.

In six months, the company will complete renovation of the Kodak building, located in Adly Street, opposite to one of Cairo’s largest Jewish synagogues, and turn it into a centre for cafes and restaurants.

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Invisible Boundaries by EE Dance Studio performing as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

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Kodak building under renovation by Al-Ismaelia company (Photo: Randa Ali)

A critical vision   

“It is no one’s, but it is for everyone,” is how urban planner Ahmed Zaazaa described Downtown Cairo’s uniqueness, which he believes is not incorporated in recent efforts for its revamping.

In a highly segmented society, Downtown Cairo has been acting as one of the few meeting points of Cairo’s different social groups.

Its visitors include the middle class employees of surrounding government buildings, shop owners, members of political groups whose headquarters are mostly located in the area, intellectuals that use the relatively affordable café and restaurants, tourists that are attracted by the area’s history, as well as middle class families that still head to its reasonably priced shops. 

Especially over the past 10 years, Cairo’s Downtown has been buzzing with political and cultural life. Professional syndicates were often host to political protests, conferences and meetings.

Opposition demonstrations largely concentrated in Downtown eventually led to the 2011 revolt in the now iconic Tahrir Square, which led to the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.

While several shops have gone bankrupt and closed in the process, leaving more of Downtown Cairo’s buildings deserted, the absence of police and strong state control opened space for graffiti artists to swamp Downtown walls with ever changing drawings and statements. Art performances took the streets, as well as film screenings and political events held in public squares.

This has in turn attracted several art initiatives, including new alternative cinema venues opening up, like Zawya and Cimatheque. Cultural projects that had already been operating in Downtown could expand their work to the streets, instead of previously limiting themselves to closed spaces.

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A performance at Al-Fan Midan (Art is a Square) (Photo: Bassam El-Zoghby)

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Youths take photos in front of graffiti depicting poverty and homelessness in Downtown Cairo, December 5 2013 (Photo:Reuters)

Additionally, street vendors and cafes expanded, making the streets of Downtown even louder and busier and an attraction for more visitors.

With the state regaining control, the scene has changed of late.

A protest law, issued in 2013, allows authorities to violently crack down on any public protest or political event that does not obtain prior permission, leading to the arrest of hundreds in the process. This has contributed to bringing an end to the once buzzing political spirit of Downtown.

Street art is also being gradually limited, with events like El-Fan Midan (Art is a Square) banned from holding its monthly performances where it used to in Abdeen Square.

Several street cafes, including El-Borsa, which acted as a meeting point for many activists, were forced to shut down as they informally occupied sidewalks and streets.

Downtown has regained order, but at a cost.

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Two men sit at a downtown street cafe (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

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Handout photo of security forces clearing vendors' shacks in Ramsis Square, Cairo, 26 April 2015. (Photo: Cairo governorate)

According to Zaazaa, ongoing renovation and planning efforts do not try to engage or incorporate the people who make Downtown what it is. On the contrary.

“Renovation efforts like that of the governorate deal with the city as a museum when it should not be,” he says.

“The city is dynamic, should remain so and any efforts at renovating it should incorporate such spirit,” said the young urban planner whose work propagates a model that engages all city users to create an equilibrium.

“The urban planner should have an understanding of the different stakeholders, to have a solid prediction for changes and re-appropriations while designing a given space,” says Zaazaa, who believes a model that simply excludes users is not sustainable.      

“A cover of paint can please people, but in a short time it will no longer look any good,” he further opined, referring to renovations made in Ramsis Street months earlier that are already worn.

Further criticising the recent renewals, Zaazaa added that these renovations did not extend beyond painting the fronts of buildings located in main streets, while side streets and passageways were left rundown.

Similarly critical of private plans, like that of Al-Ismaelia, Zaazaa believes that developing Downtown by making it economically viable, and thus attractive to private investors, as is the plan, means that its current visitors that make it what it is will be pushed out.

“The users claiming the territory in Downtown are from an income group that does not make them a target for investors … The same goes for the services they use; their restaurants, cafés, etc,” says Zaazaa, believing that investment plans will essentially be targeting higher income groups alone.

After his team Madd — an independent group of architects and urban designers that act as consultants for communities in marginalised and deprived areas — managed over the past year to successfully agree with residents, government and investors on a plan for Downtown's extension, the Maspero triangle, without involving the intitial evacuation plans, Zaazaa hopes such a vision will extend to the rest of the city's centre instead of relying on top-down models.

Opposing the idea that Downtown needs to go back to its “heydays,” Zaazaa opines that, “If Downtown had remained as it was during the Khedivial period it would have missed a lot.”

“It may have gained some benefits, but missed much of what enriches it today."

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