|Damascus in dire need of a modern business district|
|Be they private banks, insurance firms or a stock market, the new institutions that serve as the core of Syria's reforms need proper premises and facilities. Beirut's central business district has set the standard as to what international and regional businesses can find in the Middle East, and Amman is revamping its commercial center Al-Abdali. Damascus should start planning now for what it has to offer.
Ahead of their opening earlier this year, Syria's three private banks struggled to find suitable office space for their operations. One rented a second floor apartment in downtown Damascus, another a shop close to the Central Bank of Syria, while a third had to buy a residential building and convert it into offices.
At this rate, Syrians will have to comb the streets of Damascus to interact with the very institutions that are supposed to make business life easier. The traffic problems alone are difficult to contemplate.
Today, Damascus lacks dedicated modern office buildings of international standard. The majority of structures in downtown Damascus, built during the 1960s and 1970s, are in need of substantial renovation and upgrade of power and communications services. Most firms today rent or buy residential apartments for use as office space, increasing unnecessary capital expenditure. The resulting parking problems increase day by day.
Suitable property lots for construction of modern office facilities are rare, and those that do exist are scattered throughout the city, making the construction of a modern business district even more difficult.
But one area that holds out promise for a rejuvenated business district is Damascus' Victory Street. Best known to tourists as the thoroughfare between the Old City's Souq al-Hammidyya and Al-Hijaz railway station, Victory Street opened in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and serves as one of the widest streets Damascus. Its northern side features such buildings as the Al-Fija Establishment, the 1930s era old Damascus Directorate of Waqf, which now hosts the headquarters of civil status courts, and the Palace of Justice, which has been home to a majority of Syrian courts since the 1940s. The thoroughfare also has a political legacy, as it hosts the former Damascus Broadcasting Station from where Syrian independence was declared, and the Orient Hotel, where many post independence era politicians used to stay. Victory Street is also close to the residential area of Al-Qanawat, which was the residential area of the Ottoman era aristocracy. Today, the area has more the 40,000 square meters of vacant land ready for development.
The planning and execution of any effort to develop a modern business district should reflect the new tendencies of the Syrian economy by engaging the private sector, using regional and international expertise in construction, and offering a friendly regulatory environment. Execution of such a project should not be left to individuals, but perhaps a consortium of players that can employ the proper financial, engineering and consultancy resources that can propose a comprehensive solution that meets international standards. Studies of traffic, parking, accessibility, environment, public transportation, and zoning should be undertaken. Import, tax and legal exemptions could be granted to facilitate the projects completion.
If such a project is left to the bureaucracy, it will not see the light of day any time soon. For example, a shopping complex behind Al-Hijaz railway station has faced delays due in no small part to a regulatory environment that accommodates only small projects.
A concerted effort to construct a modern business district will offer thousands of jobs during the construction phase and more after its opening. It would also serve as an example for Syrians as to how working with regional and international expertise facilitates the transfer of knowledge - something that must accelerate if Syria is to keep up with its regional counterparts.
Damascus,08 09 2004
The Daily Star