BEIRUT — CLAMBERING over a sea of rubble, George Khabbaz can still see his name on the building that used to house his shop in the heart of old downtown Beirut, though the Z has fallen off.
But only the ground floor of the three-story building is still standing, and everything else in the old Souk al-Tawila has been demolished - not by the guns of war, but by developers' dynamite.
"This was a strong building, and they haven't managed to budge it completely," Mr. Khabbaz says. "They said it was unsafe, but it could have been renovated. They demolished everything here in order to put their hand on it. We want to rebuild this area ourselves. It belongs to us, but it seems they intend to take it from us."
Apart from the war itself, few issues in Lebanon have stirred such bitter passions as the plan to redevelop Beirut's old downtown commercial center.
Both what is being done and the way it is being done are the subject of heated attacks by architects, planners, and other interested parties - and of spirited defense by the plan's advocates and supporters.
The downtown area - with its warren of souks (markets), squares, and avenues - used to be the bustling center of Beirut. But soon after the outbreak of civil war in 1975 it became the battlefront. Years of fighting inflicted spectacular, surreal devastation on the whole area.
With the country largely at peace for the past two years, an old 1978 plan for the redevelopment of the downtown area has been dusted off, revamped, and set in motion - to cries of protest from many opponents. The plan, estimated to cost $4 billion to $5 billion, envisages a complete face lift for the 370-odd acres of prime real estate in the downtown center.
Religious and historic buildings will be retained. But some much-loved landmarks, such as Martyrs Square, will be transformed beyond recognition and incorporated into a futuristic cityscape that some critics say loses the spirit of old Beirut.
"The town does not date back to 1975, it goes back 2000 years," says Assem Salam, an architect and town planner who is among the plan's leading critics. "It's a city that's built over centuries of history, and the plan that's being proposed unfortunately is too traumatizing to retain that memory of the town."
Chief architect Henri Edde says the plan is balanced between reverence for the past and ambition for the future. "We were very careful about preserving whatever we could, and at a very heavy expense, because we want to preserve the image of the town and the past of the town," he says. "But we still want to look to the future, to the role that Beirut can play, and to be ambitious on this score."
The new city center will certainly be very different, and much more up-market than its previous incarnation, which housed artisans, tradesmen, and even a red-light district, as well as high-flying bankers and government officials.
"The way it's being proposed, downtown Beirut is going to be a big prison," says Riyadh Assaad, an engineer. "There's no correlation, there's no linking, no webbing of the societies around it. It's not a commercial center, it's a real estate center with all the real estate development and greed going into it."
But Mr. Edde defends the more elitist approach implicit in the way the plan is conceived. "Certainly the new center will have a different social structure than before," he says. "But this is quite normal. All city centers in the world have a special structure which does not reflect the normal social structure of the whole town."
Equally bitter controversy has been stirred by the way in which the project is being carried out. The 127,000 owners and tenants with an interest in the 2,280 pieces of property involved are obliged under a new law to give up their interest in exchange for shares in a new real estate company that will develop the area.
Many of the owners and tenants see this as expropriation. Some suspect the project will be a money-spinner for the moving spirit behind it, a Lebanese-born Saudi Arabian entrepreneur named Rafiq al-Hariri.
"They are taking our lands, our places, our shops, our everything, and they will give us just paper receipts which I believe will be worthless," Khabbaz says. He says that he and at least 70 percent of the owners and tenants in the Souk al-Tawila, where his shop was, were prepared to renovate their properties and abide by zoning directives.
But the plan's supporters say it would have been impossible to leave reconstruction to individual initiative, arguing that the multitude of owners and tenants would never be able to get their act together.
"I know of one small property which has 4,058 owners and tenants," says Nohad Baroudi of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government body charged with overseeing development projects. "How can you possibly imagine that suddenly by some miracle the owners and tenants of one property are going to unite and agree on when and how to reconstruct their building?" he asks. "And even if this miracle happens, how are they going to do that, if there is total destruction all around them?"
Dr. Baroudi adds that owners and tenants will have the right to buy back their property, provided it is earmarked for renovation and they pay a value-added tax to cover infrastructure costs.
As for fears that the Lebanese may lose control of the city center to outsiders, the plan's champions point out that the owners and tenants will automatically have a 50 percent share in the real estate company, and will have first priority in subscribing the remaining 50 percent.
"So if all of them together just buy one percent extra, they will have a controlling interest in the company," says Edde.
Another fear is that the grandiose project may be out of step with the local market and may end up as a Lebanese version of the failed Canary Wharf project in London. Some economists believe the scheme may have a dangerously inflationary impact, but Baroudi hopes it will stimulate the whole economy.
"I believe the project is not as important in itself as it is for the multiplier effect it will have on the rest of the economy," he says. "I'm willing to take the risk of a white elephant, but I'll try at least to see that the risk is minimal."