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In fight for Alexandria's architectural gems, weak economy is a prime foe

Dozens of late 19th and early 20th century villas are giving way to high-rise apartment blocks. Egyptian preservationists are fighting an uphill battle to save buildings that reflect the city's cosmopolitan past. 

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    Rescue workers look for survivors buried under debris of damaged buildings following the collapse of an 11-story building under construction onto three adjacent buildings that killed at least 10 people in the Gomrouk neighborhood of Alexandria, Egypt, July 15, 2012. With real estate at a premium in big cities like Alexandria and Cairo, developers seeking bigger profits frequently violate planning permits and exceed the number of stories allowed.
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To walk through Alexandria’s tree-lined streets is to commune with another Egypt, in which this Mediterranean city was a glamorous haunt, a second home for urbanites from Greece to the Levant.

While those communities are all but gone now, most of their villas remain. 

But for how long is another question – many buildings constructed during Alexandria’s late 19th and early 20th century heyday are under threat. In recent years, several heritage sites have made way for high-rise apartment blocks. 

Gone is the Villa Aghion, a lattice-fronted modernist villa built by renowned architect Auguste Perret in 1928. Gone is the Rialto Cinema, one of the oldest in the world.

Soon to join their ranks is one of Alexandria’s most famous sites of all – the dilapidated Villa Ambron, once home to Lawrence Durrell, the British author whose experiences here inspired his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet.
 
In an economy still reeling from Egypt's tumultuous 2011 uprising, the architectural gems of Alexandria, referred to colloquially as Alex, have fallen prey to opportunistic developers, legal loopholes, and insufficient government oversight. The dire economy has pushed up poverty and unemployment rates, and led many here to crave the perceived stability of the Mubarak era.

Against this backdrop, the conservation of Egypt’s heritage is often painted as a luxury. But a small group of pro-preservation activists are determined to act before it's too late. 

Court challenges to heritage listing

“Once they’re gone, you can’t get these treasures back,” says Mohamed Aboulkheir, co-founder of the campaign group Save Alex.

Over the coming year, local courts will rule on whether dozens of buildings listed in 2008 as heritage sites will be de-listed in preparation for demolition. In the past four years at least 30 such buildings were destroyed. In the two years before the revolution, only eight heritage properties were destroyed.

Activists and developers lay the blame at the feet of Egypt’s government. They say there is no political will in Cairo to protect Alexandria’s priceless heritage.

The office of Alexandria’s new governor, appointed last week in a nationwide shakeup of local leadership, says the city’s heritage will be one of his “main concerns.”

“We understand there are some obstacles, but we intend to overcome them with new management,” says Mahmoud Saad, a PR official. 

Stress on infrastructure

Still, successive governors have made similar promises, while also cozying up to major construction firms and extolling their role in changing the face of the city.

And the government has done little to stop the illegal construction of a rash of apartment blocks near the shore, the highest standing at 25 floors. With so many people packed into a small strip, local amenities have buckled – last month, some residents took to jet skis and fishing boats, after the streets were flooded with sewage.

Potholes pockmark the city's sidewalks, and many are strewn with rubbish. In some backstreets, the sunlight is blocked out by looming high rises.
 
“These tax the city so much, and don’t just shoot up over night,” says Mr. Aboulkheir, “why doesn’t anyone stop them?”
 
And then there’s the law itself. Construction companies have discovered a number of loopholes that allow them to challenge a building’s heritage status in the court, and often succeed in getting it delisted, before they go ahead and buy the land.
 
“We can wrap up a case in two days,” says one lawyer who represents Alexandrian contractors in court. “When there's a legal loophole in the case, and we can spot them immediately – it's like a game.”

The cost of rent control

Karim Mahmoud, a business development executive at Sigma Properties, an investment company, says the government needs to provide a legal framework that protects Egypt’s heritage without undermining the economic interests of the buildings’ owners.
 
Rent control laws dating back to the time of Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, keep revenues artificially low. In some heritage buildings, tenants are still paying as little as a few dollars a month.
 
“The government just doesn’t help the owners, and now people are destroying their buildings to maximize profits,” says Mr. Mahmoud. In some cases, property owners have taken matters into their own hands, repeatedly flooding basements until centuries-old houses collapse, and then selling off the land.

The property lawyer agrees. “I don’t blame my clients for wanting to bring down these buildings – they’re sleeping inside a fortune, but the rents are keeping them penniless.”

Fighting a lonely battle

In Kafr Abdo, an upscale neighborhood with tree-lined streets, several distinctive old villas have been demolished in recent years. One is now the sight of a half-finished modern high-rise building, covered in netting. “Another quality construction going up,” boasts the developer's sign on its second floor.

The fight for Alexandria’s heritage can sometimes feel lonely. As Egypt’s government turns the screws on public shows of dissent, Save Alex has had to change its tactics and reassess its outspoken stance.

The group says street protests or informational pickets outside endangered heritage buildings are no longer an option – the government has criminalized "unofficial" protests.

For the time being, their work is largely confined to in-person advocacy. 

“We’re struggling to survive these days,” says Aboulkheir. “But we know this fight is important. Alexandria is too precious to lose.”

Additional reporting by Mohamed Ezz.

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