Tuesday, March 07, 2006


The site - not so simple

I'm not very regular with this blog, to say the least. Sometimes when I'm here in Syria life just seems to be spent in front of the PC churning out papers, think pieces, reports, spreadsheets, purchase orders, emails in and out, presentations, progress charts and the like, and it's great to be able to just close down the PC at the end of the day and take myself off for the evening. Sometimes I get so immersed in the project that I just don't introspect, if that's a verb, and the blog doesn't get considered. And I suppose sometimes it's just a fact that Syria is now more normal to me, so the things that struck me as strange when I first arrived, now I just take for granted.

So, where are we now? Well, having thought that we had all the issues to do with the site for the discovery centre sorted out, we now have had the full Syria treatment. Damascus has a new Governor, after the previous one left at short notice, and he has been quite properly getting himself up to speed on matters to do with the project (which he fully supports) and the site, aka turning over stones. Under which he has found the most interesting number of wriggling lifeforms, which his staff should have known about, but either didn't or chose not to tell him.

First, the site's ownership is unclear. It seems it might belong to a body which administers charitable religious donations. Or it might belong to a body which cares for sick animals. Or a bit of both. No papers appear to exist to determine this one way or the other. As this question determines just who may have a say in what happens on the site, it is one which the planning department - you might have thought - would have cleared away some three years ago. But no. This makes it unclear what powers the Governorate itself has to approve or commission any work on the site.

So the first piece of work to take place, an underground car park (gift of the city of Vienna) which has to start soon if the rest of the work on-site is to run to schedule, has been put on hold.

Next, the broad plan for the site involved clearing a restaurant from the north-west corner. It now appears that the restaurant's owners have negotiated an extended lease until 2010 with .... the International Fair management group, who have been running trade shows on a new site for some three years now, and effectively have no further role in the administration of this old site. Except that apparently no-one has terminated their management responsibilities, so they are still entitled to act as a contracting party.

Then, we were told that the electricity company have been given permission by the Governorate to erect a 20 by 25 metre concrete electrical sub-station on the site. In the middle of what is supposed to be a new, beautiful, green public park. It appears that one of the Governorate planning team, without reference to us, visited the site with the electricity company and agreed a position for this monstrosity.

I have suggested a draconian compulsory purchase order for the whole site, and an order to render all contracts relating to any part of it terminated. I don't know if that will happen, but something fairly prescriptive is needed quick. This site has enough complications without all this stuff stopping progress. As an example of why things go wrong in Syria, it's fairly untypical, but it shows you can't let any assumption go unchecked. Lesson learned.

I reported as follows: 

A number of issues have arisen to do with the planning of the OIF site, apparently as a result of the Governor’s recent enquiries.  In brief, these are as follows:

The formal/legal ownership of the site is unclear.  It appears it may belong to a body responsible for religious endowments, or one responsible for animal welfare.
As a result of this, it is unclear what actual powers the Governor has over the site, and whether the Governorate can decide and act independently, or simply be a facilitator of planning and works on the site accountable to the actual owner.
While this issue is unresolved, progress on the underground car park by Vimpex has been halted.
It seems likely that there has been no formal hand-back of powers vested in the International Fair’s managing body in respect of the OIF site, and that they consider themselves still part of the OIF management process.  Although they have a new site, they have apparently just signed an extension of the contract with the Nobles Palace restaurant to 2010 on the old site.
The previous Governor had apparently invited proposals from Gulf development companies for wholesale redevelopment of the OIF site, and these are now starting to arrive. 
The electricity company is proposing to put an electrical sub-station onto the site, of around 25 x 20 x 6 metres in size.  This is news to us but apparently has been discussed and agreed by Mr Nwelati.
The sports centre development is already in trouble.  Work has been rushed, and changes are already having to be made to foundation works.

In addition:

We still await drawings showing the revisions to the University library building
Nothing has been received from Dr Diab who is collating the terms of reference for the competition.

Good though it is that these issues are surfacing, they should have been resolved more than a year ago.  The situation now is a shambles, and looks to require some diplomatic but uncompromising treatment to resolve it.  If it is not resolved the prospect of a second Omayyad Square fiasco looms, and completion dates will slip.

Immediately, we have proposed to the Governor that all works of any sort of the site stop until we have sorted the situation out.  He agrees, and will instruct his people.  He is making enquiries to establish the legal ownership of the site and the status of the Governorate.  He is also clarifying the Nobles Palace contract matter.

I have briefed CI, and unless we can get a quick resolution, will ask them to stand down their upcoming engineering inspection of the site.

For speed and clarity I would recommend some major steps, that could quickly remove the variables which are causing the problems:
The site (from Dar Al-Assad theatre to Handicraft Soukh is declared a national treasure and acquired (preferably by gift) for the nation
It is formally and legally vested in a dedicated trust, accountable to the President’s Office
The Governor is commissioned to redevelop it
The Children’s Project is commissioned to Masterplan and manage the redevelopment
All prior claims or initiatives (IF management status, Gulf developers, etc) are declared null and void


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