Frequenters of Downtown Cairo have been more than pleasantly surprised at the plethora of changes that have been taking place throughout the last few months. The result has been that the district is taking on a brightness and cheerfulness no one thought were possible in a neighbourhood that had gained notoriety for drabness, grimness, overcrowdedness, and an altogether rundown air of a place that had seen better days.
Cairo’s Downtown, the triangular area that lies between the squares of Attaba, Ramsis, and Tahrir, is known as Khedivial Cairo. It was built by Khedive Ismail who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879 along the lines of Haussman’s architectural model of Paris.
A few weeks ago Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab opened the completed first phase of the Downtown Cairo development project, which included al-Alfi and Orabi streets. This was preceded by the inauguration of the Tahrir square underground parking which allowed Cairo Governor Galal al- Saïd to ban parking in the main streets of Downtown Cairo. This, in tandem with moving out the street vendors who had in the wake of the post-Arab Spring security breakdown invaded the city centre to the point of spilling over the sidewalks and into the vehicle paths, had the almost miraculous effect of relieving traffic congestion that had become chronic to the area.
The development project works on restoring the city centre’s historical buildings and repainting their facades, renovating the roads and sidewalks, banning car parking on the main streets, and transforming a number of them into pedestrian areas.
Ultimately, according to Dr Saïd, Cairo’s Downtown should glow with the radiance of an open museum of architectural art; the target is to bring back the majestic beauty of its golden days. “In the past decades the city centre’s buildings had become rundown, street vendors invaded and occupied the sidewalks, and traffic congestion became the norm. Going to the city centre for work or to run any errand had become everybody’s nightmare. I think the scene is starting to change now,” he said.
Upscale shopping centre?
Khaled Mustafa, spokesman for Cairo governorate, told Watani that the governorate was working hard to develop Cairo’s downtown in cooperation with the National Organisation for Urban Harmony using the expertise of several architecture professors from Egyptian universities and urban development experts. “We started our work, ” Mr Mustafa said, “by giving the buildings a fresh coat of paint, removing street vendors, and imposing a parking ban in the major streets. We allocated alternative spots for the street vendors, close to but not inside the city centre. These changes were met with unexpected approval especially from Downtown shop owners and residents. We also made sure there was an abundance of parking spaces such as in the Attaba and Bustan parking garages, and the recently opened Tahrir underground parking.
“The development plan is being implemented in phases; after one phase is successfully completed, we move to the next. The development project is expected to cost around EGP500 million, a sum not covered by the Cairo governorate alone but also by Insurance Holding Company which owns some 100 buildings in the area, and several banks whose headquarters lie in Downtown Cairo. We proceed with the development phases according to the availability of funds,” Mr Mustafa said.
Some residents of Downtown Cairo, however, have been voicing mixed opinions about the project. Some fear that converting the area into a sparkling open museum and the subsequent expected rise in price of real estate there would effectively turn it into an upscale shopping centre which only the rich can frequent. This, they claim, would rob the district of its throbbing vitality and bring to an end the livelihoods of many there who cater to the middle class.
With the parking ban now in effect, people who live in Downtown Cairo and those who have to commute to the area for work complain that the only places available for parking are extremely costly. These include private parking lots and the public multi-storey parking garages operated by Cairo governorate such as the Tahrir and Attaba car parks. State officials insist that going into any city centre by car is a costly affair, and that whoever insists on taking his car to Cairo’s Downtown must pay the hefty parking fees.
Watani conveyed this complaint to Cairo’s governor who again said that all over the world the cost of commuting to the city center using one’s private car is very expensive; this is why people always park their cars away from the downtown areas and continue their journey by taxi or public transport. “To help citizens move around easily at low cost, Cairo governorate is expanding the public transport network and is also increasing the number of comfortable public buses. We are also providing shuttle buses which operate between the public parking spaces and the streets of Downtown to help people reach their destination easily,” he said.
Watani surveyed individuals on the streets of Downtown Cairo to learn their opinions vis-à-vis the recent changes.
The parking ban decision was, predictably, the issue which worried them most. Interior designer Karim Fawzi complained about the high parking fees in the State-owned parking lots and demanded that the governorate readjusts those prices to make them affordable for the average citizen. “Most employees who spend around eight hours in their offices cannot pay such hefty parking fees,” he said.
“Opening many parking spaces in this area is a great idea to reduce the huge traffic congestion,” said accountant Mamdouh Awad. However, he agreed with Mr Fawzi that the parking fees in public garages are too high. “An average EGP30 for an 8-hour wait which is unsustainable on the average employee’s budget,” he said.
“The sayiss (valet parking boy) is the solution,” said Ahmed Adel. “I take daily courses at a university in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. Parking my car on a daily basis in the Tahrir underground parking would definitely ruin my budget. It is much better for me to park my car in a side street and leave it under the care of the sayiss for only EGP5.”
Heading towards prosperity
Mai Mahmoud, also a student, said that at first she parked her car in one of the nearby parking spaces because she was afraid it would be ruined if left on the streets and she wanted to avoid the harassments of the street’s sayiss; however, this didn’t turn out to be a good idea because the prices are so high. “The parking fees may be convenient for those who park their car for an hour or two, but to park for a whole day would cost me a fortune.”
But Edward Fikry, owner of a garments factory, disagrees with them. He believes that the parking fees are not high considering the high quality services which these parking spaces provide such as security, CCTVs, guideposts and fire extinguishers. All these make him feel confident that he leaves his car in the garage for long hours and even for a few days if he has to travel.
Other aspects of the Downtown development project were met with great approval from most shop owners, especially the street vendors’ removal. Ahmed Abdel-Moneim sees the development projects as a huge accomplishment. “The crammed cars and the street vendors who had invaded the sidewalks were a nightmare to us shop owners as they concealed our shops from view. I believe that the entire area is heading towards development and prosperity, which would definitely be in the best interest of the shop owners,” he said.
Photos by Nasser Sobhy
15 July 2015