TBY talks to Dr. Bassim Halaby, CEO of Benchmark, on its landmark Beirut Terraces project, activities abroad, and the future of Beirut's skyline.

Dr. Bassim Halaby
Dr. Bassim Halaby became one of the founding partners of Benchmark Development in 2007 and is the Chairman and CEO. Prior to founding Benchmark, he was partner and co-head of Hines MENA. Before that he was partner and founder of Millenium Development, acting as Chairman and CEO until the end of 2006. He has occupied other positions including chief planner for the city of Riyadh, Senior Consultant for Merrill Lynch, and Senior Planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the US.

Your latest residential real estate project, Beirut Terraces, aims to be a “vertical village." Can you tell us about this concept and how it meets market demand?

We listened to potential dwellers talk about Beirut as it was in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when gardens, low-rises, privacy, intimacy, and individuality characterized the streets and neighborhoods. Today this residential identity is changing rapidly as the city mushrooms vertically. The thought of a townhouse can no longer be entertained as soaring land prices force value to be extracted by height. We decided that if we were going vertical, then it would be in the form of a “vertical village," thereby engendering an individual identity, such as that acquired by a village over time, but in a mid-town property. We wanted to create a place where the outdoor lifestyle could be enjoyed for at least 10 months of the year, keeping a connection with the old streets of Beirut blossoming with the smell of jasmine.

We believe the epitome of real estate success is when people discover a particular place that they feel is in harmony with their identity. For the last 25 years we have been advising developers around the globe. Beirut Terraces (BT) is not another building, it is conceived with particular attention to its urban framework and its value-added to the downtown's physical and environmental assets. Our development approach is based on a deep understanding of urban planning fundamentals such as eco-friendliness, sustainability, accessibility, life cycles, and density. BT represents the helm of quality design, quality of construction, and quality of finishing for those who appreciate rarity but simplicity at the same time. Our years of practice push us to think beyond the immediate location of a project and the initial financial implications. We prioritize value, community, and lifestyle. Value has a cascading effect, in turn influencing social spheres, as well as the value of the land and the local economy. Delivering value is our way of being socially responsible.

After a competitive selection process involving four world-renowned architecture firms, you chose Herzog & De Meuron for Beirut Terraces. How was the decision made?

We sought a certain level of architecture that is truly “glocal" and that could also bring value to the city and to the country. We selected three practices to submit designs for the Beirut Terraces: Richard Rogers (UK), Herzon & De Meuron (Switzerland), and Raphael Viñoly (US). The three of them competed on this building and they provided us with outstanding solutions. Unfortunately, we had to select one design that offered the most differentiation within the context of Beirut. Herzog & De Meuron put forward the design that was selected for its distinctness, guaranteed to differentiate itself amongst the surrounding glass blocks of buildings. We were also interested in the work done by Herzog & De Meuron in the past; specifically a building resembling Beirut Terraces in New York, which escaped the New York style and challenged the mind and the spirit of what developers would accept. We liked that.

“Our development approach is based on the deep understanding of urban planning fundamentals."

Can you tell us about your activities outside of Lebanon?

Benchmark is a three-year-old company. We started as a spin-off from a development management company we started 14 years ago. That company was sold back to one of the founders, who took it over and maintains it as a development management company. We wanted to set the benchmarks for real estate investment development and management, and that is the basis of our practice. We started with our first project in Solidere called Wadi Hills as a small investment with a group of investors. We grew from running a $145 million project to BT, which is worth just under $500 million. By the end of 2011 we will have a few more projects coming that will add another $650 million to our portfolio and, as a result—and despite all the odds—our projects in Lebanon will end up with a net value of approximately $1.3 billion.

Within these three years we have had the opportunity to expand to a few other countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. We have invested in a Solidere International project in Ajman and are waiting for the completion of infrastructure and civil works in 2013. Our project in Saudi Arabia encompasses an entire urban community on the fringe of the capital, promising middle-income Saudis an affordable yet quality home with full-scale amenities and services. This project will contribute a major gateway to the city. We have recently been assigned as development managers to one of Qatar's most valuable projects in the heart of Doha's residential districts. This project will be presented in Doha's first edition of Cityscape. Benchmark has further plans in Europe and Africa, and we hope to launch these activities in the next two years.

What is your vision for the future of Beirut's cityscape?

Beirut's cityscape is very difficult to imagine in the future. It's overbuilt, it's massive, and it's very difficult to improve the road network. Better accessibility to services and open spaces is much required to make it a 21st century city. It is very similar to congested cities, but has pockets of hope that could be seeds for another generation. These pockets of hope are in various places, and Solidere is one of them, serving as an example for other places. It has become so attractive to investors, residents, and developers alike that there is no way but to try and replicate the design value created. Competitive advantage has allowed for an overall improvement among developers over the last decade in terms of creating design value and quality of buildings delivered. People now speak of real estate in terms of luxury standards, better location, and value within apartments. The city has started to resurface despite its overall image, and this gives us reason to have hope. As Lebanese hope is in our blood, at Benchmark value by design is a part of our DNA.