Downtown revitalization project causing business owners to fret

Story by Emily Rudisill // Photo by Erin Strine

AMMAN, Jordan - Bazar Al Mhirat is a modest antique shop located at the Wasat al Ballad market in downtown Amman. Walking by, customers are drawn in by chunky vintage rings with pigmented stones, necklaces fit for royalty and a collection of dusty coins.

Started in 2009, the revitalization project has stalled business in the area. But builders and planners believe the end result will make downtown thrive once again.

The 45 year-old owner, who asked not to be named because of his involvement in recent protests against downtown revitalization, has been in business for 25 years. Through a translator, he explained how he packed up his store and moved to his current location when construction of the Raghadan Bus station began. He and several other long-term business owners were asked to move their establishments to accommodate the expansion. Overall, the move cost him 50,000 Jordanian dinars – or about $70,000 – in profits and expenses.

“The development makes downtown worse,” said the shop owner.

Raghadan’s renovation is part of a large revitalization project that is causing great upheaval in downtown Amman. The goal of the Wadi Amman Regeneration initiative is to improve transportation, tourism, housing and business in the 130-year-old historic valley where modern Amman originated.

The project will take place in three phases and is currently focused on the Hashemite Plaza, a former park that attracted crime, prostitutes and homosexuals, who are considered criminals here, explained Asma’ Barakati, the head architect for the plaza project.

“People with families couldn’t come here, many areas were not very safe,” said Barakati, speaking from the onsite office. “Before it was a very high hill with trees and plants. It was a very crowded area and people couldn’t see the amphitheater from outside.”

According to Barakti, the project aims to bring wealth back into the area through modern tourism and business.  In the 1950s Amman was a vital cultural center that attracted wealthy residents. During the ‘60s and ‘70s development in the commercial sector slowed and failed projects drove businesses to seek other locations. The rise of suburban housing continued to stifle downtown prosperity and drew wealthy residents to the outskirts of the city. The decay of old Amman began.

In attempts to revive old Amman, the park will feature gardens, a modernized “river” consisting of vertical fountains, 25 canopy structures to provide shade, three main pavilions housing coffee shops and a media building with several televisions for visitors to check out downtown happenings. Pedestrian walkways will regulate foot traffic and connect the park to other areas of downtown Amman including the bus station, explained Barakti who is employed by the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM).

Mahmood Al-Amoosh, the head engineer and chief manager, estimated the project will cost 5.5 million Jordanian dinar – or about $8 million – and will finish in two to three months. The original proposal was drawn up by Limitless, a firm based in Dubai. GAM, along with its partners, broke ground on Hashemite Plaza construction in September 2009.

GAM is also planning to rezone several residential areas to support local businesses and encourage families to open shops. “When you have nice places to come and visit, people will come,” said Barakti.

Despite the positive intentions of the GAM, business owners in the area are worried the so-called improvement projects will in fact detract from the foot traffic to their stores. As a result, many have taken to the streets in a series of small protests.

Moutaz Al Ayan, owner of Al Sal Al Akhdar, a shop selling Jordanian pastries, believes the projects will bolster his business after completion because 70 percent of his customers are tourists. Although he predicts a positive outcome for himself, he supported his fellow shop owners during several protests in the spirit of their foreseeable loss.

Mhamad Abu Shanab, of Asafour Company, sells shoes and men’s clothing to mostly local customers. He lost business during the Raghadan project because local Ammanis didn’t have a way to access his store while the station was closed.

Mohammad Abudala of Shamiran Bazzar, an oriental gift shop located behind the construction adjacent to the amphitheater, echoed Shanab’s sentiments, “Many people see the damage and think I am closed. Many groups don’t go to the amphitheater because of the construction.”

Barakti explained GAM has created a set of temporary staircases for tourists to access stores in the hills. Despite these accommodations, Abudala has lost up to 60 percent per month and often doesn’t make enough to pay his rent. He is hoping his revenue will return to normal when the construction is completed.

In addition to hurting local business, the project has been criticized for several delays. Barakti cited a July 2009 marathon race event that delayed construction by two months and the current conflict in the Middle East region as reasons for the interference.

While the implications of the project remain to be seen, Bakati encourages business owners to look toward the future. Commerce always sees smaller profit margins during construction and she firmly believes the end result will bring revenue to the area. Meanwhile business owners are still outraged and looking for solutions to stop the construction.

“This could destroy my shop. I’m afraid I will need to move again,” said the owner of Bazar Al Mhirat, visibly angry and distraught over the future of his business.

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About carlenehempel

I am a journalism professor at Northeastern University, leading a band of student journalists abroad to Amman Jordan to write and report.
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