The Economics of Zoning: Jabal Amman's First Circle Area
Urban Crossroads #24

End of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Street (Rainbow Street) with a view towards Ashrafia. (Jumana Bississo)

End of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Street (Rainbow Street) with a view towards Ashrafia. (Jumana Bississo)

A positive development that has taken place in Amman since the early 1990s is the manner in which Jabal Amman's First Circle Area has evolved. This area, which primarily belongs to the period extending from the 1930s to the 1950s, provides an important testimony to the evolution of modern Amman. Many of the figures that created modern Jordan were residents of this area. Its main street, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Street (commonly known as Rainbow Street, after the cinema and grocery store located along it) once boasted some of the city's most exclusive shops.

By the 1970s, a process of gradual decline began to affect that area. A good number of the families that had lived there migrated outwards to the newer neighborhoods of Amman. New shops appeared at the outer edges of the city and eclipsed the ones along Rainbow Street.

Such a decline surprisingly was a blessing in disguise. Since relatively little activity took place in the area during the 1970s and 1980s, its older buildings were left in relative peace, and only a few of them were torn down. Had the area been the center of much activity, a good deal of its structures would have been demolished as a result of the economic boom that took place in Amman during the 1970s, to be replaced by commercial structures. The area would have been transformed into a crowded and noisy district of non-descript shops and offices as has happened in other parts of the city such as Jabal al-Hussein, Shmeisani, and Sweifieh. Fortunately, the area managed to retain much of its original character by undergoing a process of "elegant decline." A few of its original inhabitants also refused to leave it, thus helping limit the decline and ensuring that it would not deteriorate into an example of urban blight.

By the end of the 1980s, the value of real estate in the area was relatively depressed in relation to other parts of Amman. By the 1990s, however, some interest in the area began to emerge. A couple of monographs were published around that time that addressed its architectural heritage, thus bringing some attention to a forgotten treasure of our city. A few individuals and non-governmental organizations with an appreciation of its special character and an interest in its preservation moved into it. The low prices of real estate in the area provided an added incentive for them to do so. They acquired buildings there and rehabilitated them as offices, shops, cafes, and residences. These generally small-scale developments were the result of uncoordinated private initiatives, but they had the wonderful effect of saving the older buildings of the area, and also bringing life back into it. Soon afterwards, the property owners of the area began to appreciate the historical importance of their structures, which previously they had viewed as old dilapidated buildings in a forgotten part of the city. The buildings now acquired an added monetary value because of their age. The preservation of these older structures therefore took hold without a need for any governmental legislation, and I do not believe there is much worry at this stage that its older structures will be torn down.

One positive aspect of the area as it has emerged in recent years is that it presents a relatively well-balanced mixed-use setting that includes residences as well as offices and retail shops. Those living in the area not only get to live in neighborhoods with historical roots and with beautiful old structures and mature trees, but they also are within walking distances to shops that sell much of their daily needs, and are not far from pleasant cafes and restaurants.

However, we should not become complacent about the manner in which the area is evolving. The concern is that as the area becomes more popular, and as its shops, restaurants, and cafes continue to prove to be rewarding financial investments, there will be considerable pressure from both property owners and developers to allow for the conversion of more of its structures from residential to commercial uses, such as offices, but more importantly shops and restaurants. Commercial structures usually are sold or rented out at higher values than residential structures. If such a development takes place, we will loose much of the relatively balanced mixed-use character that the area currently enjoys. Instead, we will end up with a congested and noisy commercial area, and the final result would be to "kill the goose that lays the golden eggs." In fact, signs of this already are beginning to appear. Parking and traffic congestion are becoming serious problems near a number of the area's commercial establishments. Also, investors are looking very seriously at the area for development opportunities.

It is remarkable how uncoordinated private initiatives have resulted in the preservation of the area. However, it also is possible that such private initiatives may evolve into overwhelming forces that push for the over-development of the area and eventually result in its demise and in the loss of some of Amman's most important historical neighborhoods. Some sort of legislation therefore will be needed to preserve the existing mixed-use balance characteristic of the area. Such legislation should emphasize limiting the growth of commercial establishments. It can include a range of possibilities such as putting in place stringent off-street parking requirements for such establishments, placing a limit on the number of commercial buildings along a given street or within a given neighborhood, or providing residential properties with tax incentives to encourage them to remain as such.

A word of caution, however. I myself am a believer in the forces of free-enterprise, and am fully aware of how poorly-devised or poorly-implemented regulations may have disastrous results. Therefore, if legislation is developed for the preservation of the character of the area, we need to look very carefully at the experiences of other localities in various parts of the world and learn from those experiences. We need to make sure that the resulting regulations are fair to the involved stakeholders, and also that they will be implemented effectively.

A few years back, I had visited a small protected natural area in the American Midwest. The area had a pleasant small pond with attractive water lilies. The keeper of the area told me that they have to keep the growth of those lilies in check. Otherwise, the lilies would completely cover the lake and prevent oxygen from reaching the water, thus killing the fish located in it. In other words, they had to give Mother Nature a helping hand to ensure that a balance in the existing eco-system was maintained. Had the forces of nature been left unchecked, such a balance would have collapsed. We probably will need to do the same to support efforts aimed at the preservation of the First Circle area. We will need to put legislation in place to ensure that the forces and factors of private initiative that initially helped preserve the area do not eventually become the forces and factors that destroy it.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 28, 2004