Sharjah's 1950s heart to beat again

Redevelopment project aims to restore the historic and heritage parts of Old Town to their 1950s glory, a window onto the Gulf as it once was.

SHARJAH // Work has begun on what planners describe as the most ambitious redevelopment plan in Sharjah's history. Construction on the project, called the Heart of Sharjah, started this week and will take until 2025 to complete.

Marwan Jassim al Sarkal, the chief executive of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), outlined plans yesterday for the first phase of construction, which he said would take two years to complete. "The budget is still a secret," Mr al Sarkal said. "But this is one of the biggest projects to be approved by His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah."

Phase one of the Old Town renovation will include work at the Sharjah Art Foundation, rebuilding Al Shanasiah Souk and modifications along the Corniche. The plans include demolition of "inappropriate buildings" that fall within the boundaries of the Heart of Sharjah project. "Over the past few years, we have been studying this mega-project and planning to restore the historic and heritage parts of Sharjah," said Peter Jackson, the architectural adviser in the Ruler's office.

This multiphase project aims to restore the oldest areas of Sharjah to their 1950s glory, and make the emirate a destination for those looking to experience the Gulf as it once was, without losing out on modern artistic touches. Next year the emirate will host the10th Sharjah Biennial, and curators and artists can look forward to exhibiting in the Sharjah Art Foundation's new home. "These changes will also better reflect the original footprint and texture of the Old Town, incorporating shaded lanes and open spaces for performance, as well as sculpture gardens," said Mr Jackson.

Renovation of the area has already started, including partial demolition and the restoration of historic buildings with the aim of creating art exhibition and workshop spaces for the biennial. But art is just part of the heritage that local authorities are hoping to harness through the project and capitalise on through tourism. Upgrades will also take place in Saqr Souk and Al Arsa Souk, which will receive new air conditioning and lighting before being joined by the reconstruction of Al Shanasiah Souk, which once sat between the two.

"I remember a time when our souks were full of people from all walks of life. People would travel from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to ship their goods or collect their shipping. And our souks were busy," said Mansour al Hajj, 65, an Emirati resident of Nabba, part of the heritage area. "I cannot imagine it being the same. Now Dubai has no need for Khalid Port. But I appreciate the efforts to make it as it once was."

The first phase of the project also involves rebuilding residences near Al Hisn Sharjah Fort, which once housed the ruling family of Sharjah. The houses behind Al Zahraa Mosque in Al Muraijah will be redeveloped too, and the Al Midfaa family home will be converted into a hotel. These changes and upgrades aim to bring the Al Hisn area in line with its status as a heritage site. Other planned construction includes houses, cafes and restaurants, as well as a boutique hotel to be built next to Al Arsa Souk.

"The focus here is on bringing life and activity back into the heart of the Old Town, and offering visitors the opportunity to stay in a traditional house, with all the character of the past combined with modern comfort and amenity," Mr Jackson said. In support of these improvements and new developments, a number of roads will be upgraded, closed or diverted. Sharjah Corniche Road will undergo intensive redevelopment, Bank Street will be closed and other roads will have some diversions during the development project, according to Wael al Masri, the chief architect of the project.

"We have conducted studies to sort out the traffic congestion and allocate enough parking slots for all residents and visitors," he said. To ensure no knock-on effect of the redevelopment goes unnoticed, two committees have been set up to supervise the project. The first will be led by Sheikha Bodour bin Sultan Al Qassimi, the chairman of Shurooq, who will oversee representatives from the Ruler's Office, the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Sharjah Museums Department and the Heritage Department.

The second committee will include representatives of the Sharjah Municipality, the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Planning and Surveys.