Abraha Castle should refuse to die just like the Grand Central Terminal did.

Mekelle፡ 18 November 2023(Tigray Herald)

Abraha Castle should refuse to die just like the Grand Central Terminal did.

Ten years ago, when I was going to NYU, students were given an opportunity to write about challenges of landmarks in urban development.  Two places hit the top of the list in every students’ mind – The Central Park and the 107 year – old Grand central terminal (GCT). They both are located in a prime area (hotspot for construction development). I discussed the historic value of the park in my timeline a year ago (see the link below). Let me give you a brief of the challenges in restoration, and its current condition about the project I picked – GCT.

In the middle of New York City, “a city that never sleeps,” there is an iconic historic railway ‘station’ called the Grand Central Terminal. Some government agencies thought it would be profitable for the city of New York to demolish the rail way station and allocate the space for real estate development. However, the station proved itself as the number one railway station in the world.  TODAY, more than 750,000 people pass through Grand Central daily and over one million people during holidays.  It wasn’t a smooth ride; so many preservations had to get the Supreme Court save the terminal in 1978. Here’s the most interesting part, as we speak, I’m part of the construction management team building a 67 story sky scraper west of the GCT. I get to pass by the terminal every day.

Sin city in the making-

With recent developments in Mekelle, the capital of Tigrai, I couldn’t be concerned enough that the way it’s being shaped is going down the hill at 1000 miles an hour. As somebody who grew up in the city and with a little exposure to the western world, my recent visit to the town makes me believe that it’s a sin city in the making. The greediness of investors compromised the quality of life. You can see cars going in the wrong direction and nobody pays civic duty to cite traffic violations. The residents are in a different world. Nine out of ten, people talk about investment and dream city while the power lies in the handful of economic elites.

From the urban planning point of view, a city can only handle so much. It doesn’t have to grow more than it should be. The urban sprawl happening in Mekelle is not promising at all. As cities grow, perhaps our most serious concern should be how they expand out into the surrounding countryside. They are not only ruining the hierarchal relationship between the city and suburb but also, during expansion, confiscating a farm land for less than a dime per SQ/M, not to mention that we see broken family. The city may be poor in economy (probably lack of good governance) but no one defies its rich history & culture.

Déjà Vu-

Almost a year ago, after reading a revitalization proposal to Abraha Castle – an icon of Mekelle city- I expressed my reservation on the trespassing of Sur construction, a subsidiary of EFFORT conglomerate. I was fortunate to hear back from Tadesse Yemane, the GM of the construction company and promised he’d conduct public hearing prior to any intervention. Fast forward, a schematic /preliminary design was posted for “constructive comments” on his time line. The note was, for lack of better words, a slap in the face. It sounded like ‘you are welcome to offer positive and negative comments but not an oppositional one that calls for fundamental changes to the design concept.’ A month ago, Tadesse shared A FINAL design, appreciating the stakeholders participated in the process. For those who are not familiar with the term, “Final”, it means the design – form/function – is approved, performance specification is prepared, most major materials are selected, and it’s ready to commence construction. However, as a matter of fact, site excavation has officially started. People are seriously concerned about this development.  It is not like any other topics where it dies in weeks. After the topic being resurfaced in the last couple of days on social media, here comes my good friend with another note that reads like ‘we hear you but will get back to you once we get through Covid19 pandemic.” That was another slap in the face. What stops him from doing an online forum/ public hearing?

The note is dejavu for me. The incumbent party, a.k.a the ‘architect of everything’, is known to bring a done deal subject to the table for protocol purpose. History has it on record that nothing changes and no follow ups at all. As Getachew Gebrekiros, a law graduate from Mekelle University expresses his frustration, the overall process of the project, since its inception, is an insult to the professional’s intelligence. They may use their economic and political power to ruin tangible heritages, but they can’t redefine the longstanding social fabric of the people – intangible heritage.  So unless Sur Con. wanted to see a hijacked positive feedback from the court of public opinion, the general public especially local residents, have no clue about the graphics; probably will be infuriated once they learned the scope of intervention after the fact. But by the time they do, it’ll too little too late.

Public hearings –

I am thousands of miles away to actively participate in the public hearing process (as part of my civic right) but I highly doubt that local architects & planners were involved. Architect Anbessa Wondim mamo, a well know architect and an oxford graduate dropped few lines in the time line just as ordinary citizen suggestion. Architect David (concealed name for privacy), an old friend of mine inboxed me his concern by saying “is this what or how they want to wipe the remaining traces of history?”. I’m sure local economists, planners, lawyers, historians, geographers, environmentalists and most importantly aboriginals would share similar concern should they be given the opportunity. Few concerned citizens have stepped up to the plate and expressed their concerns about the project; among them are Ghetachew Gebrekiros, Haile Tessema, Tsega Gebrekrstos, Gebrehiwot Hadush, Teshome Beyene,Esu Nega. I hope to see more people take their part before it’s too late. It takes every stakeholder’s involvement to stop such aggressive renovation. If it wasn’t for the Supreme Court, GCT would’ve been history by now.

New identity in the making –

I support the initiative to give life to the historic compound; it was abandoned for decades. It requires more than keeping its integrity; roads seem to face differential settlement, hardscape needs replacement, walls are cracking, and interior space needs to be remodeled, stone coping needs to be repaired. More than anything, they can add ramps and hydraulic lifts as an access for persons living with disabilities. Additional landscape work can be introduced. I may have to do a good survey at the slopes but in the event of adding a foreign object, no structure should compromise the grandness the landmark but few satellite traditional restaurants may suffice. Non structure elements such as tennis courts surrounded by bushes give a peace of mind to the dwellers & tourists. Ecologically, it may be beneficial to consider planting trees such as Bristlecone Pines and Yew trees which appear to be the longest lived on record. If I may take it little further, the height of the buildings within 500 meters should be limited. A new building code can be developed to the external façade of new or restoration of existing buildings. Unfortunately, what I have observed, from examining the preliminary design, is an eyesore. One can barely notice the graceful historic building as it was dominated by the new buildings. This ill-conceived plan should be given due consideration. From the design, one can discern a new identity is in the making by ruining our connection with the past.

A building can be significant because it represents an architectural style or an era. The setting & the park is as historic as the building. Unless Dejat Abraha is not worthy of immortalizing him, the castle & the park should refuse to die.

Disclaimer: This ain’t about ‘shooting the messenger’. By all counts, Tade is a good man.

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