Islands in the Stream, Terrorists in the Attics, and Trees on the Chopping Block

Three more dispatches from various fronts of the war being waged by “developers” and bureaucrats against Saint Petersburg and its citizens.

1. Islands in the Stream

With a little help from the folks at the community LiveJournal of the Living City movement, Fontanka.Ru has uncovered a plan to build a string of seven artificial islands in the Gulf of Finland. Activists discovered a promotional video by Coalco Development that depicts a project entitled “New Petersburg: A Window on Russia”:

The commission for the conceptual design of the project was executed in 2007 by the Rotterdam bureau KuiperCompagnons, which still features the project on their website, including this breathtaking, mendacious text:

St. Petersburg is a very special city because of its classical music, impressive architecture and unparalleled cultural and historical relics. At the moment St. Petersburg is undergoing very rapid development. The city has great ambitions to realise a number of impressive projects. The available locations to the east, north and south of the city centre are in short supply and are not very interesting to develop. The city has, in the meanwhile, expanded all the way to the regional borders and cannot expand any further due to the surrounding nature conservation area. However, the Neva Bay does offer a possible solution. In the mid-1970s the former Soviet government decided to construct a water-restraint in this bay to protect of the city of St. Petersburg and its surroundings. Construction started in the 1980s and the building process is still ongoing. The completion of the project is planned for 2008. Hence the Neva Bay has become a safe area. This was cause for the Russian government and developers to use this Bay in order to realise an expansion of the city of St. Petersburg for some 1 million inhabitants. The Russian developer Coalco called upon KuiperCompagnons to conduct a survey into the expansion possibilities. The Neva Bay is an exceptional location and is not that simple to develop as an existing piece of land. The available ground however is scarce, just like in Hong Kong, which is why land reclamation is economically feasible. Furthermore, the historical city centre situated close by, with all its amenities and tourist attractions, is a unique opportunity to succeed with the development in the bay. A view across the immense expanse of the bay all the way to the horizon Krohnstadt with its unique character and architecture the ecological zones along the coastline the old city centre and the Neva River, create a rich network of dynamic and spatial relationships, which must be integrated in the new plan. All these spatial components are unique and provide opportunities for the plan “New Petersburg”. The plan covers a surface area of about 3,500 hectares and has a length of 20 km. The design for New Petersburg comprises a chain of seven islands like a never ending story, new land and urban areas will be realised. The famous Russian “Matryoshka” simultaneously symbolizes this future and this past. The urban development plan is inspired by the generation cycles. The DNA of the New Petersburg family will survive from generation to generation and will also be characterized by the oval shape of the island. The seven islands have a hierarchy in size, dependent on the location. The largest island is situated the closest to the historical city centre. The size of the islands reduce as the distance from the city centre increases. In a landscaping and infrastructural sense, the islands are very well connected by means of a central supporting structure. Interesting lines of sight and public areas are part of this main structure. The plan is cleverly embedded in the existing regional context. It is situated close to the historical city centre, respecting valuable properties and zones along the coastline of the Neva Bay. It is well-connected to the existing infrastructure network and is fitted into the navigational routes of the bay.

Fontanka.Ru correspondent Kira Obukhova contacted the Petersburg administration’s town planning and architecture committee, who confirmed that the plan has already been approved by the Russian federal government and inserted in the city’s General Plan. As Obukhov points out, this is only the latest in a series of plans to fill the Gulf of Finland with dirt and build high-priced junk on it. Since 2007, the so-called Marine Façade project has been “reclaiming” nearly 500 hectares of land in the Gulf right next to Vasilievsky Island. Their spinmeisters have also conjured up a sophistic defense for this environmental destruction:

Saint-Petersburg currently has no modern business district, which prevents large companies from locating their headquarters, offices and other facilities here.

The new green area located on the new territories of reclaimed land is essentially an alternative to the adverse high-density development encroaching on the historical centre of the city.

The historic centre of St. Petersburg is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Monument List. The Marine Facade Project will help to preserve the unique and authentic nature of the city centre. The new business district is reminiscent of La Defense in Paris, and located only six kilometres from the city centre. Being located close to the historical centre, it will sustain the load of the future economic and political development of the city.

According to scientific surveys carried out by special-purpose institutes, the Neva Bay has hydrological conditions that, over the course of time, new natural dry land will be formed. Land reclamation in this part of the Gulf of Finland promotes the natural development of land.

As if that weren’t enough, in November, Prime Minister Putin signed a decree to officially extend the city’s borders into the waters of the Gulf in order to accommodate and legalize yet one more “reclamation” project, this time on the northeast shore of the Gulf off Sestroretsk. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko and the city’s legislative assembly have formally requested that the Federation Council pass this decree into law. According to the business daily Delovoi Petersburg, the city cited “ecological concerns” as the main reason for its request. The “New Shore” project will be developed by a subsidiary of the Novatek gas production group. Gennady Timchenko, who is a major shareholder and member of the Novatek board, is believed to be a friend of Putin. Timchenko also co-owns the titanically powerful oil trading company Gunvor.

Funny, we thought Russia was the biggest country in the world.

2. Terrorists in the Attics

Meanwhile, back on the mainland (with its horrific Hong Kong-like overcrowding), another bush war is under way between unscrupulous property developers and architects keen on adding mansards to the existing housing stock in the city center, on the one hand, and the residents of those same buildings, on the other. One of the hottest conflicts in this war has developed over the past year in the residential building at 12, Millionaya Street, just down the way from the Hermitage and Palace Square. Against the will of the house’s inhabitants, developers have begun construct a two-storey addition. And to make sure their understandably angry new neighbors don’t get in their way, their “security guards” have resorted on several occasions to physical violence.

Photo courtesy of Gorod 812

Zaks.Ru now reports the latest turn in this gentrificational saga. On December 8, a representative of the development company informed police that Elena Golynchik, a board member of the building’s residents co-op and a leader of a newly created citywide “anti-mansard coalition,” was preparing to commit an act of terrorism. Cops were dispatched to Golynchik’s flat, where they conducted an illegal search and frightened Golynchik’s elderly mother half out of her wits. (Golynchik was at work at the time.) The cops could find nothing suspicious except for several canisters containing a “clear liquid” (water). They tested the liquid to determine whether it was a flammable substance.

Writing in the December 4 issue of the local news weekly Gorod 812, architecture critic Mikhail Zolotonosov describes a recent meeting of the Union of Architects where the topic was “The Upper Layer of the City’s Architecture: Attics or Mansards.” According to Zolotonosov, the struggle of the anti-mansard coalition is doomed to failure because mansard construction is such a tempting cash cow for architects, as well as for city planning bureaucrats, who get kickbacks for signing off on construction permits. Although prominent architect Rafael Dayanov, who chaired the session, had called on speakers and audience members to refrain from discussing politics, money, and concrete conflicts (just “pure architecture”), after several ridiculous presentations by architects (including a discussion of how Petersburg’s low-level “airspace” could be used for helipads and monorail lines)

the Petersburg residents who came to the meeting couldn’t take it anymore and began attacking the architectural corporation, despite Dayanov’s attempts to maintain an atmosphere of amicable hypocrisy. Because it was clear to everyone that what was being discussed was the destruction of the look of the historic center and specific residential buildings that will not physically sustain top-floor additions. And these buildings, which are not protected landmarks, will surround protected buildings, which will be deprived of their [historical built environment] or suffer destruction themselves, as, for example, happened with the Muruzi House [the building where Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky grew up and lived with his parents in a “room and a half” before his exile in 1972; the stunningly beautiful Moorish-style house suffered serious structural damage a few years ago, when the building next to it was demolished and heavy construction began on the lot].

3. Trees on the Chopping Block

By sea, by air and (finally) by land. Petersburg legislators have voted to strike over a hundred previously protected public green spaces from the lists:

The St. Petersburg Times
Friday, December 11, 2009
City Parliament Clears Way to Build on Green Areas
By Sergey Chernov

The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly stripped more than a hundred green spaces of legal protection amid controversy and protests on Wednesday.

The ruling United Russia party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and dominates the Legislative Assembly, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) voted for the changes to the Law on Public Green Spaces in its third and final reading. The bill was presented for deputies’ approval by St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko on Nov. 3.

With the Communist Party (KPRF) and A Just Russia factions voting against the changes, the exclusion of 104 sites from the list of protected green spaces was approved with 28 votes in support of them, 11 votes against and one abstention. Vyacheslav Makarov, the leader of the United Russian faction, said that the green spaces excluded were either non-existent or needed for social projects.

“It is wrong to talk about the exclusion of green spaces; either there’s something already built there, or something needs to be built there — the sites have been designated to house social or cultural projects such as kindergartens or schools,” Makarov said by phone on Thursday.

“No garden has been given over to commercial construction.”

"A City without Greenery Is a Gas Chamber for City Dwellers"

Makarov, who described the decision as “reasonable” and necessary for the city’s development, argued with opponents who said that many of the city’s kindergartens had been privatized.

“The protesters said yesterday, ‘Take back the kindergartens that were sold 10 or 15 years ago,’ but it was not these authorities who sold them. But now there is a need for them [state kindergartens]. They should be built.”

Deputy Alexei Kovalyov of the A Just Russia faction described the supporters’ arguments as a “fictitious pretext.”

“There’s absolutely no guarantee that these territories will really be used for building swimming pools, kindergartens and so on,” he said by phone on Thursday.

According to Kovalyov, this can only be guaranteed if the sites are reserved for social projects and included in St. Petersburg’s General Plan law.

“For several years, we’ve been pressing the governor to make a decision about protecting the land and including it in town-planning documentation, but we’ve always received negative answers,” he said.

Kovalyov said that bureaucrats might have an interest in the judicial ambiguity of the situation as a potential source of corruption.

“For instance, there’s City Hall’s decree about building kindergartens, but this decree is not a law, it’s just a hope, so the decision to build a business center there could be taken in parallel — that’s where the problem is,” he said.

Kovalyov said that the land allocated for social development under the Soviets had already been given to commercial projects.

“What’s needed is not the sacrifice of parks and gardens, but the purchase of land from industrial enterprises and private owners,” he said.

“It’s important to note that land containing gardens and parks costs nothing; the cadastral cost of this land is laughable. That’s why they can make a decision and designate it for construction, while private land is expensive — it is necessary to pay for it in an open and legal way, and it will be difficult to build anything except a kindergarten there, when considerable budget funds have already been spent on it.”

According to Kovalyov, Wednesday’s approval set a dangerous precedent, which could lead to more exclusions in the future.

“If we don’t say today that the list of green spaces is untouchable and don’t declare a 10-year moratorium on changes to it, then we’ll lose everything, bit by bit, during the next two years,” he said.

“We should not yield to such compromises. It’s a bad, immoral compromise.”

Around 20 opponents, including members of the Yabloko Democratic Party and preservationist groups, picketed the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday morning, distributing fliers to deputies.

The St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko is categorically against the policy of conniving with developers, which leads to the infringement of residents’ rights and the deterioration of the ecological situation in St. Petersburg, the party said in a statement.

The changes will come into law after Matviyenko signs off on the decision.

Photo by Sergey Chernov. You can see more of his photos from the Wednesday morning protest here.

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Filed under film and video, protests, Russian society, urban movements (right to the city)

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