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Goodbye, Gazprom Tower


The St. Petersburg Times
Issue #1633, Friday, December 10, 2010
Governor Scraps Plans for Okhta Center Tower
By Sergey Chernov, Staff Writer

The controversial Okhta Center project was scrapped Thursday, as St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko cancelled her Oct. 2009 decree allowing the planned Gazprom Tower to increase its planned height to 403 meters, contrary to the 40-meter limit for the site set by the law.

“We had talks with Gazprom and took a mutual and final decision about moving the project to another site,” she was quoted by Ekho Moskvy as saying.

Matviyenko made the statement during a planned meeting with journalists during a congress of construction businesses in St. Petersburg. She said she had already signed the decree.

Last week, Matviyenko first admitted that the move was possible. “We are interested in ensuring that the city is unified, that there is no tension and confrontation,” she was quoted by City Hall’s official web site as saying on Dec. 3.

A new site for the planned skyscraper has yet to be selected.

Okhta Center’s press officer Tatyana Yuryeva said she had no comment when called Thursday.

St. Petersburg residents, preservationists and the political opposition have been struggling against the project since it was announced in 2006 – despite the massive pressure from the authorities as both the Kremlin and City Hall demonstrated full support for the project.

Opponents warned that the planned skyscraper that was to hold the offices of Gazprom Neft threatened to destroy St. Petersburg’s UNESCO-protected skyline, among other objections.

One of them was the threat to archeological findings on the site that was once home to two medieval Swedish fortresses and a Neolithic settlement.

“It’s a victory for the whole of St. Petersburg, it can be credited to all those who fought against all the odds, in the face of being told that doing anything was hopeless, it’s a victory of the spirit over the belly, a genuine achievement for the civil society,“ said Maxim Reznik, the local chair of the Yabloko Democratic Party.

According to Reznik, the party’s firm stance against the project led to his party being dismissed from the local parliamentary elections, when the signatures needed for the party to be registered for the elections were declared “inauthentic” by the St. Petersburg election committee in 2007.

“We paid a high price, but it was worth it,” Reznik said.

“It was strange to have to fight for four years for things that are so obvious,” said Pyotr Zabirokhin of the preservationist organization Living City.

“It’s a first concrete action that should put an end to the project in its current form, which is exactly what the defenders of St. Petersburg fought to achieve over the past few years.”

The Other Russia’s local chair Andrei Dmitriyev described the Okhta Center’s cancellation as a “great victory for the whole of civil society and the opposition,” but warned that other controversial projects could appear under the political system created by Vladimir Putin.

“I wouldn’t want to indulge in euphoria; we will only be able to solve our problems when the St. Petersburg authorities will be accountable to the residents,” Dmitriyev said.

“A hundred Okhta Centers could appear in every sphere of life, and until we start electing the governor, until we have honest elections and until we have normally organized self-government, such situations will appear all the time and we should demand political reforms.”

Putin canceled the election of governors in 2005 as a “security measure” following the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan.

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And the Gazprom Tower Falls…

Final Decision Made to Move Okhta Center
December 9, 2010  17:23

A final decision has been made to move the Okhta Public and Business Center [Okha Center] to another site. [Petersburg] Governor Valentina Matviyenko informed journalists about this before her appearance at the Congress of Saint Petersburg Builders. Negotiations with Gazprom over this question have already been completed. A new site for the future office building has not been determined: the governor proposed that the public decide this question along with the city authorities in order to avoid a repetition of the controversy, but also to avoid the city’s losing such a major investor.

In addition, the decision was made today to annul the [city government’s September 2009] decree [allowing construction in excess of the zoned height regulations] for the land plot on the Okhta Cape. “We have decided to put this matter to rest,” the governor explained.

On December 3, Valentina Matviyenko had already announced the possibility that the project would be moved to another site. “The project can be reattached to another site – I don’t see anything dramatic or problematic about this. The city needs projects and investments of this sort – here we’re all in agreement – but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take into account the opinion of the other segment of the population, although it is in the minority. Negotiations with Gazprom about moving the site have long been under way, and I hope that a final decision will be made in a calm manner,” said Valentina Matviyenko.


Our heartfelt congratulations to everyone who has fought against the tower, however and wherever they have fought. To get a sense of what that struggle has looked like, see our previous posts on the subject on this blog, the special issue of our newspaper, Whose City Is This?, and, of course, our video musical The Tower: A Songspiel. Please also see our comrade Vesna Tomse’s recent (and excellent) animated film, The Tale of Gazprom Tower.

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The Gazprom Tower Begins to Tumble

The St. Petersburg Times
December 7, 2010
By Irina Titova

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko unexpectedly announced last week that the city authorities might offer state oil and gas giant Gazprom alternative locations for the company’s controversial Okhta Center skyscraper.

“I believe it is possible that we will offer Gazprom some other sites for the construction of such a large investment project,” Matviyenko said was quoted by Interfax as saying last week.

Matviyenko said no official decision had yet been made about the construction of the 396-meter tall skyscraper, set to house the headquarters of Gazprom Neft, and that the main opposition to the project was its planned location across the Neva from Smolny Cathedral.

“I think we’ll find some compromise that will suit everybody,” she said.

“We have actively discussed the possibility of moving the construction site both with investors and city preservationists, and we already have a number of options for a possible location,” the governor said.

Matviyenko said the site at the confluence of the Okhta and Neva rivers that has been under development by investors remains attractive to them, and in the event that it is decided to relocate construction, investors, including Gazprom itself, may build some other project on the site.

The governor said that the city definitely needs projects such as the Okhta Center.

“However, such projects should take into account the opinion of all St. Petersburg residents. The decision should unite citizens,” she said.

President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier that the decision on the construction of the Okhta Center should be made upon completion of all the legal proceedings regarding the matter and after consultation with UNESCO, which had said that the historic center’s World Heritage status would be jeopardized by the building of a skyscraper in such close proximity.

The controversial planned Okhta Tower has encountered fierce opposition from protesters who say it will violate the city’s historic skyline. Opponents have staged meetings protesting the project and attempted to convince City Hall to reconsider the building’s location or its height.

Okhta Center’s press service said that the project was developed for the plot of land on the Okhta River, and that the investor is in constant contact with City Hall.

“At the stage of the project’s development, we considered various options for the location of the center, and the investor and the city administration maintain a constant dialogue about the matter,” Interfax reported the center’s press service as saying.

Maxim Reznik, leader of the city’s branch of the Yabloko political party that has opposed the location since the project’s beginning, welcomed Matviyenko’s comments about the possibility of finding another site for the construction of the so-called Gazprom tower.

Reznik said that the position of the governor was a result of long-term efforts on the part of the city’s preservationists and the dialogue that Matviyenko recently entered with the city’s town planning council, Yabloko said via its press service.

“Back in 2006, Yabloko proposed constructing the business center to the south of Dunaisky Prospekt, next to the ring road, which would make it easily accessible from any district of the city and from the airport. I’m sure our colleagues in the negotiation process will offer other options as well, especially where there is no need to disfigure something created by previous generations for the purpose of making something new,” Reznik said.

Architect Boris Nikolashchenko advised Gazprom back in 2005 to consider a site near Utkina Zavod on the southeastern outskirts of the city, according to the press club Zelyonaya Lampa, which is part of the RosBalt news agency.

The 60-billion-ruble Okhta Center is due to be completed in 2016.


Governor Matviyenko announced this partial sea change on December 2, 2010, during “Dialogue with the City,” broadcast on Petersburg Channel 5:

Here is a translation of her remarks:

Above all, I want to note both to backers and opponents of this project that the city has made no official decisions about the beginning of construction. And I’m glad that there is such an active discussion around this project. And the absolute number [sic] of [Petersburgers] — I’m sure of this — understand that the city needs new architectural projects. It needs projects that will attract investors, that will bring major companies [to the city], because the city needs enormous financial resources for preservation of the historic center, for development. On this point I think there is no controversy.

As for the project itself, most people who are really familiar with it note that the project is quite interesting. The controversy concerns [the proposed construction site], on the far side of Bolsheokhtinsky Bridge. Here, I think, we do have something to talk about with [Petersburgers], something to discuss together.

We don’t intend to force this issue: we are studying public opinion. And I assume that we’ll propose other possible variants for building such a major, interesting, huge investment project. And we’re continuing this work with Gazprom.

In December, as we’ve already agreed, we’ll be meeting with preservationists. I ask them to think about it — perhaps they have proposals for where we might build the business center, and public center, and cultural center. Let us give it some thought together again, talk it out and return to this topic. The discussion continues, but we need to lower the intensity of passions. I think that in our city, which we all love, we’ll find a consensus decision that suits all [Petersburgers].

The only true path is dialogue with the public, with preservationists, with cultural figures, and the search for a solution to this issue. We are disposed precisely to such a path.

For a concise history and analysis of the Okta Center project, see “The Gazprom Tower: Everything Changes for the Better,” in the recent Whose City Is This? edition of our newspaper.

Our heartfelt congratulations to everyone who has fought this monstrosity (even if this “stunning reversal” just turns out to be a lousy trick).


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Gazprom Tower: Fools Rush In

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The St. Petersburg Times
November 20, 2009
TV Campaign Against Gazprom Tower Mounts
By Sergey Chernov

The controversial Gazprom Tower found itself under harsh attack last week on Russia’s main state television, Channel One, for the third time in the past four weeks — and its supporters struggled to offer any good reason to back the 403-meter-tall skyscraper in close proximity to the city center.

First slammed by the Kremlin-controlled channel in its primetime weekly news roundup on Oct. 18, the Okhta Center, as the building is officially known, was derided in the comedy show “Prozhektorperiskhilton” (Paris Hilton’s Spotlight) a week later, and last week became the subject of “Sudite Sami” (Judge for Yourself), a political talk show hosted by Maxim Shevchenko.

This time Okhta Center representatives — communications director Vladimir Gronsky and the project’s chief architect Filipp Nikandrov of the British firm RMJM — were given a chance to present their case for the skyscraper, which is planned to house state energy giant Gazprom’s headquarters and was described by Bloomberg News critic Colin Amery as “just another global corporate monolith — banal, dull and inappropriate.”

The unsuspecting Okhta Center team, which enjoys full administrative support in St. Petersburg, arrived at the studio to discover that the show was to be called “The Tower Against the City.” They were then refused the opportunity to show their presentation of the project, and were instead confronted with a barrage of questions — including ones they had ignored or mocked during the heavily policed public hearings held in St. Petersburg.

With no backing from City Hall, OMON special-task police or menacing individuals scattered around the room pushing and kicking opponents, as there were at the public hearings, the Okhta Center’s representatives appeared helpless and confused.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

“During the past 80 years, no architectural masterpieces have been created in the city,” said Nikandrov, following one of the lines of the Okhta Center’s publicity campaign, to which the presenter Shevchenko asked whether Nikandrov considered the project to be a “masterpiece.”

“I think that this tower is a masterpiece,” Nikandrov replied.

“So we have a list like this: Rastrelli, Rossi, Falconet, Nikandrov. A great list,” Shevchenko summed up with irony.

Professionally, Nikandrov’s reasoning was confronted by Andrei Bokov, president of the Russian Union of Architects, who gave examples of Soviet architecture in St. Petersburg.

“I don’t know you, and I am shocked that a man whom I, the president of the Union of Architects, see for the first time, has taken responsibility for such a complex undertaking,” Bokov said.

“This project is naive and aggressive; it is dull, it is archaic. Chinese cities are being built with buildings that are vastly more interesting and better than what you are offering. Your brains haven’t been turned on.”

Advocates of the tower who were present in the studio struggled to come up with good reasons to support the project. The arguments they made frequently sounded eccentric.

Film director Vladimir Bortko claimed that the tower would be an “adornment” to St. Petersburg. When Grigory Revzin, Kommersant’s architecture critic, asked him to specify with what it would adorn St. Petersburg, Bortko replied, “With beauty!”

“You mean there’s no beauty [in St. Petersburg]? Not enough?” Revzin asked.

“Not enough,” Bortko responded.

Boris Nadezhdin, one of the leaders of the pro-Kremlin “liberal” party Pravoye Delo, touched on the political meaning of the tower, implying that it would symbolize the growing power of Russia.

“This tower is a symbol that Russia is rising from its knees, among other things,” he said.

“In clear weather it should be visible from the NATO Headquarters in Brussels!”

Gronsky applauded his own remarks, as if giving a sign to the pro-tower rent-a-crowd used at hearings in the past two years, but there was no rent-a-crowd to back him among the show’s audience.

At one point during the 45-minute show, film director Bortko, who appeared to be verging on hysteria for most of the program, rushed out of the studio, failed to find the exit and circled the speakers again before managing to leave.

Summing up the debates, Valery Fadeyev, editor of Expert magazine, said that the planned tower should be thoroughly discussed on a national level.

“We should return to the first phase of this project,” he said.

“The project has now gone outside of St. Petersburg. This problem has become national.”

The national uproar and Channel One’s campaign against the tower began after City Governor Matviyenko signed a decree exempting the Okhta Center from the height regulation law on Oct. 6. Some media suggested a rift in the Kremlin over the project and even took it as a sign that the project may soon be cancelled by the Russian authorities.


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Chernov’s Choice (English-Language Media on the Gazprom Tower)


"Beauty Will Kill the World"


Intrepid blogger, music critic, and St. Petersburg Times journalist Sergey Chernov has assembled a list of English-language publications on the Gazprom tower project (Okhta Center) and the scandals, protests, and resistance campaigns around it. You can access the list here.

While he was compiling the list, Chernov noticed something funny, to wit:

It is telling that the press section of the English-language version of Okhta Center’s official site is empty (as accessed on Oct. 18, 2009).

Although Gazprom knows how to deal with the Russian media when placing publicity stories, it looks as if it is largely impotent in the field of international media.

Most of the international publications express critical opinions about the RMJM-designed 400-meter tower project that is supposed to be built close to St. Petersburg’s historical center. Actually, we have found only two articles praising the Okhta Center skyscraper: one by Tony Kettle, UK Managing Director of RMJM and lead architect on the project; and another by a certain Karim Yergaliyev, on the Inhabitat blog.

Complete with RMJM’s colorful CGI images of the tower, the posting, reprinted on a few other blogs, shamelessly praises the tower for its alleged beauty and eco-friendliness, but a quick Google search showed that the “19-year-old Washington resident Karim Yergaliyev” was previously caught planting “phony stories on behalf of marketers.”

You don’t say! Are we to take it that one of the world’s richest corporations is paying an American teenager to plant positive stories about its lousy skyscraper on the Web?

While you’re contemplating how that is even possible, check out Chernov’s own report on the October 10 demonstration in Petersburg against the skyscraper and other diseases of faux-urbanism. Despite our fears that the demo against Tony Kettle’s brainchild would be kettled, the turnout was huge by Russia’s current dismal standards, and the police laid back.

* Photo courtesy of Sergey Chernov. More of his photos from the October 10 demo here, here, and here.

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