Race for space
Sky-scrapers, open spaces, smooth roads, clean parks, rebuilding the Historical Centre and bulldozing the worst excesses of Ceausescu: this is the mission of Bucharest Mayor Adriean Videanu. Is it too much to handle?
Open public spaces.
This seems to be the goal of every city mayor. And Adriean Videanu sees this as key to making Bucharest a dynamic European capital.
By the end of his four-year mandate this ex-engineer wants the capital to start having the same atmosphere as Barcelona, with its wide squares full of beer-sipping Latins and awestruck tourists.
But it is a hard task when real estate prices in the centre are reaching dizzy heights, most of the city is now in private hands and many former property owners are scrambling for their land rights.
“Bucharest at this moment has no open squares,” Videanu tells The Diplomat. “It is a city defined only by crossroads. Except the parks, there is no nice place to go and relax. I want to make a huge public open space in either Piata Revolutiei or Piata Victoriei. I cannot close my eyes to the fact that we have asphalt all over the place. Why not have a green area? Why not create a skating rink during the winter and fountains during the summer? Why not have trees in these places, terraces and coffee shops, which will be the attractive element that the city needs?”
Now it only has a few memorials and statues to anti-Communist martyrs and a big car park.
“Piata Revolutiei, although it is the most important public square, has no life,” says Videanu. “That’s the place where we have to intervene. In its final shape our project will be a good attractor for people and tourists.”
In city planning, Videanu sees Barcelona as the ideal town. He would not mind transforming the former Victoria Socialismului (Victory of Socialism) boulevard, today’s Blvd Unirii, into a Placa de Espana, borrowing from the Catalan capital the notion of Gaudi and Miro-designed musical fountains.
But private enterprise currently rules the market in Bucharest.
Its instinct is to build high on every piece of land available. Constructing top class, sky-scraping projects in the centre will always be a profitable enterprise for developers because the centre never goes out of fashion.
One solution to compromise this appetite for development with the need to preserve open urban spaces is, for Videanu, to build shops, cinemas or parking spaces underground– which is similar to Les Halles in Paris.
By the end of his mandate Videanu wants to finish the Basarab flyover, which aims at easing traffic in the centre with a massive road-bridge from President Basescu’s office at Cotroceni Palace to Piata Victoriei. This has seen many delays, but is due to start this Autumn.
He also wants to rebuild the infrastructure of the Historical Centre, which is another much-delayed project, also due to start this Autumn.
As well as this, the Mayor wants to fill in all the holes in the 360 boulevards, to rehabilitate the main four parks of Bucharest - Tineretului, Carol, Herastrau and Cismigiu - and their lakes, which need to be cleaned up.
Videanu would like to see high buildings and sky-scrapers in Bucharest. Romanian architects have made a plan determining where the city can construct high buildings. He cites inspiration from German architect Meinhard von Gerkan’s urban renewal programme, Bucharest 2000 (see page 26, for how the project fell into trouble).
This proposed an axis from Piata Alba Iulia up to the Parliament Palace where high buildings could emerge. “Here we will have skyscrapers,” the Mayor says.
But Videanu says he never wants to see a sky-scraper in the Historical Centre nor near historical monuments.
In terms of new developments, Videanu says the north is now saturated.
“All Bucharest areas are important especially up to the ring road and are under the eyes of many investors,” says the Mayor. “Even if the south is less developed, it now becomes more attractive. This is the next area in terms of development.”
The suburbs should also see growth as the emerging middle class favours three-bedroom semi-detached houses as a preferred way of living to apartment blocks.
“The municipality should invest in infrastructure to develop the outskirts and semi outskirts of Bucharest and put them into investors’ hands,” Videanu says.
In the last five years Bucharest has witnessed an explosion in shopping malls due to the success of Turkish Anchor Grup’s pioneering shopping centres, Bucuresti Mall and Plaza Romania. Both these complexes contain western chain stores and an environment no different to a shopping experience in, say, Ankara, Pittsburgh, Lyon or Sheffield.
During the same time, Bucharest’s high streets, with the exception of the rich areas around Piata Dorobanti and parts of Calea Victoriei, have seen virtually no development of new and exciting stores.
“I believe that malls have reached saturation point in Bucharest,” says Videanu.
He argues that the malls remain attractive, but are destroying small commercial businesses.
The malls should address consumers buying on a large scale, says Videanu. But he adds there should be more small and attractive boutique-style shops on the high streets for those who want to both visit the city and carry out window shopping.
While massive developments are due in the north and west of the city, the centre still suffers from a lack of large-scale commercial, residential or office projects worth 400 million Euro or more.
Videanu intends to revamp the centre with more partnerships between the private and the public sectors – the two most prominent projects, each worth billions of Euro – are Esplanada and Izvor (AKA the Boulevard Uranus project).
Esplanada is financed by Canadian-Hungarian developers TriGranit and includes offices, cultural centres, a hotel and shops on a wasteland next to the Dambovita River on Blvd Unirii.
Meanwhile, the Izvor project should help ease traffic in the centre with a new boulevard parallel to Blvd Magheru and Calea Victoriei, which will spread from Piata Victoriei to the city’s south.
This will pass alongside the Parliament Palace and the proposed 200 million Euro Orthodox Church project, the Cathedral of the Redemption.
But to build this, the municipality has to take back property from private owners.
“The expropriations for these areas are insignificant compared to the benefits of the project,” Videanu says.
During his mandate Videanu will finish only the first section from Piata Victoriei to Stirbei Voda. But he will try to complete as much as possible on the section which crosses the Parliament Palace. “I see this boulevard as a shopping street with all the public utilities of major boulevards: stores and places of recreation,” says Videanu.
The Mayor wishes to extend this boulevard further southward with a further boulevard in the ‘Venus’ Project. But no details are yet available.
Tear down the wall
Connected to the ‘Izvor’ project is the plan to remove the walls around the Parliament Palace. These are patrolled by guards and the vast empty grasslands inside give the impression that the building inside contains high security prisoners or massive reserves of gold bullion.
Instead, it contains a Parliament desperate to prove to Europe its transparent credentials.
Videanu is in discussions with the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Bogdan Olteanu, to break down the wall, but the Government is conscious about the security breach this could create.
“It is unnecessary that a public institution such as the Parliament Palace is so rigid that it has a fence which reminds the people of a certain period,” says Videanu.
The wall also surrounds the new proposed site of the Cathedral of the Redemption.
“This is a pilgrimage place which has to attract the parishioners - not a place that rejects them,” says Videanu.
The City Hall will not neglect the Historical Centre. This is the crucible of Bucharest’s identity and one of the only areas, outside of the parks, where tourists can walk freely in a pleasant environment.
There are plans worth over 20 million Euro to revamp the infrastructure and building facades, some of which date back to the 18th century – although no building work has started yet.
But residents and small business owners have criticised the Mayor’s decision not to allow traffic in the centre, citing losses of up to 40 per cent in business.
Only taxis are allowed to pass through the roadblocks at each junction of entry to the labyrinth of vintage streets.
This decision hits sales from furniture stores, which cannot transfer their goods to customers without carrying a sofa or armchair half a kilometre to a vehicle. This situation will not change, says Videanu.
“Only a few streets will we be allowed to have car traffic,” says Videanu. “We have to have some streets for suppliers and residents, but most of the area will be pedestrianised and will represent an attractive place for Bucharest. The dissatisfaction of businessmen in the area will transform into huge satisfaction when we redevelop the infrastructure.”
Interview by Ana-Maria Smadeanu