While the capital is witnessing a boom in glass and steel, the Historical Centre remains a wasteland: with new redevelopment plans in the works, Ana-Maria Smadeanu asks: can Bucharest ever be beautiful?
Bucharest city authorities, the United Nations and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have grand plans to reconstruct the Historical Centre of the capital - but there are problems.
The amount of cash available for the development is short by hundreds of millions of Euro. No construction companies want to bid for the infrastructure development. There is a breakdown of communication between the existing private entrepreneurs active in the Historical Centre and the city authorities. There is also no accurate data on how many squatters need to be evicted.
The local Government of Sector 3, where the affected area is situated, and the City Hall issued the task book in February this year for the infrastructure redevelopment of the area.
Since then, nine firms, such as construction companies Euroconstruct and Cominco, bought the task book. The companies had to send in their bids by 15 May. But none of them made an offer.
“We will try an official dialogue with them to see what stopped them and, if we have to, we will have to think of something to change in the bidding documents,” says Bucharest City Hall architect Catalin Cazacu.
He says he will extend the deadline for offers from the firms that bought the task book.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is joint-responsible for the rehabilitation of the outside of the buildings and it will start work this August or September, by investing over 780,000 Euro in the ‘Beautiful Bucharest’ project.
UNDP has four years as a deadline to complete the work.
National officer at UNDP Florin Banateanu says the international development organisation will start a pilot scheme in the perimeter enclosing Splaiul Independentei, Blvd Bratianu, Str Lipscani and Calea Victoriei.
On the crossroads between Splaiul Independentei and Strada Selari, the project will renovate more than 20 buildings.
In total, for the infrastructure rehabilitation, the authorities have 22 million Euro, eight million from EBRD, 12 million from the Municipality and a grant valued at 1.8 million Euro from the Dutch Government.
But this is not enough money.
“No one can estimate a figure for the rehabilitation cost, but it is no less than hundreds of millions of Euro,” says Cazacu.
The intention is to create a maze of streets with small boutiques, supermarkets, bookshops and small bank branches. Banateanu adds to this luxury stores and coffee-shops. The area around Notre Dame in Paris or the old centre of Prague are ideals to follow.
But existing private entrepreneurs are angry at the way the city authorities have treated them in the past, and have launched their own lobbying group, the Association of Historical Centre Investors (AICI), to set up a consolidated voice to dialogue with the authorities.
In February last year, Sector 3 and the Bucharest City Hall prevented any cars, not belonging to residents, from travelling through an area between Calea Victoriei and Blvd Bratianu.
This followed a survey made by the ‘Ion Mincu’ Architecture University and the Urban Design Centre of Bucharest City Hall. Over 18 months, a team of 22 experts from these institutions counted the cars, measured the level of pollution and studied the area.
From the results of the survey, the City Council decided to restrict car access. Efforts by The Diplomat to find a copy of the survey failed to meet a response from city officials.
Since then, only taxis and supply vehicles, between six and nine in the morning, have been granted access.
Renovation was due to begin in Spring last year. But for six months nothing happened. Then it became winter, when all construction work stops in Bucharest, and another year went by.
Closing down the traffic inflicted large scale financial damage. The figures of some business owners in the Centre dropped by between 25 and 40 per cent. Amsterdam Cafe lost 25 per cent in revenues. One furniture shop on Str Smardan closed down.
“You don’t buy furniture if you can’t carry it out of the shop,” says Jerry van Schaik, manager of Amsterdam Cafe, and a member of AICI.
But Cazacu argues these steps are necessary.
“When the local authorities are making efforts to regenerate the area, there are some prices we have to pay. If the traffic had not been restricted, we wouldn’t have saved the centre,” he says.
While the businesses in the centre of the historical area may be suffering, those on the outside and close to the main streets of Calea Victoriei and Blvd Bratianu, which have car access, are flourishing.
Romanian restaurant chain City Grill has opened on Str Lipscani, close to Calea Victoriei, and is investing 1.1 million Euro in restoring traditional restaurant Carul cu Bere a few metres away from the main street.
Owner Dragos Petrescu has had good relations with the city authorities.
“I have around 700 customers per day and received 1.5 million Euro from the sales in the first year in the Historical Centre,” he says. Other investors near the periphery of the centre include Snack Attack and a Belgium-style cafe and pub called La Chocolat.
But there is depravity in the middle of the area, loss of business and a lack of street-lamps that put off many potential pedestrian customers, particularly at night.
The City Hall does not want this situation to continue forever.
“It is not productive to eliminate automobiles from such an area,” says Cazacu. “Vehicles bring life, productivity and the centre can not do without it.”
However Cazacu would not give a time as to when this would happen.
As a compromise Banateanu has proposed a “toll” for the traffic – with the money then going towards the redevelopment of the centre. This would restrict people who make unnecessary journeys into the area.
About 20 per cent of buildings in the historical centre belong to the municipality, 40 per cent to private owners and a further 40 per cent are in dispute.
Cazacu says the city will destroy buildings in the area which do not have a historical significance, do not have a special design or architectural structure and are in poor shape.
But, under the redevelopment scheme, each private owner of a building will have to pay the city authorities for the renovation of the building that he or she owns.
“The owners will be compelled by law to act in order to renovate their buildings,” Banateanu says. “If the owners don’t have money to do it, they will have to sell their properties to the municipality.”
This seems to give owners an ultimatum: gentrify or sell-up.
Cazacu says he is working on an agreement to allow residents who cannot afford to pay for renovation some form of financial support.
“This could be a decrease in taxes or finding some ways to attract the owners, who don’t have money, to cooperate with the authorities,” says Cazacu.
But these specifics are yet to be decided.
If private investors fail to foot the bill for renovation costs and are obliged by law to sell, city authorities may find themselves in possession of a lot of hot property.
Many families living illegally in the area, many of whom are Rroma, are due to be evicted by the city.
For them there are two options: to be sent back in the place where they ‘came from’ or receive support from the sector authorities.
Estimations of how many people are living illegally in the centre range from 400 to 6,000.
In May 2005 Sector 3 authorities told The Diplomat the city was aiming to give all the residents eviction notices in July 2005 and 48 hours to leave their houses.
Since then only 42 families have been evicted. Different reports and statements by city officials have stated the number of illegal families could be between 120 and 628 or even higher.
“People understand that there isn’t a chance for them to live there any more,” says Cazacu.
To rehouse those without a fixed abode on their ID, the Sector 3 mayor office has finished preparing two blocks of student-style dormitories for them as social houses in the east of Bucharest.
Cazacu says more accommodation will become available for this purpose.
“There is no possibility that the people who have been evicted will come back,” claims Cazacu. “Even if few of them did in the past, they were sent back to the new social housing.”
SURVEYING THE LAND
With buildings dating back to the 18th century, the Historical Centre spans over 50 hectares on either side of Blvd Bratianu in central Bucharest.