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Departing GI's Leave German Host City With Huge Urban Planning Headache

The Pentagon plans to shutter its air base in Mannheim, Germany, meaning the property – which is significantly bigger than the city itself – will soon be on the market. The local government wants to incorporate the space, but fears it’ll end up in the han

Mannheim in the works (MichaelTK)
Mannheim in the works (MichaelTK)

MANNHEIM -- Taking pictures at the main gate is not allowed. A security measure to prevent images making it onto the Internet that might unwittingly reveal military secrets. That holds for the tower too, which just now has a Black Hawk helicopter flying past it. Only after we all put our iPhones away does the double-decker bus roll past the last anti-tank obstacle.

For Mayor Peter Kurz and the four dozen local politicians joining him, this tour of Coleman Barracks is a first. They have never been beyond the barbed wire fencing that surrounds the American military airbase – even though Coleman is entirely within Mannheim city limits.

Like all of America's foreign installations, Coleman – which used to be called the Hermann Göring Barracks, and functioned as a southwestern German base for Third Reich Air Force fighter planes – is considered extra-territorial and is therefore "off limits." And yes, even the mayor was forbidden to enter, with the local government shut off from the urban planning of the property.

That's now changing. The Pentagon has announced that by 2015 it wants all American troops out of Coleman. That means that new use must be found for eight different sites that together add up to 521 hectares. It's a mammoth task considering that the entire city is laid out on only 100 hectares. The property is so big, in fact, that the German Federal Agency for Real Estate, or BIMA, fears the land could prove difficult to market or put to profitable economic use.

The city is open to ideas

BIMA has good reason to chime in on the issue since it, rather than the Mannheim city authorities, will become the new owner of the buildings and surfaces when the army leaves. No doubt the Mannheim conversion will prove to be one of the largest and most difficult tasks that agency has faced.

The Mannheim city government is, however, deeply involved in the challenging task of finding a new purpose for much of the space. It's an unusual situation, in part because of just how much land is involved, but also because of how close the U.S. military base is the city center. The advantage of that proximity is that investors could be drawn by easy access to autobahns, the Rhine port and the freight station. But there are also dangers – mainly that of damaging the whole character of the city.

Many in Mannheim fear that the whole thing is going to turn out badly, which is why, when the news first broke two years ago that the U.S. army was clearing out, local government turned its attention urgently to planning. It hired a conversion expert, Konrad Hummel, who had experience not only in city development but also with involving local residents in the process.

On the Internet and in citizen forums, Hummel's team gathered 1,000 ideas ranging from solar parks, intergenerational settlements and model developments run on renewable energy, to a tree house hotel and a branch of the Guggenheim Museum. Municipal authorities are checking on the viability of staging big-ticket gardening shows. Another idea that has found favor is creating an upscale residential community that combines top tech with the very best in quality craftsmanship. Pop musician Xavier Naidoo is planning a TV and music production facility in one of the old barracks, with rehearsal areas, stages, photo and recording studios.

"What Cologne did for TV productions, we want to do for the live segment including music shows on TV," Naidoo said.

Difficult choices ahead

The planning euphoria, however, hangs by a slim thread -- because for plans to pan out, Mannheim first has to get its hands on the properties. And it can only do that if BIMA sells to it directly, without a generalized invitation to bid, and at a reasonable price. If, on the other hand, BIMA offers the properties on the open market, the city would stand no chance against big-money investors, according to Mayor Kurz. And if those investors should build the usual apartment and office buildings "the disappointment and outrage of citizens after so much participation in the conversion process would be considerable," he said.

BIMA is under no obligation to offer Mannheim any preferential treatment. Its task, after all, is to make money for the state, not get caught up in urban planning concerns. That means doing what it can to fetch the highest prices possible for the property. "Our job is not economic promotion," said BIMA's Mannheim project head, Michael Scharf.

Even if it fails to get its hands on Coleman, the city will still have the option of legally contesting whatever projects private investors propose for the space. But that costs time and money, says Konrad Hummel, who expects that difficult choices lie ahead – even in the best case scenario.

Just how difficult is starting to occur to some of the local government officials as the bus makes its way through the base. Many look daunted as they stare out the window. "We had no idea it was this huge," says a district councilor. Mannheim can't use this much space profitably just for its own needs, they agree. What's more, many of the buildings are in top condition – the Americans recently invested millions in modernizing them, and want to be paid partial compensation. "I couldn't justify demolishing them on moral and ecological grounds, either," said Mayor Kurz.

Johannes Walter, an honorary member of the planning team along on the tour, offered his own sober assessment of the situation. "At the end of the day, maybe investors will end up with the whole thing anyway, and we'll be left out in the rain," he said.

Read the original story in German

Photo – MichaelTK

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