Russian developers run by local politicians have spent the last decade replacing historic buildings with luxury apartments and shopping malls. Preservationists have long cried foul, but say there’s still time to save some of the city’s endangered landmark
ST. PETERSBURG – With its elegant architecture and enchanting canals, this Russian city is sometimes called the "Venice of the North." Until recently, the historic center's gravest threat had been during World War II, when Nazi bombing raids during the 872-day siege of the city, then known as Leningrad, left serious damage to numerous prized buildings and monuments.
But since 2004, St. Petersburg's historical city center – recognized as a UNESCO landmark -- has been facing its most dire threat since German bombs: local government complicity in the demolition of landmarks to make way for shopping malls and luxury apartments.
In a rare victory of late for Russian preservationists, the municipal court in St. Petersburg recently ruled against city and regional government policy that allowed for the destruction of some 50 historic buildings. But it is just the latest chapter in a decade-long battle to save a unique corner of Russian heritage.
In 2001, the then-head of the Committee on State Control, Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (KGIOP) established a list of St. Petersburg's historical landmarks. Although the list was not considered final, nothing was supposed to be removed from it prior to a complete evaluation by experts.
At the time, no part of the city or regional government, including KGIOP, was authorized to conduct these evaluations, meaning the list should have remained intact – at least until 2009, when KGIOP was finally allowed to evaluate the would-be landmark sites. And yet by then, KGIOP had already removed more than 100 building from the list, stripping them of their government protection. Half of those buildings have since been demolished.
KGIOP's first round of cuts – as part of a 2004 decree – involved 38 buildings in central St. Petersburg. Twenty of those have since been demolished to make room for new real estate development, including many luxury apartments.
Perhaps most telling is who is cashing in on the new construction. One of the big winners was a real estate developer called the LCP group, which is controlled by Andrei Mochanov, who also happens to be a senator in the regional government. What's more, the group's current head, Alexander Vachminstrov, is the region's former vice-governor – and was in charge of overseeing KGIOP. Then there's Yevgeny Yatsishin, a former LCP vice-president who headed the city government's construction committee. Yatsishin recently left the government to work with LCP group once again.
"The company operated strictly within the limits of the law to carry out this project and to get the required permissions," LCP told Kommersant. The group stressed that the development project began in 2005, a year after the buildings were removed from the landmark register.
LCP group also said it has development plans for several buildings formerly on the landmark list, but that for many of those sites the developer plans to "preserve and reconstruct" the building instead of demolishing it.
Still hope for 50 buildings
On Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg's main boulevard, one of the buildings removed from the protected list was torn down to make way for a mall. Preservationists are livid, not only about the loss of the historic building, but because the new mall exceeds the city's height limits. Even the city government recognized, albeit after the fact, that the new building was a colossal "urban planning mistake."
Aleksei Kovalyov, a deputy in St. Petersburg's city parliament, tried unsuccessfully to fight the de-listings in 2004. At the time, experts brought before the court confirmed that at least seven of the 38 buildings taken off the list were important historical monuments. Nine of the 38 buildings had already been destroyed. Although the court found that the KGIOP cuts were illegitimate, it also found against Kovalyov's preservationist claim that his right to access the city's cultural heritage had been violated by the development plans.
At the time, Mr. Kovalyov also warned that the continued destruction of historic buildings could threaten St. Petersburg's place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The city's historic city center was among the first four Russian sites added to the list in 1990, when Russia emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.
Things began to change this past year, after Valentina Matvienko, the regional governor, stepped down prior to the end of her term. In August, the state prosecutor demanded that the KGIOP rescind the 2004 decree, arguing that the department did not have the authority to remove the buildings from state protection. The matter came before the courts, which found in favor of the prosecution, ruling that the city government overstepped its authority by de-listing the 38 buildings.
The KGIOP originally stood by the list cuts. More recently, however, it has changed its tune. Under new leadership, the KGIOP now insists it is against the continued demolition of these historic landmarks. Assuming the Supreme Court backs the lower court's ruling, prosecutors will then be able to contest the other 60 or so buildings KGIOP removed from the list prior to 2009. While many have already been destroyed, some of those remaining could once again be granted protection status and thus preserved for future generations.
Photo - Ed Yourdon
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