Urban blues

25.6.2007 - Irena Fuková

Praguers have even resorted to calling in UN officials in their struggle against what is seen as a relentless incursion of ugly buildings on their few green and open spaces

The irony wasn’t lost on inhabitants of Prague 10–Vršovice when French hypermarket chain Carrefour chose the Eden crossroads as the place to put up a new commercial center. Residents looked on in dismay as several hundred shrubs and trees were uprooted from parkland to make way for the construction, which now stands near the Eden cultural house and, to add to the irony, across the road from the Ministry of the Environment.

The emergence of the office and retail complex—which now houses the Czech headquarters of Tesco, the British supermarket group which acquired Carrefour— provides a telling example of how Prague residents far too often go unheard when they complain of urbanization that distinctly reduces their quality of life, said Jiří Janda, spokesman of Prague 10 citizens’ association Healthy Life.

Attorney Petr Kužvart who represents the citizen’s association Ateliér pro životní prostředí (Studio for the Environment) said the Eden case was full of controversies. “The construction started despite the fact that the project wasn’t assessed in terms of its environmental impact, the construction proceeded via an invalid zoning plan and the approval for the construction was issued by a biased official, whose brother organized some partial permissions for the investor,” Kužvart said. Carrefour failed to meet a deadline for comment.

Kužvart, who aims to help people prevent construction that violates the face of a locality or worsen its living conditions, said Prague is facing a multiplying number of building projects that are a scar on the landscape. Developers who know there is a decreasing number of available city land plots try to exploit free space as much as possible, he said. Frequently, this means that suggested commercial center, office park and apartment building projects are criticized for dominating neighboring buildings and swallowing up every part of a plot instead of leaving parts unoccupied for environmental reasons. With such concerns mounting, Kužvart said he contacted the World Commission on Culture and Development—also known as the WCCD, it was established jointly by the United Nations and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—to protest against the Epoque project planned for Pankrác in Prague 4 that intends to create a hotel and apartment building that will be 104 meters tall. The WCCD has agreed to discuss the matter.

A current favorite tactic of developers is to build over park and green plots that have not been specifically protected against construction in a zoning plan, even though it is clear to all that the original planners never intended the spaces for construction, Kužvart said. He also described another dubious tactic, namely buying a plot with an existing residential building, pulling it down and constructing a new apartment house of a greater height.

Kužvart said that compared to all other parts of the capital, Prague 4 is the most afflicted by these problems as it still has a substantial number of plots available for construction. Summarizing what he sees as the most alarming constructions, he pointed to the already standing Raiffeisen office building in Budějovická street by Budějovická metro station, the partly completed BB Centrum office complex in Brumlovka, and the proposed 17-floor Filadelfie Budějovická by Vyskočilova street. In terms of successes, Kužvart said he and his team have managed to stall the construction of the Prague Point Building behind polyclinic Budějovická.

Defending the Epoque building plan, Tomáš Vlček, vice president for trade and marketing at the developer of the project ECM Real Estate, said it is quite normal for UNESCO-backed officials to be interested in such a project. Some citizens’ associations representing only a few people are suggesting that all Pankrác inhabitants are against the Epoque construction, which is not the case, he said. “To the contrary, the local people realize that the whole project will increase the value of their flats, as happened in [Prague 5 district] Smíchov with the construction of an administrative and commercial center,” Vlček said, adding that the wider Epoque project embraces also the renovation of three current buildings and the development of combined shopping and social amenities project Arkády Pankrác, under ECE Projektmanagement International. “These are elevated, high-rise buildings, not skyscrapers as is often suggested,” he said.

Citing the declining amount of remaining green plots and growing traffic, Prague 4 residents are up in arms about the environmental department of Prague 4 Town Hall, saying it permits developers to cut down trees whenever they need to. “The Prague 4 situation reminds me of a sandpit, with officials placing cakes of sand next to each other. There is, however, no daddy observing the sandpit from above and suggesting how the constructions could make sense together. It doesn’t matter in the sandpit of course. But in the city where the imaginary sand cakes influence the lives of tens of thousands of people, it’s scandalous,” wrote Martin Skalský, vice chairman of environmental group Arnika, in a press release.

Lenka Míčková, account manager at public relations firm Crest Communications, defended Passerinvest Group, the developer for BB Centrum. “In reality, we haven’t come across objections against the cutting down of greenery. If we cut down some wood, it happens only to the necessary extent and we always replace it with new greenery,” she said.

Markéta Aulová, spokeswoman for Prague 4 Town Hall, said the construction in question relates to private plots. “So as long as the developers fulfill all parameters and regulations, we can’t do anything,” she said. Nevertheless, the Town Hall was scheduled to initiate a discussion about the future face of Prague 4 at a presentation event on June 23.

Architectural failures

Daniel Merta, director of Galerie of Jaroslava Frágnera—a Prague exposition hall focused mainly on architecture—picked up on some concerns about modern residential architecture that were raised by architect Vlado Milunić, known for his collaboration with Frank Gehry in creating Prague’s Vltava riverfront Dancing House (see “Architect rues lackluster design,” CBW, June 4, 2007). Along with office centers, the biggest architectural failure is probably represented by apartment houses, Merta said.

Logically, developers must use a specific plot’s potential as effectively as possible. “It is the responsibility of the authorities to control the planned projects and push the developers to respect the face of the location,” Merta said. He also observed that in many cases officials face corrupt offers rather than legitimate lobbying. Merta said it was regrettable that the complex concept of new construction is totally absent in Prague. “Prague deserves more quality architecture.”

Kužvart also objected to the plans of AT Development to place an apartment house on a single green plot behind the Ministry of Environment in U Roháčových kasáren street, Prague 10. Its architect, Oldřich Hájek from Šafer Hájek architekti, responded that it’s a needed dominant feature that the location lacks.

Inhabitants, added Kužvart, had also protested against Develop invest’s Jeremenkova residence in Prague’s Podolí district and Bránické mezivrší’s Bránik-Mezivrší apartment houses in Prague 5—both projects are connected with entrepreneur Tomáš Červenka. The future of Prague 5 park Košíře is also a cause of conflict, with local inhabitants having momentarily managed to block construction on one-third of the park. Some buildings have, however, now emerged.

“One of the buildings is especially of concern as it’s a seven-floor apartment house that rises above the park like a fortress,” said Jan Fiala, chairman of a citizens’ initiative for rescuing Kavalírka park, adding that dealings between the developer and Prague 5 Town Hall officials who approved the construction should be closely scrutinized.

Drahomíra Dubská, who lives in Bránik Mezivrší, said developers plan to chop down 45 trees in the location in order to build seven-floor houses. “It’s a massive construction, which they are pushing higher in order to sell more flats,” Dubská said, adding that the project is still in the preconstruction phase and has yet to be approved. Červenka, who is serving as chairman of a Bránické Mezivrší advisory board, said local people disagreeing with construction plans is an everyday thing and that he is open to constructive debate. Debates, however, often degenerated when involving some particular local inhabitants and become irrational. “Architects had an assignment to make the project as sensitive as possible,” he said.

Ministry of the Environment spokeswoman Jarmila Krebsová said the main responsibility for construction permissions and environmental impact assessments falls on town halls. “Plot owners naturally exert pressure to use their property as much as possible in a commercial sense,” she said. Prague’s zoning plan goes through perpetual changes and previous, often good, urban concepts frequently get lost on the way, Krebsová added.

Source: Czech Business Weekly

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