Building blocks

18.7.2007 - Prague

UNESCO condemns plans for Prague high-rises

The power struggle between heritage preservation and modern development took a new turn early this month, giving heritage advocates fresh ammunition in their fight against high-rises slated for the Pankrác area of Prague 4.This new development would forever blemish Prague’s world-famous historical cityscape, these activists say. Prague City Hall, meanwhile, argues the development is part of long-term plans to modernize the ancient city.

On June 30, experts attending the 31st annual session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in New Zealand took the side of the activists. Prague should reconsider plans for high-rise development, the conference delegates said, though they did not specifically name the Pankrác project in their statement or threaten sanctions.

“I can’t tell if this is a victory yet, but it’s a big success, anyway,” said Martin Skalský, a spokesman for Arnika, a nongovernmental organization that’s been fighting the Pankrác plans from the beginning. They sent a letter enlisting UNESCO’s help last year. “If UNESCO hadn’t started to look into this, the buildings would already be under construction,” he said.

A sprawling 866 hectares (2,140 acres) of Prague’s historical center, including Old Town, New Town and Malá Strana, have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. Inclusion on the list brings not only international prestige and plenty of tourist flow, but also a responsibility to maintain the site’s historical integrity.

Though the Pankrác Plain isn’t within the official boundaries of the World Heritage Site, it falls within a designated buffer zone, and tall buildings on the plain’s high terrain would mar the historical skyline for anyone looking south, Skalský says: “It’s a violation of the UNESCO agreement.”

Since 2001, Prague-based ECM Real Estate has been planning to redevelop Pankrác, where three high-rises were already built in the 1970s and ’80s. ECM plans include reconstructing one of these, already the city’s tallest building at 109 meters (358 feet). In addition, they’d build four new structures, one of them a looming, V-shaped apartment tower. The project “is to become a dominant architectural feature of Prague,” the company says on its Web site.

A matter of precedent

“The discussion concerning Pankrác is so important because it’s a very important precedent and signal,” said Josef Štulc, president of the Czech committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory committee to UNESCO. “After Pankrác is approved, there will be no objective reason not to approve [other high-rise projects] … and the ‘Manhattanization’ of Prague will be sped up.”

For example, this March, J&T Real Estate announced its plans to build two new high-rises in the Holešovice area north of the Vltava River, he said. The buildings could stretch as high as 42 stories, making them the tallest in the city.

In May, ICOMOS President Michael Petzet expressed a similar fear. In a letter to Prague Mayor Pavel Bém and Culture Minister Václav Jehlička, he “urgently” expressed his concern “that the Pankrác development may constitute an irreversible process of compromising the unique urban qualities” of Prague.

But, at City Hall, “there is the opinion … that Prague must be open to this new development,” Štulc said, adding that there’s a “certain alliance” between developers and city politicians. National bodies such as the Culture Ministry and the National Heritage Institute, on the other hand, tend to be more cautious.

City Hall already gave ECM the necessary stamp of approval last year, but that was annulled by the Culture Ministry in June 2006, said ministry spokeswoman Marcela Žižková. The reason: “unlawfulness … with regard to the interests of state heritage protection.”

ECM launched another attempt, which City Hall approved again this spring. The Culture Ministry will wait to receive the official, written recommendation from UNESCO before deciding if it will allow that approval to pass, Žižková said.

Still, Jan Kněžínek, head of City Hall’s heritage protection department, remains supportive of the development plans.

“UNESCO does not show a negative stance to the construction at Pankrác,” he said.

“The project of new high-rise buildings in Pankrác represents, from the point of view of urbanism and architecture, a long-lasting effort to complete development that began in the ’70s and ’80s,” he added.

Scaling back

The words from UNESCO haven’t discouraged ECM either, says company spokesman Petr Beneš.

“Prague is not being threatened with inclusion on UNESCO’s list of endangered sites,” he said. Instead, the committee recommended “a reliable and sensitive approach” and said the state was “fully competent to decide in this matter” without UNESCO intervention. Štulc agrees UNESCO could have taken a stronger position on the issue, but didn’t. “They didn’t say Prague should stop the project. … They’re a bit cowardly, in my view. Or at least too polite,” he said.

Still, he’s cautiously optimistic that heritage buffs will get their way and the Pankrác high-rises will at least be scaled down. When similar developments were planned near Vienna’s historic center and the Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, they faced similar warnings from UNESCO.

The Vienna development was reduced to satisfy the UNESCO committee. Cologne’s cathedral was added to the list of endangered sites list in 2004 and only removed two years later when high-rise plans were scaled down.

Hopefully, a similar compromise can be reached here, Arnika spokesman Skalský said.

Author: Hilda Hoy
Source: The Prague Post

“We could agree with the buildings, but not with the height.”

Hela Balínová and Naďa Černá contributed to this report.

Arnika - Center for Citizen`s Support

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