Experts: UNESCO skyline warning should be taken seriously

3.9.2007 - Prague

Heritage and real estate observers are imagining a scenario in which Prague City Hall will have to pay out billions of crowns in compensation in order to preserve its skyline and keep the historic center of Prague listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The core of the capital was placed on the list by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1992, but real fears that it could be removed have emerged since UNESCO lodged an “expression of serious concern” in August about high-rise building projects in Prague 4–Pankrác. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is demanding that the Czech Republic submit a report on the planned construction by Feb. 1, 2008. If UNESCO takes the next step, then Prague’s historical sites would be placed on the list of endangered world heritage, a move that would alarm the tourism industry.

The organization’s concerns are focused on a mixed use development of 10 buildings being developed by ECM Real Estate in Pankrác under the project name City. The Pankrác neighborhood is one the higher districts in Prague, and while it is outside the city center, the tall buildings being developed on it are visible from much of the city.

Prague City Hall did not respond to CBW’s questions on the matter by the press time.

Experts, meanwhile, cautioned that should Prague City Hall and the Ministry of Culture underestimate the seriousness of the situation at this stage then officials may later find themselves hurrying to implement crisis solutions and compensation to save the day.

Daniel Herman, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, said there was no real prospect of Prague either being blacklisted or of having to pay developers to halt projects. “The world heritage committee of UNESCO has expressed serious concerns about a threat to the values of Prague’s preserved monuments but in contrast to other cases such as Dresden [Germany], Riga [Latvia] and St. Petersburg [Russia], it has not issued a negative statement,” Herman said, adding that the ministry will ensure all the relevant authorities treat cultural heritage in accordance with regulations. “That’s why we are sure that there is no impending removal of Prague regarding the list.”

‘Act now’

However, Martin Skalský, vice chairman of environmental group Arnika, was among several critics not happy with the kind of assurances given by Herman. He said that Prague City Hall at this stage has every right to stop the City project approval process as no zoning decision, preservation approval or construction decision had yet been issued. “Only after these three conditions are fulfilled … can the investor press some claims,” Skalský said, adding that this particular development had a value of several billions of crowns. “But it seems that Prague will let things go and the problem will escalate. He said he could not recall a similar case having occurred in Prague to date.

Tomáš Vlček, vice president for trade and marketing at ECM Real Estate, said that at this point the compensation issue is not something worthy of discussion. “We make our business by finishing our projects, not by profiting on unrealized projects,” he said. The whole situation has become unnaturally brought to a head and everything indicates the City project will be realized, Vlček added.

Gabriel Achour, senior attorney at law office Glatzová & Co. and a member of the board of directors of the Association for Real Estate Market Development (ARTN), is one expert who said it is possible that Prague could see itself removed from the World Heritage list if it underestimates the situation. “Everybody who follows the course of these events in a broader contex knows without any doubt that Vienna has serious problems in this regard,” Achour said. Vienna City Hall compensated an investor after terminating three of four planned skyscrapers in 2004 after building permits had been issued for the Wien Mitte development near the main train station. Vienna entered the UNESCO list in 2001, but the validity of the listing was temporarily suspended due to the planned skyscrapers. According to Achour, Prague has sufficient legal instruments to make its influence count in this case, such as in zone planning, zone proceedings and construction proceedings. “There are also other mechanisms such as a construction ban which is, however, a very rough method,” Achour said.

Achour also said that if a change of zoning plan was required to allow construction that otherwise might legally impede the skyline, Prague could very easily block an attempt at realizing the change. “In this case, there could be no threat of sanctions [from the investor],” Achour added. On the contrary, compensation might have to be paid out if Prague needed to adjust the construction plan or even use a construction ban in order to stop the project, he said, adding that personally he didn’t see the City project in a negative light.

‘Lesser of two evils’

Josef Štulc, chairman of the Czech national committee of nongovernmental organization International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), said that if it became necessary to compensate an investor in order to stay on the UNESCO heritage list, then it would prove worthwhile because remaining on the list would more important than keeping hold of the compensation finance. “Of course, as a taxpayer I would not like [the compensation move] that much, especially as I would be paying out on a compensation demand caused by the approval of an unacceptable project,” he added.

If its concerns were ignored, UNESCO would very likely retaliate by deleting Prague from its heritage list, Štulc said, explaining that this is because two-thirds of the sites on the list are located in Europe and UNESCO has a need to balance the number with sites in other continents such as Asia. “I believe their threats are realistic as they exert a sort of discrimination against the European countries, in contrast to the positive discrimination given to other continents,” Štulc said. He added that he too believed Prague City Hall was currently underestimating the gravity of the situation, but he said he believed it would be more proactive in the future.

Author: Irena Fuková
Source: Czech Business Weekly

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