Ştefan RUSU

public space / texts

A ghost boulevard is haunting the city

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The nationalist tendencies, which dominated the society at the beginning of the 90ies and which were based on rewriting the history, radical changes at the level of the city identity, demolishing Soviet monuments and building new ones, renaming the streets and boulevards in accordance with the spirit of “new” times, have caused a substantial reconfiguration of public space. As a result an important part of public properties designed and built mainly during socialist period, including historic buildings, industrial zones, green areas, squares, parks and other public spaces have been taken over through the practice of privatization imposed by the new economic logic.

Actually as the authorities of Chisinau were preoccupied by the reconfiguration of public space at a symbolic level, they have neglected completely the historic patrimony of the city. The city leaders that succeeded, weren’t concerned about the value of city center and for creating a solid base for an efficient protection of the public propriety and the historic patrimony of the city. The plan for modernizing the core center of Chisinau elaborated by a project team led by A. Shchiusev after World War Two remained permanently on the agenda of local authorities. It was reconsidered many times, and it was viewed constantly as one of the key elements in the development of the city. Even after the reconstruction of the city, Chisinau was considered as a locality with the largest number of preserved historic buildings.
The status of historic city of Chisinau was reconfirmed in 1993, when by the Decision of the Parliament nr. 1531-XII from the 22nd of June 1993 the city center, together with a large number of XIX-XX century buildings, was declared as a historic and architectural monument of national importance, being included in the Register of Monuments of the Republic of Moldova protected by the state. Nevertheless, no municipal structures for protecting, restoring and valuing the architectural patrimony of the capital have been created whatsoever.

The overall context in which the city has developed after the 92 may be interpreted as if things have been intentionally left to degrade, in order to force the people to move elsewhere and to build here a different urban structure, to produce modernization by negating the historically built heritage. Following this policy of negligence the city residents woke up in a mutilated city, with dispossessed public spaces, with a disfigured and hyperpopulated historic center because of the constructions placed in the very core of the old city, and the culmination of this irresponsible strategy of city management will be the construction of Cantemir Boulevard, planned to pass, according to the Master Plan (PUG) and Zonal Plan (PUZ), directly through the historic city center.

Modernization strategies imposed in Yerevan and Bucharest

In this context it is useful to mention here several examples (study cases) of radical approaches of urban planning and development, which can be followed in the context of post-Socialist countries and which denotes a set of similar practices by the way they are implemented. The similarities are related not only to the neo-liberal logic, but also to the fact that they recycle outdated plans of development (elaborated 30-40 years ago), such as the case of Cantemir Boulevard in Chisinau, of the pedestrian boulevard – Northern Avenue in Yerevan, but also of the construction of Buzesti – Berzei Axis in Bucharest, also known as Buzesti-Berzei-Uranus boulevard.

The enlargement of the boulevard by building the Buzesti – Berzei Axis in Bucharest is a very recent example of applying this type of urban policies. It’s a project in progress with grave consequences on the old area of the city and which has been monitored and contested by the civil society in Romania. However, the idea of this type of city development is routed in 1935 urban plan, when a new boulevard was conceived following almoust similar path.

A marker regarding the destructive treatment applied to the city is the building in Haralambie Botescu Square nr. 18, part of the ensemble type historic monument “Calea Grivitei”. The house was built at the end of XIX century in an eclectic style with decorative elements of Oriental influence. The details of the Zonal Plan (PUZ) of the Protected Construction Zone nr. 2 – Calea Grivitei, approved by HCGMB nr.34/2009, provided “obligatory conservation” for this building. The Detailed Plan approved by HCGMB 132/2013 for this segment of the Buzesti – Berzei Axis regulated the preservation of an important part of the building and reorienting the central façade. That should have been done, according to some declarations of the project designer of the Zonal Plan (PUZ) from 2011, by 16 degrees. Later, due to lack of time and/or resources the building was demolished over night completely, and the conditions imposed by the project have not been respected. In general, the solution seems to violate and ignore any operation that would provide some minimal effort in order to preserve the real estate patrimony.

We can find a comparable example today, the Northern Avenue recently built in Yerevan and inaugurated by the local authorities with much pomposity in 2012. Being designed by the main architect of the city Alexander Tamanian in 1924, it was not implemented during the Soviet period. Still a decade after the disintegration of Soviet Union, the City Council of Yerevan decided to proceed to its construction, which began in 2002, based on Alexander Tamanian’s initial plan, but developed and redesigned by architect Jim Torosyan. According to the initial plan, the National Gallery and the History Museum in Republic Square, have not been planned to be built on the present location, so that the boulevard ends near these buildings, without having an opening towards the Republic Square, therefore it has no finality and no opening which would allow the fluidization of the pedestrian traffic.

In order to have an impression on the ampleness of the project we will mention that the Boulevard consists mainly of commercial spaces and luxury apartments with a total surface of 320.000 square meters, and that also includes underground garages for 2000 cars. In this pedestrian boulevard, which is 27 meters wide there have been invested 101 billion drams (more than 330 million dollars), and at the official inauguration of the boulevard, which took place on the 16th of November 2007 president Robert Kocharyan mentioned that the Republic Square and Northern Avenue represent the “business cards” of Yerevan.

But let us see what are the real consequences and costs of this project. The construction of the Northern Avenue has been financed by the private sector. The mechanism functioned as follows: the government purchased all small properties along the route of the boulevard which was to be constructed, gathered those lots into larger grounds, all this being made in order to create conditions for developers and investments, after which the government auctioned them.
This process has been conducted section by section, and this provoked waves of protests from the owners of the grounds purchased abusively. Finally, after the adopting in 2001 of an arbitrary law that was later called “state needs” there have been infringed the Armenian Constitution and the first protocol from Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which led to the redistribution of properties. As a result of this decision taken by the government of Armenia, over 40 citizens of the state have been dispossessed under the pretext of state needs, and have been left homeless and lost even their certificate of residence, losing also some of their constitutional rights.

Analyzing the impact of these policies we may ask ourselves, what is the logic behind these wide machinations? For whose benefit are these boulevards built, with unrecoverable interventions at the level of urban texture? These interventions provoke the destruction of urban/social fabric, and cause grave consequences as the ones that took place in Yerevan, Bucharest and most certainly will take place in Chisinau?

D. Cantemir Boulevard – an instrument of gentrification of the core city center

The adoption of the Master Plan of Chisinau in 2007 represents in our view a culmination of the neo-liberal vision with negative consequences upon the architectural patrimony in the historic center. The solutions promoted by the new Master Plan include: cutting directly through the historic center of a boulevard (the D. Cantemir Boulevard), enlargement of a section which would occasionally imply demolition and in some cases considerable enlargement of other streets, etc., all this involving the modification of the old street structure and the demolition of an important part of 19th-20th century city heritage.

The construction of D.Cantemir boulevard had been initiated as early as the 80ies, to be continued in the following time, but because of the economical, social and finally political changes at the end of the 80ies they have not been possible. Actually the Cantemir Bd. Project is anchored in recent history and represents a reminiscence of the Mater Plan developed under the leadership of A.Shchiusev. Through that vast project (elaborated between 1945-1947) it was intended that the “lower” zone of the city to be synchronized with the “higher” zone of Chisinau, from XIX century. Now we can only be dismayed that the older part of the city was not perceived as a historic monument, of a certain value. Then it was considered that its value can be neglected and therefore it can be demolished without hesitation, and because Shchiusev’s name had importance, this idea passed from project to project and has been followed like an axiom. According to the present Master Plan the D.Cantemir Boulevard could be constructed as to reach Cosmonauts street, as far as the surroundings of the National Bank, and according to the initial project from 1972 the boulevard (now Cantemir) was supposed to be enlarged as far as Calea Iesilor street.

Going over we can affirm with certainty that the construction of the D.Cantemir axis involves the loss of some buildings which are important for the identity of the city and that this makes the area more fragile. In addition, there are arguments that, once built, the road will not resolve even the traffic problem. Actually, the break would stimulate the circulation on this portion of the city, bearing in mind that Chisinau is pierced in its lower part by several boulevards of this kind, Following the public debates on the Master Plan there has been expressed the opinion that the encouragement to traverse the city through “lower” zone of the city has no more justification, because it will lead to its over agglomeration. By contrary, there should be encouraged the circulation through inner and outer surrounding roads.
After the unsuccessful experiences of the 60s-70s, Western cities have renounced to break and enlarge the urban roads. The cities from the entire Europe and the ones from USA don’t conduct works for car infrastructure in the central zone because of the negative effects generated by these through excessive pollution, space segregation and especially traffic blocking.

Instead of conclusion

A new paradigm must be introduced in the local administration’s perception and into the neo-liberal logic through which it is intended to manage the city and its protected historical center, that implies the removal of the traffic from the “lower” part of the city and an investment in protecting the real estate patrimony and conservation of historic core of the city.
Actually there would be some efficient solutions for solving the transport problem, such as to renounce to the idea of building D.Cantemir Bd (modifying/replacing the idea of boulevard with a different project based on non-destructive principles), withdrawal of the objectives which attract the transport in the central area – large stores, the central market, many offices, the intercity bus station, which must find their place in the city periphery.

The opinion of local architects, urbanists that opposes the project is that the most adequate solution for the fluidization of the traffic would be to move/direct the traffic towards Albisoara street, which can be widened without demolition and without major investments and transforming it into a street of municipal importance, redirection the transport by avoiding the center. Another fundamental measure at this moment would be to elaborate a new approach regarding the rehabilitation of the historic zone of the city with emphasis on the downtown part of the city based on preserving the social tissue and protecting the habitat built until now. The format of a public-private partnership may be another solution that would allow to elaborate and implement an alternative project to Cantemir boulevard. There is the impression that such solutions are not sufficiently explored by the city administration which could overcome the blocking at the level of ideas.

A possible force that could determine the city authorities to adopt a new strategy lays in the hands of a group of civic initiatives, such as: “My Dear City” association, “Save My Green Chisinau” initiative, “Postmen of Chisinau” movement, some other civic groups and associations which have affirmed within the recent period, signalling abuses, deficiencies, deviations, in some cases demolitions of buildings of major importance (a notorious example being the demolition of the Post office building on Vlaicu Parcalab Street) approved by the municipal administration, infringement of legislation and direct abuses in city administration. There are hopes that these civic initiatives could form a solid coalition, a lever through which urban policies could be brought to respect the law on protecting the real estate patrimony and this became an imperative that cannot be ignored any more.

A ghost boulevard is haunting the city and it is difficult to anticipate if it will be build as it happens in Yerevan and Bucharest or not. What we certainly could observe is that some building already popped-up along the red lines delimited by planed boulevard in the Master Plan and this are the signs that in fact the boulevard is slowly materializing. Following the fast tempo in which the malls are built for current consumption and the residential blocks – investments that bring profit, we can affirm that the city has many chances to become a dormitory-city with a XIX-XXth century center which gradually transforms into an extended commercial complex and which practically returns to its initial form of provincial fair.

It is clear that D.Cantemir boulevard is not a real necessity for the inhabitants and will affect severely the core of city center on many levels and the question is what shell we do to stop it?

Chisinau, 2017