Global Economics

Will New Gazprom Tower Wreck St. Pete?


Opponents say the Russian energy giant's proposed 1,300-foot skyscraper threatens St. Petersburg's architectural heritage

In an Internet game that has caught on quickly here, players throw apples at a monster with a striking similarity to the mythical Japanese beast Godzilla.

This Russian monster, Gazzilla, creates havoc behind the silhouettes of St. Isaac's Cathedral and other famous landmarks of Russia's former capital. The winner is the player who kills Gazzilla with a direct hit on the head. But this beast, despite its great size, is agile, and landing a fatal blow is not easy.

And so it may turn out in a real-life struggle. For Gazzilla represents a vast skyscraper, which the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom plans to build by the Neva River. And objectors want to kill off what they see as its monstrous intrusion into their historic landscape before the plans leave the drawing board.

The new Gazprom building, as designed, will be a twisting 396-meter tower, no less than eight times as high as the current official limit for new buildings in the city's beautifully proportioned historic center. It will stand near where the Okhta River flows into the Neva across from the famous white-and-blue Smolny Cathedral on the opposite bank.

The tower is to be the new headquarters for Gazprom Neft, a subsidiary of the national energy monopoly, in St. Petersburg. And those who oppose it are now pitched against a corporate enemy of truly Herculean strength. The main headquarters of Gazprom would remain in Moscow.

GOVERNMENT ENDROSEMENT

The structure is expected to cost $2.3 billion, to be funded jointly by Gazprom and St. Petersburg. City officials say that St. Petersburg's contribution would be compensated for by the taxes that will be generated by the move to the city of such a large chunk of business and all the staff involved.

Governor Valentina Matviyenko supports the project.

"St. Petersburg should be happy that the No. 1 company in Russia is coming to the city," she said. And Gazprom's chief executive, Alexei Miller, said the tower will be "a new economic symbol for St. Petersburg."

But the new symbol is not to everyone's taste. Indeed the grandiose project prompted a public protest on 8 September, when 5,000 people took to the streets in a "March for the Preservation of St. Petersburg."

The marchers claimed the tower would wreck a historic skyline. As planned it would be well over twice as high as the Peter and Paul Fortress, now the city's tallest building, and more than three times taller than both the city's historic cathedrals, Smolny and St. Isaac's. The planned height of nearly 400 meters would put the tower among the 10 tallest buildings in the world.

"There is hardly any Russian citizen who can say that the fate of St. Petersburg leaves them indifferent," said Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader of the opposition party Yabloko who attended the demonstration.

"I still remember my first visit here as a little boy, when my parents showed me a city of extraordinary grace. And of course I was bewildered to learn that a titanic monster, advertised as a symbol of modernity, is being forced on this beautiful city."

Earlier this year Yabloko called for a citywide referendum on the project but this move was defeated on a technicality in the city legislative body. Yabloko also asked the General Prosecutor's Office to investigate the legality of the funding agreement between Gazprom and the city government.

St. Petersburg residents attending the protest march were blunt in their condemnation of the planned Gazprom tower. Renowned actor Oleg Basilashvili said its construction would be "spitting in the face" of Peter the Great, the tsarist founder.

Among opponents of the plan nicknames for the structure have proliferated, including Gazochlen (hinting at its phallic shape), Gazoscryob (Gas-scraper), and "Matviyenko's Cucumber" after its chief advocate, the city governor.

THREAT TO UNESCO STATUS

But, while the protesters have made their point forcefully, Gazprom may have a more dangerous opponent in the shape of the UN's cultural body, UNESCO. The tower could even cause St. Petersburg to lose its prized place on the list of UNESCO's World Heritage sites. St. Petersburg is one of only three Russian cities on the list

Marcio Barbosa, UNESCO's deputy head, told reporters in Moscow this month that Russia has been asked to halt all development work on the project until the organization has investigated its possible risks to St. Petersburg's architectural legacy.

"To use soccer terminology, we have issued a yellow card to the city," Barbosa said. "If the situation does not improve, the next logical step is a red card. This means we will have to move St. Petersburg onto the list of endangered sites."

He said a final vote to decide the city's fate would take place during UNESCO's 32nd session in Quebec in 2008.

It was in May that the director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, Francesco Bandarin, sounded the first warning to Russia. He called the plan "the most visible problem in St. Petersburg" and called its controversial design unacceptable.

But St. Petersburg city officials appear unmoved. Vice Governor Mikhail Oseyevsky argued that UNESCO "does not have any official position on the project because its experts have not yet seen the final version."

And the British architectural company that won the contest to design the tower, RMJM, is also defiant. The head of its St. Petersburg office, Philip Nikandrov, said UNESCO "does not have any authority over our company and cannot dictate to us what to do."

This does not placate St. Petersburg architect Dmitry Butyrin, who heads the Council for the Protection of the Architectural Legacy of St. Petersburg. He believes the planned Gazprom building is a critical test of the city's ability to protect its architectural integrity.

FEARS OF A TOWER CITY

"Height regulations are being violated blatantly, and it is happening more and more often," Butyrin said. "If we swallow the Gazprom plan, more towers will quickly follow. We have nothing against Gazprom but we strongly suggest that an alternative location should be found."

Other opponents argue that other jarring new buildings are already going up in the historic center and that if this continues, future generations will have to rely on old photographs to recapture the city's beauty.

Historian Yelena Malysheva, who chairs a residents' group, Okhtinskaya Duga, said people's rights are being shamelessly violated.

"If a wealthy investor points to a plot of land, the authorities will happily demolish all residential buildings -- even ones with historic significance -- if they get in the way of a plum project," she said. "The whole process is lawless!"

Earlier this year, the U.K.-based World Monuments Fund, a leading heritage protection body, placed St. Petersburg on its list of the world's 100 most endangered historic sites, alongside war-torn Iraq, sinking Venice, and hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

Mikhail Amosov, who used to chair the town planning committee of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, said the lack of an effective planning code is at the root of the problem. He said he and other legislators drafted such a code in December but that it has yet to be discussed.

"For cities like St. Petersburg, with a stunning historic landscape, it's essential to have detailed protective legislation and construction policies," Amosov said. "There must be rules that ensure that the city's economic development doesn't happen at the cost of its unique appearance."

Amosov complains that some companies are being allowed to break existing height limits and that it's far from clear how this is done. He implies that the lack of a town planning code may facilitate corruption.

"City Hall is not interested in passing a clear code because it would put an end to certain murky construction practices, which apparently benefit some officials," he said.


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