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Unpopular waterfront development plans still afloat in Berlin

Published: 14 Sep 2010 17:06 GMT+02:00

At the end of Berlin’s Cuvry Strasse, the work of graffiti artist Blu looms large over an empty grassy lot as people mill about inspecting the crumbling wall and its urban art. Nearby, the undeveloped area offers waterfront seats from a stone ledge.

But the other side of the Spree River is a harbinger of things to come, with the chic Universal Music building nestled among a growing collection of other corporate headquarters and hotels.

A Berliner named Sebastian sits on the ledge with his female friend as the sun sets over the river. After living in the German capital for the past 10 years, he has come to accept the city’s constant evolution. “You have to take what it gives you,” he says.

Developers hope that will be the successful completion of the Mediaspree project, an ambitious undertaking to commercialize both sides of the city’s desirable riverfront real estate. But the plans have run into fierce opposition from residents afraid the few remaining undeveloped spots in the centre giving Berlin its unique flavour will be lost in the process.

“It’s a scandal to ignore a public vote,” says Sebastian, referring to the non-binding 2008 referendum that showed the majority of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district residents against the Mediaspree development. “They city shouldn’t have one in the first place if they don’t like the result,” he says.

A multi-tiered property development plan intending to build lofts, hotels and office space along the river, the Mediaspree also happens to threaten some of Berlin’s best-known subculture venues along the river. This has caused friction between backers of the city’s mighty club culture and development boosters hoping to lure telecommunication and media companies to the German capital with the transformation.

The Mediaspree zone runs 3.7 kilometres between Berlin’s Jannowitz Bridge to the west and Elsen Bridge in the east. Since its inception in the 1990s, the city has marketed it as the preferred location for the expansion of a creative cluster of industries.

Three state-owned enterprises, Berliner Hafen- und Lagerhausgesellschaft (Behala), the city’s waste management company BSR and Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin have been designated sections of the Spree waterfront to sell.

The development has made considerable headway in recent years, with the O2 World arena, Universal Music, MTV Networks Germany, as well as a wealth of hotels and office lofts being built. But progress has still not been as rapid as the city government originally expected.

The biggest setback has been the refusal by Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district to allow the construction of a 90-metre high skyscraper at the Elsen Bridge. The district demanded a height limit of 24-metre, meaning investors initially willing to pay €20 million for the land are now only offering €5 million.

“A victory for (Mediaspree opponents) and a disadvantage for us,” says Michael Reimann, a development manager for Behala.

The district has also been adamant about preserving green areas and large open spaces within the development, which decreases rental incomes for potential property investors.

Franz Schulz, mayor of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, feels that one of the positive effects of the Mediaspree development has been to raise awareness of the issue of public accessibility to the riverbank.

“Public discussions and the successful citizens' initiative on the further development of the Spree area were quite effective,” he says, explaining negotiations have indeed resulted in smaller building densities and larger public open spaces on the banks of the Spree.

But the mayor’s words will offer little solace to members of Mediaspree Versenken! (Sink Mediaspree!), a public force that includes leftists, club-goers and other opponents of gentrification.

“This should be a symbol for the whole city and beyond the borders of Berlin,” says group leader Carsten Joost. “It should be a strong sign against this capitalism and commercialisation.”

Spree Urban, an offshoot of the BSR, is in negotiations to commercialize the property called the Timber Market, exactly where Berlin’s legendary riverside club venue Bar25 is located. “Bar25 has to leave the property this year,” says BSR spokesman, Thomas Klöckner. “That’s not talk, that’s what we agreed on, from both sides.”

More than just a club, Bar25 included a cinema, spa and garden, skate park, circus, restaurant, hostel and record label. But on September 10, the venue’s doors closed permanently.

The club’s owners are now looking to move to a new location, but complain about lacking support from city officials usually keen to promote Berlin’s legendary nightlife.

“Berlin’s political representatives seemed unconcerned with sustaining the 200 seasonal jobs that Bar25 represents,” they said recently in a statement. “When it came time to provide concrete assistance, their promises, from the mayor on down, proved empty.”

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

09:02 September 15, 2010 by catjones
The "cool" people simply don't add to the tax base and corporate growth does. The buildings are not just empty shells; they house jobs, the same jobs the "cool" people cry about not having. And the buildings are built by people with hard-earned skills. If you're an educated, experienced and skilled worker, you're probably in favor of the project.
09:40 September 15, 2010 by majura
As someone that works in the 'media' industry, I agree and disagree. The more media based businesses that set up in Berlin, the more likely projects will be produced in Berlin and hence provide work for myself, my wife (also in the same industry) and a lot of our friends. I've worked with the "soulless" people from the "soulless" company that is Universal multiple times. I think you're (Wobinidan) ignorantly stereo-typing like a lot of anti-MediaSpree people do.

I personally love Blu's work and would not want to see it covered up by another venture into boring architecture (or there lack of, that's another issue though. I love new buildings, but they should be interesting and not just economical). I've only ever been 'on location' shooting in that empty lot, but I can see the appeal of wanting to keep it open/available to the public.

I think the biggest issue is that people against MediaSpree tend to assume that we're all 'rich media executives' types. Where in fact, much like real life, there can only be a few 'executives'. The rest of us, whilst not forced to live in public housing, also don't earn triple annual figures, drive BMW 7 series or have a holiday home on Mallorca (not that anyone in their right mind, would).

Also there's no real need for all media companies to generally be centred around the Spree. So much of our work is transferred online or via courier. We communicate though email and phones. I also think that simply by name 'MediaSpree' people assume that it's all occupied by the media industry- which it's not. Just look at the neither beautiful or ugly, but just rather average and boring Treptower Towers.

I also fail to understand how people can demonise the media industry when they themselves are also the consumers of what we produce! I'm not in this industry to make huge profits. I just love film & especially film-sound. Sure I work on other projects to put money in the bank, but it's not about getting rich- I love what I do for a living. If I happen to earn more money then that's great, but I'd still be doing this if I was earning €500 per month.

I do however agree that the city of Berlin has got it wrong. It doesn't help that the city has no capital nor that the city's planners aren't the brightest bunch. Simply trying to say "here, we're going to build new tall shiny buildings and demolish the old ones" doesn't work. What would work is balance. Balance between what developers/industry/residents want and balance between new developments and maintaining/preserving old ones. It shouldn't be about "idiots" that work within media or "soulless" companies. Take a step back, understand that by supporting the media industry in Berlin, you're supporting people that work hard for their income and an alternate industry for the city (not just Tourism). At the same time, fight for balance.
10:01 September 15, 2010 by mexican.wav
Given the recent pruposed building developments in city west and alex, I can't see this enchancing the character of the area.

I wouldnt see the problem in keeping the developments to the other side of the river where the O2 World et all are, there isnt really much going on there and it could make for a nice little skyline for the kreuzbergers, Trying to develop the side of curvystrasse seems like yr asking for trouble though.

The companies will win out though and instead we will be left with a bunch of acrid 90s style architecture "desirable" property covered in paint from all the protesters. Shame.
16:57 September 18, 2010 by iline
I think that anyone like myself or Majura who is actively working in the media has a bit of perspective that seems to be lacking on the both sides of this debate. Berlin with its 20% unemployment needs to build workplaces. Berlin needs to develop and become a capital city rather than an adolescent playground for drug users, which 20 years past Mauerfall, it still is.

I love it for this reason, and I am not proposing that we delete the liberal culture that sets Berlin apart, but I didn't find work here for a year despite years of experience in London's media industry. For that reason I agree that a balanced approach is needed to develop this scheme. I do not understand why this incentive to build business spaces has to be centred on the Spree and I do not understand why the idea is to build high buildings that fail to respect the culture of their location.

We need a scheme that takes into consideration the cultural impact of the devlopment while still offering incentives for property investors. Perhaps the development budget could include re-situating Bar 25 under the Blu painting by Oberbaumbrucke so the ravers and the investors get a respite from this bullshit spouting forth from both sides of the Spree.
05:30 September 20, 2010 by Talonx
@ Iline

Berlin hasn't had 20% unemployment in over 4 years. It's been decreasing drastically as the result of Berlin finds itself an identity as a service industry-oriented city. ( http://berlin.wantedineurope.com/news/news.php?id_n=7159 )

Proof of the strength of Germany's economy, when I first arrived in 2007 it was around 17 % in Berlin, but even through the hard times it's decreased while rates rise elsewhere in the developed world.

Mediaspree is just one in a series of dumb ideas to try and make Berlin something that it's not, another example can be seen at Potsdamer Plz. That's were this administration is taking the entire city. Mediaspree is not only a bad idea because the residents do not want it (this is indisputable), but, additionally, because it will eviscerate the city and create another dead zone like Potsdamer Plz. that even the tourists know better than to go visit, thus killing off bits of the service industry which employs so many gainfully.
16:37 September 23, 2010 by BDannyBoi
For me, the fundamental mistake is the top-down, single-minded notion that by constructing a bunch of buildings and naming it MediaSpree, you can artificially transplant an industry into a city. Instead of spending millions to convince media giants like Universal to move to that strip of land, our tax money would be better spent as seed money to help small, innovative film/music/digital media companies get off the ground.
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