New Offices Rise Around Old Believer Church

MTA construction worker passing in front of the bell tower of the century-old Church of Nikolai the Miracle Worker last week.
A muddy bulldozer scooped up giant gulps of dirt and dumped them into a nearby hole. The squeal and rumble of the machine's engine bounced off the white wall of the small Old Believer church a few meters away.

"We can hear the bells, but less now with all the construction," said Father Alexei Lopatin, priest of the Church of Nikolai the Miracle Worker at the Tver Gate.

In a little less than a year, real estate investment and development firm AIG/Lincoln has sent three office buildings shooting into the sky near Belorussky Station. While the structures radiate from a circle on a pedestrian mall, their actual focus will be the white church and its green cupolas just across from that circle.

And while the project promises to help fill the burgeoning demand for office space in the city center, it has also raised questions about how best to develop around Moscow's historical monuments.

The White Square Office Center on Lesnaya Ulitsa will initially have three independent buildings -- two with 15 stories, one with six stories -- providing 74,000 square meters of Class-A office space, according to the web site of Jones Lang LaSalle, which served as an agent for the deal.

The complex, a joint venture between AIG/Lincoln Eastern Europe and Coalco, will also have restaurants, a fitness center, shops and additional amenities, including three levels of underground parking.

AIG/Lincoln is expecting the project's general contractor, Enca, to finish it by the fourth quarter of 2008, said Alexei Kryuchkov, a real estate analyst for Alfa Bank, adding that he thought it would not be completed until "sometime in 2009." An additional building of 50,000 square meters is also planned for 2009, Kryuchkov said.

AIG/Lincoln declined to comment on the project.

The first three buildings have already been leased by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & Touche and McKinsey & Company, Kryuchkov said, highlighting the demand for central office space.

"This is a very good location, between the Third Ring Road and the Garden Ring. Also, it has direct access to Sheremetyevo Airport and is a one-minute walk from the metro," he said.

"One advantage the project has is the view of the church," he said. "But the main factors that affect real estate value are location, the tenants, accessibility to the metro and the developer itself," Kryuchkov said.

"I would say the architects did a good job in designing the project," he added.


Aig / Lincoln
An artist's depiction of the White Square Office complex on Lesnaya Ulitsa.


Architectural experts, however, were somewhat less enthusiastic about the White Square complex.

"The buildings are plain. This is fast and cheap architecture. We can't say the buildings use the church, but they respect it. The buildings focus attention on it. They make it more important," said Marina Khrustalyova, the head of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society.

The area was originally home to a group of historic two- and three-story buildings, which "made a picturesque corner of old Moscow. If anything, this was a pity and a real loss," Khrustalyova said.

But in the troubled, hundred-year history of the church, its massive new neighbor constitutes little more than an asterisk.

Construction began in 1914 by a leading member of Moscow's small Old Believer community, but was held up by the firing of the architect and the October Revolution. The church was consecrated only in 1921 -- the last consecration in Soviet Moscow, the church's web site said.

After being closed in 1935, it was used by the government as a storage facility and then as a sculpture studio. The church was transferred back to the Old Believers in 1993, and the first public service was held in August 1995.

"We aren't against the business complex and we're not for it. It's just unavoidable. The city is changing. If I had my way, there would be a green pedestrian zone around my church. But I understand that that's unrealistic for the center Moscow," Lopatin said.

Even if he and his parish were dead set against the construction, it would have been difficult for them to do anything about it.

In Russia, both the Orthodox Church and the Old Believer Church only have "right to use" agreements, meaning that they can use the territory but do not own it.

"They didn't speak to me about the project. I only think about what is going on inside the church. I focus on the souls of my parishioners," said Lopatin. "It is all in the hands of God. This is what happens and it is not up to us to understand," he said.

While Khrustalyova, of the preservation society, said the complex did not violate the legal protective boundary of the church or illegally block it from being seen from the street, a pensioner summed up the ambivalence many feel about the loss of old Moscow.

"Probably we want this progress -- jobs, buildings and money. So this is good. Things need to change," said the 60-year-old man, standing on the steps of the church.

But, "these new buildings will be higher than the church," he said, observing the construction under way.

"In Russian history the church was always the highest building in the city. It was meant to bring us closer to God. Now the businessmen are higher," he said.