Legal Setback in Fight Against Okhta Center

ST. PETERSBURG -- The campaign by opposition party Yabloko against the construction of the Okhta Center -- formerly known as the Gazprom Tower -- suffered another setback Wednesday when the St. Petersburg City Court threw out a suit claiming that its funding scheme is illegitimate.

Yabloko argued that City Hall, which has agreed to fund 49 percent of the project, is investing in the project illegitimately, and asked for the funding to be excluded from the city budget for this year.

The rest of the project's costs are to be met by Gazprom, which intends to use part of the massive development for its new headquarters.

On Monday, a group of city residents appealed the St. Petersburg City Court decision to the Supreme Court, Mikhail Belyayev, one of the plaintiffs, told RIA-Novosti.

Yabloko said Governor Valentina Matviyenko had inked the 2008 budget -- including an allocation of 2.9 billion rubles ($123 million) for the construction of Okhta Center this year -- before any technical summaries, a land agreement, or the actual contract between City Hall and Gazprom were ready.

"The governor thus decided to spend taxpayers' money on a project that did not at the time even exist on paper," said Boris Vishnevsky, head of Yabloko's political council.

"The verdict delivered by the city court was not based on law, and the judge simply turned a blind eye to it," he added.

"It is just as absurd as if, say, the traffic police had fined someone last year for violating a rule that was only introduced this year."

Plans for the Okhta Center include the new Gazprom building, which at 396 meters is almost eight times higher than the current official limit for new buildings in the city's historic center. It will stand near where the Okhta River flows into the Neva across from the blue-and-white Smolny Cathedral on the opposite bank.

The tower will be the new headquarters for Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of the national energy giant.

The structure is expected to cost 60 billion rubles ($2.56 billion). City officials say St. Petersburg's contribution would be compensated for by the taxes that will be generated by such a large business and all the staff involved.

Yabloko had called earlier for a citywide referendum on the project, but the move was defeated on a technicality in the city legislature. Yabloko also asked the Prosecutor General's Office to investigate the legality of the funding agreement, but the appeal went nowhere.

Many St. Petersburg residents and members of the city's cultural elite have been blunt in their condemnation of the planned Gazprom tower.

Actor Oleg Basilashvili said its construction would be "spitting in the face" of Peter the Great, who founded the city in 1703.

Nicknames for the tower have proliferated, including Gazochlen (referring to its phallic shape), Gazoscryob (Gas-Scraper), and Matviyenko's Cucumber, in honor of its chief advocate.

In surveys gauging public support for the tower, the numbers have fluctuated widely.

In March, St. Petersburg's Agency for Social Information released the results of a survey that suggested that 46.5 percent of respondents supported the plan to build the tower while 29.5 percent of them were against its construction.

In April, however, Kommersant published a poll conducted by the Megapolis sociological research center that said 40.4 percent of respondents opposed the skyscraper, with only 18.5 percent viewing it favorably.

Meanwhile, a series of television advertisements resembling news reports has run on local television channels, featuring citizen and celebrity endorsements of the tower.

St. Petersburg architect Dmitry Butyrin, who heads the Council for the Protection of the Architectural Legacy of St. Petersburg, believes the planned Gazprom building is a critical test of the city's ability to protect its architectural integrity.

"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."