Underground Work a Hazard in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG -- Underground car parks and shopping centers planned for the center of St. Petersburg could damage adjacent buildings, experts warned last week at a roundtable, calling for a cautious approach to preserve the city's architectural heritage.

"Vast amounts of money have come to the city, and developers want to make a profit quickly. But construction is not a cheap activity in our city," said Alexander Margolis, co-chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments.

Recalling projects that have damaged buildings in the historic center of the city, he suggested that prosecutors should monitor development activities.

The construction of an underground car park for the Nevskij Palace Hotel damaged three surrounding buildings, two of which had to be completely demolished.

"That was the result of the reconstruction of one single building and an attempt to build a relatively small underground car park," said Alexander Kononov, an expert from the preservation group.

The facade of the newly reconstructed Musical Comedy Theater cracked because of construction near the building, he added. Other examples include the damaged facades of the Muruzi House and the Yusupov Palace on the Moika.

Several buildings close to Ploshchad Vosstania were demolished to make way for a new high-speed railway station, which was never completed. A shopping center is currently being constructed in the abandoned pit, putting the facades of nearby buildings at risk, Kononov said.

The Mariinsky Theater's new building, Mariinsky II, required the demolition of several buildings. "Problems with the ground forced developers to postpone the deadline ... and increase the total budget," Kononov added.

Another expert saw the source of the problem in the violation of construction standards.

"Architects should cooperate with engineers and geotechnology experts. But that's not the case in St. Petersburg. Developers turn to geotechnology experts only when something collapses," said Vladimir Ulitsky, head of the building foundations department at St. Petersburg State University of Communications.

"They keep critical experts out of their projects and invite foreign specialists who behave as if they are working in Africa, violating construction standards and damaging the ground structure," Ulitsky said.

The central part of the city, in particular, poses problems for developers, experts said.

"The foundations of 60 percent of buildings are under too much pressure. These buildings are unstable -- that's why they sink and crack," said Rashid Mangushev, head of the geotechnical department at St. Petersburg State Architecture and Construction University.

Mangushev said underground construction would be more efficient outside the center.

"A single car park for 7,000 cars in the city center would not solve the transport problem," Mangushev said.

The experts also expressed concern about the New Holland project, which includes a three-story underground car park and other underground premises.

"We did a historic and cultural examination of New Holland, but most of our recommendations were ... not implemented," said Mikhail Milchik, deputy director of the Spetsproyektrestavratsia research institute.

"Some of the buildings on the island are built on wooden pole foundations. Any change in the level of water underground could damage these poles. According to the project, the underground car park is planned 1.5 meters from the historic buildings," Milchik said.

He also said no technical or engineering project for New Holland had been publicized. "We have seen only an architectural project. This situation is more than odd," he said.

Businessmen were more optimistic about underground development, saying extensive steps were being taken to assure neighboring buildings' safety.

Vladimir Yeroshin, general engineer of Aditum, which is planning the underground shopping center at Ploshchad Vosstania, was also optimistic.

"We examined the ground and foundations in a 50-meter area around the future shopping center. Experts assured us that it is possible to build there without harming the environment," he said.