200 Seven Sisters for a New Moscow

MTEdelweiss is the only finished building of the New Moscow Ring, which calls for 200 skyscrapers in the next 8 years.
Perched over the Semyonovskaya metro station, the Monte Falcone office building stands 16 partially constructed floors tall. When finished, it will feature 35 stories of mid-priced glass-and-steel commercial space.

And if City Hall has anything to say about it, Monte Falcone will be the 21st century's answer to the so-called Seven Sisters, the Stalin-era skyscrapers that are among the city's most recognizable buildings.

Monte Falcone is one of the first of 200 high-rises intended to become Moscow's new calling card to the world. About 70 percent of the space created will be residential. Twenty-five percent will be office space and the remainder will house municipal government offices.

Yet, where the Seven Sisters were decorated with sweeping arches and crenellated gables and were graced by ministers and movie stars, Monte Falcone, when finished, will be a nondescript office building accommodating middle managers and secretaries.

"It's just an office building, not the best one or the most interesting one," said Ilya Shershnyov, the development director of Swiss Realty Group, which is in charge of the building's marketing campaign.

The city's $5 billion New Moscow Ring, as the building campaign is called, is to be completed by 2015. Sixty lots have been set aside for the hundreds of 30- to 50-story skyscrapers, most located between the Third Ring Road and the Moscow Ring Road.

Construction firms purchase the rights to develop the lots -- usually former industrial zones or areas that have been cleared of older, decrepit buildings -- at open auctions. The bidding starts at $23 million per plot.

Since the program first received City Hall's blessing in 1999, however, only one building has been completed.

But the program has been gaining momentum in recent weeks, as federal and city authorities rush to solve a housing shortage that has seen Moscow apartment prices soar an unprecedented 100 percent in the past year.

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday convened a special meeting to discuss a $770 million plan to increase the amount of affordable housing under construction nationwide.

And Valery Zhilov, general director of New Moscow Ring, the company created to oversee the project, said the program would benefit those who need housing, from people newly arrived to Moscow to those who are already in line for public housing.

"The program is placing an emphasis on putting needy people in these buildings," Zhilov said.

But with real estate prices setting new records each week, even the best-intended City Hall plans could fall before market forces.

On Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the two towers of the 43-story Edelweiss apartment building dwarf Victory Park's lesser spires. The building, which opened in late 2005, is the New Moscow Ring's sole finished product.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
The 1955 Hotel Ukraina, a "Sister"
Edelweiss' parking lot is filled with new cars, many of them Mercedes, Land Rovers and other expensive makes. A security station monitors the gates into the complex's expansive parking lot.

While its pointed turrets make an effort to echo their Stalin-era counterparts, Edelweiss' residents don't brook comparison.

"It's not an analogue," said Sergei, a 34-year-old banker. "The architecture and the ambition of this building aren't the same."

Sergei, who declined to give his last name, said he had moved into the building in June and hadn't heard about the New Moscow Ring since he signed a contract in 2003.

"I thought they'd given up on that," he said. "And this building is hardly public housing. I paid $8,000 per square meter."

Sitting at his desk under a portrait of Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Zhilov listed the program's goals: housing the city's growing population and improving Moscow's infrastructure by building roads and public spaces in addition to skyscrapers.

In New Moscow Ring's office suite on Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa, tables are covered with models of proposed buildings. The Moscow of 2020, Zhilov said, would amaze people living in the city today.

"The city's new look won't only be commercial, but social," he said. In the process of rebuilding Moscow, Zhilov added, no architectural innovations should be expected, since "even for a good architect, it's difficult to do anything special with a 30- to 50-floor building."

Although progress has been slow to date, Zhilov and other city officials say the program is ready to take off after years of planning that included studying cities from Tokyo to Houston.

Thirty-seven of the 60 plots are currently under development. Last Thursday, an unidentified developer bought the rights to a lot in northeast Moscow for $60 million, and this Friday, another lot will be auctioned.

Back at Monte Falcone, a woman and her 5-year-old grandson watched workers weld and hammer as the sun set Saturday evening.

A sign on the building site says that Monte Falcone will be a 33-story high-rise and part of the New Moscow Ring. The company's promotional literature states the building will have 35 stories.

The woman explained to her grandson that the workers were building a bank. The New Moscow Ring, she said, was probably the name of the bank.

"And it is going to be so tall, and so beautiful. The Lomonosov building, Moscow State University, that's only 27 floors," she said, referring to one of the seven sisters. "This is going to be 33."