Property Values Threaten St. Petersburg Landmarks

bloombergNovaya Gollandiya, a former navy depot, will get a $400 million renovation.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Property values have more than quadrupled after seven years of growth to an average of $1,800 per square meter in St. Petersburg, said Itaka, a local real estate firm.

The boom has inspired developers to restore gritty and dilapidated historical properties to their former grandeur, yet preservationists say property developers are flaunting laws and altering the historical center.

While there was little new construction in the center after postwar rebuilding in the late 1940s, the past 18 months have seen the first glass-and-concrete, post-modernist buildings rise. Developers have recently begun demolishing tsarist-era buildings, such as the barracks of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

In 2004-05, a local developer, Corporation C, tore down a 19th-century building at 3 Kazanskaya Street and put up a sleek, four-story, glass-and-concrete structure to house a luxury department story, Vanity Opera. Cultural figures and preservationists, such as Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky, say it clashes with the surrounding pre-revolutionary buildings.

Preservationists' worst nightmare, however, could materialize next year if Gazprom proceeds with a 300-meter-high office tower across the river from the historical center. To sweeten the deal for a politically powerful investor, St. Petersburg City Hall has indicated it is willing to waive zoning laws restricting height to 70 meters.

"I'm not against new construction and architectural styles, but just don't do it in or near the historical center," said Alexander Margolis, head of the St. Petersburg Historical Preservation Foundation. "City Hall makes too many concessions to developers, and if this continues, in 15 years the city will lose the architectural harmony that makes it one of the most beautiful cities in the world."

The most ambitious recent project is Novaya Gollandiya, a 7.6- hectare island built by Peter the Great in the early 18th century that until last year served as a navy depot. The $320 million to $400 million project will convert dilapidated storehouses into a commercial and cultural hub, with 180,000 square meters of space that will include three luxury hotels with over 500 rooms.

Other projects have aroused intense debate and resistance. Three years after the Culture and Press Ministry chose French architect Dominique Perrault to build the new stage of the Mariinsky Opera and Theater, work has not progressed beyond the demolition of a Stalinist-era landmark building and a giant hole in the ground.

To make way for Paradny, billed as a luxury residential and office project, developer Vozrozhdeniye destroyed nine buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries that housed the military base of the elite personal guards of the tsars. Only three historical buildings were left.