Irkutsk Shows Potential For Reuse Of Historic Buildings

Daria Denisova / For REQ

Historic buildings are often seen as an obstacle rather than an opportunity but private investors in Irkutsk, have been working with conservationists to change the economic logic.

Many of the centuries-old wooden houses in the district known as 130 Kvartal (Block 130), including mansions of former merchants, were in poor repair and some occupants were keen to move out. They now host cafes, offices and restaurants among 56 restored buildings.

Metropol, an investment company founded by Billionaire State Duma deputy Mikhail Slepenchuk, carried the re-development of the project, which began in 2009 and cost around 1.7 billion rubles ($50 million). Local real estate developers, speaking off the record, estimated that the costs were likely two times higher.

The initiative had political and cultural aspects, too. It coincided with a program to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Eastern Siberian city in 2011.

Political observers claim the project was intended to boost the popularity of regional governor, Dmitri Mezentsev, who subsequently left the region in 2012, a year before his term ended.

Before his departure Mezentsev said: "This project had to demonstrate the respectful relationship towards heritage and is an example for the further rebirth of historical Irkutsk."

The combination of business, political and local support ensured the project went ahead and in 2013, the 130 Kvartal was listed by Maindoor Ru, a real estate news site, as being among the top seven Russian architectural landmarks, along with Moscow's Gorky Park and the bridge built for the ASEAN summit.

The idea is not only business but to develop an artistic place.

Private investors backed the project and subsequently put the buildings to use as businesses. The 18th century home of an officer in the tsarist army was restored by Russian Railways and turned into an office and library.

Investors also included Irkutsk businessman Yevgeni Makarov who proposed that the development should offer "entertainment for every price and taste". Several other wooden houses were rented by tourists agencies, a beauty salon and an event agency.

"It is a very important place for me. This is the cleanest place in the city, there you can enjoy spending time. The idea is not only business, but to develop an artistic place," said Elvira, a young coordinator who organizes volunteer projects in the 130 Kvartal, among them charity sales and student-run photo expeditions.

During construction several families living in the wooden houses were relocated to apartments by the city government and some old houses were moved from other places of the city.

The development of the project met with resistance from some preservationists who accused authorities of destroying the original buildings.

Others objected to the construction of modern copies alongside the restored 30 wooden houses, though modern construction in a historical style is common in Germany, for example, where city centers damaged in World War II have been recreated.

One of the two-story buildings, the brick-built mansion of former merchant Alexander Gotlibov, was in a state of devastation, so it was re-built from scratch, said Dmitri Semyonov, the head of the Naоosphere museum, which plans to host a planetarium inside the building.

But the planetarium has not opened on schedule, since the costly equipment, including a Zeiss telescope has not been purchased. The museum is seeking a further 25 million rubles to buy the equipment.

The project has boosted regional tourism and the quarter, also known as Irkutskaya Sloboda, is now a popular attraction. Other Russian cities and towns are not so fortunate. Authorities often prefer to demolish the thousands of wooden homes across Russia to make way for new development.

In March 2013, residents in Vladivostok stopped the local authorities from demolishing the wooden house once occupied by American writer Elonor Pray who lived in the city in early 20th century.

Pray arrived in 1894 with her husband and became a cherished resident, due to her letters and photographs describing the heritage of the Far Eastern city. Published as a book, they have become a local bestseller.

Vladivostok region deputy governor Vladimir Balan promised in April, that he would find a solution "which will satisfy all".