Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5-Story 'Slums' Get 9-Story Luxury Update

. PETERSBURG -- There is something oddly familiar about the towering brick building that arose on the city's southeastern edge earlier this year. Peering between the balconies of the building proclaimed as the answer to the city's housing crisis, it is not hard to spot the remaining mottled walls of its predecessor -- the notorious khrushchyovka.

Located at 117 Ulitsa Babushkina, the new building is the first attempt to reconstruct these oft-maligned '50s- and '60s-era homes and provide better living conditions for their residents.

"These buildings in principle allow for such reconstruction, and even provide conveniences that answer to daily needs," said Vadim Movchanyuk, general director of Lenstroytrest-5 and project designer.

By laying a new foundation, wrapping the building in a brick envelope and capping it with another four stories and a shiny mansard roof, the company plans to tackle the rows of similar structures long since declared obsolete.

The 14 billion ruble ($2.7 million) project, which ran from Dec. 1993 to early 1996 and was backed by private investors, increased both the number of apartments from 90 to 108 as well as the total area of living space, which doubled from 2,672 square meters to 4,289 square meters. Total area, including balconies, expanded from 4,214 square meters to 8,152 square meters. Just under half of the old structure was left intact, including the well-worn cement staircases winding up the first five stories.

Built some 40 years ago and billed as "temporary" structures, these five-story buildings were the Soviet Union's nationwide answer to mass housing. Although not communal, apartments were far from comfortable, offering tiny rooms, minuscule kitchens and almost no storage space. It didn't take long for someone to dub these cramped complexes khrushchyovki, after then-General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev -- and then khrushchyoby, a play on the Russian word for "slum." These structures currently house nearly three-quarters of St. Petersburg's residents, and another 70 million across Russia, many of whom long ago lost hope for improving their living conditions.

But while the project offers hope for the buildings, it is uncertain whether the current residents can afford the move.

For Lyuba, a former khrushchyovka resident whose last apartment had no entranceway and a 5-square-meter kitchen, the move was a huge improvement. However, she added, it would never have been possible if her husband hadn't received the apartment at a discounted price through his employer, which she did not name. "For most people, it's probably not affordable."

Zoya Belyayeva, the building's technical manager, said purchase prices averaged $550 per square meter. No prices for the elite, two-story apartments at the very top were available. More than 70 of the apartments have been sold already, Belyayeva said.

Project designer Movchanyuk said he expects the $300-per-square meter reconstruction costs to decrease with future projects as the company's experience increases, thus lowering prices. He said reconstructing an existing building is only half as expensive as tearing down the structure and beginning anew.

In a number of postelection appearances, regional Governor Vladimir Yakovlev expressed an interest in rebuilding these five-story buildings as part of his promised solution to the housing problem. Movchanyuk, who won a contract from the city to construct the building, said his company has yet to receive any positive signals from local authorities for further projects. City officials were unavailable for comment.

Movchanyuk said he is not looking for a handout or rent subsidies from the city, as he has backing from investors. What he needs is the right to move ahead with new buildings, all of which belong to the city's housing fund.

Movchanyuk said Moscow has made tentative arrangements to undertake similar reconstruction projects.

In St. Petersburg, the first building stood empty for 10 years while the city debated how to address the problem. For future projects, residents of the chosen site will be resettled permanently or temporarily in buildings constructed specially for the task during the one-year process envisioned by Movchanyuk.

While the sight of the old facade peering from behind new balconies raises questions over structural integrity, Movchanyuk said reconstruction involves "special, patented technology," including a new foundation that reinforces the building and makes the upper additions possible.

That, combined with the method of wrapping the old building in an outer covering of brick, could theoretically be sufficient to support the new construction, said Sean Henry of Henry Chichester chartered surveyors, although he added he had not seen the actual project.