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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tower Critics Planning Referendum

ReutersThe design for Gazprom's headquarters by British firm RMJM was announced at a ceremony at the start of December.
ST. PETERSBURG -- A group of local activists led by politicians from the Yabloko opposition party is pushing ahead with a plan to launch a citywide referendum to decide the fate of Gazprom's proposed skyscraper headquarters.

The 300-meter glass tower, dubbed the "corn on the cob," is slated to be built near the Okhta River estuary and has split the city over its architectural merit. The driving force behind the referendum is the local branch of Yabloko, but the 29-member group comprises a number of figures with no affiliation to the party, and also includes writers and heritage experts.

The St. Petersburg Electoral Commission is currently reviewing the referendum proposal submitted on Dec. 29, and a decision is due before the end of this week.

If the commission approves the proposal and the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly conforms to legal standards, the activists will start gathering signatures. The law allows for 30 days to collect the signatures of 2 percent of local voters. There are 3.7 million voters in St. Petersburg.

However, Mikhail Amosov, a Yabloko deputy at the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, has already accused the Electoral Commission of bias.

"They initially rejected our proposal on ridiculous grounds, claiming that some letters did not match in several people's names," Amosov said.

"To make matters worse, when we came to their office for the second time, we found out that another group of activists had just submitted an identical proposal, so we have a doppelganger now," he said.

"In politics, a doppelganger means that someone is afraid of you."

Activists are putting forward two questions for their referendum, both addressing the issue of the height of the planned construction.

The first question asks voters to agree whether, in order to preserve the image of St. Petersburg, the height of the new Gazprom headquarters should be limited to 48 meters, as stipulated by city legislation.

The second question is more open-ended and asks if maximum height limitations should be strictly enforced.

Height limitations -- which differ for each district -- are blatantly abused, said local architect Dmitry Butyrin, head of the city Union of Architects' Council for the Protection of Architectural Legacy.

"It is happening more and more often, and this situation will be a litmus test for the city," Butyrin said.

At the Dec. 3 ceremony to announce the winning design by British architects RMJM, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller referred to the controversial tower as "a new economic symbol of St. Petersburg."

But these views have been questioned by some prominent cultural figures in St. Petersburg.

"If they build this tower, I think that next time we need to renew the paint on the Hermitage, I won't have to ask what color to use," said State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, referring to building codes that govern the appearance of the city's historic buildings.

Actor Oleg Basilashvili was even more forthright in his assessment.

"By erecting such a building in the city center, they are spitting right in my face," he said.