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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete Homeowners Face Judgment Day

For MTRowers gliding past a wooded section of St. Petersburg's Krestovsky Island.
ST. PETERSBURG - Only one thing stands in the way of the Presidential Property Department's plan to build homes for the judges of the Constitutional Court on Krestovsky Island: the apartment building at 7 Ulitsa Esperova.

The other buildings on the 5-hectare plot, including a kindergarten and a preschool, have been cleared along with many of the trees. But the residents of 7 Ulitsa Esperova refuse to budge. For months they've been feeling the heat, especially since President Vladimir Putin signed off on the court's relocation from Moscow to St. Petersburg in early February.

"We're under constant pressure," said Alexander Gomon, head of the building's homeowners' association.

Not long ago someone set fire to three beds in vacant apartments. Gomon suspects arson.

"It's lucky we were home and called the fire department in time," he said. "My neighbor's 9-year-old son was running through the hallway, shouting, 'I don't want to be burned alive!' That's how they're trying to force us to leave. Now we make sure that someone's always in the building. You never know what might happen."

The city first tried to evict the residents by condemning the building. They challenged the condemnation order in district court, and won.

The city successfully appealed the ruling. But the residents' lawyer, Yevgeny Baklagin, said the higher court's judgment was short on logic.

"The city court ruled that the condemnation order applied only to renters, not to owners." All of the building's renters have since been moved out.

"It follows that the owners' rights have not been affected, and they have no standing to sue," Baklagin said. "But any reasonable person can see that if the building is condemned, this affects the interests of everyone who lives in it."

dmitry kashcheyev / for mt
The building at 7 Ulitsa Esperova, center, stands in the way of construction.
The building is listed as condemned in official documents, Baklagin said.

Apartment owners in the building insist that if the government wants them to move, it should pay the market price - $15,000 per square meter, realtors say - for their homes as required by the law on eminent domain. Instead, they've been offered $3,500 per square meter or new apartments on the outskirts of the city.

"Housing for the country's top judges should be built in particularly strict accordance with the law," Baklagin said. "But they don't even have a building permit."

Among other purported violations, Baklagin said the city's General Plan, the official blueprint for new construction, shows a road - not a housing development - on the site.

The St. Petersburg Property Management Committee declined to comment on the dispute. The city's Construction Committee said the housing development was a federal project and referred all questions to the Presidential Property Department. The department's St. Petersburg office also declined to comment.

Krestovsky Island, situated between the Srednyaya Nevka and Malaya Nevka rivers in the Neva delta, is largely given over to a park with ponds, beaches and sports facilities.

One early victim of the Constitutional Court housing development was the Energia rowing club, which had been in operation for more than a century and produced dozens of Olympic champions.

The club was closed down last year around the same time that one of its fomer members, Larisa Merk, was winning a world championships medal.

"The club had a very rich tradition," Merk said last week. "The veterans would come to row, even grandmothers in their 70s."

"It was a real family of athletes. We literally lived there. The younger rowers who worked with us have been scattered among various training centers. It has all fallen apart," she said.

The city had not made good on its promise to provide Energia with a new home.

"Krestovsky Island used to be a place where the city could come to exercise," former Energia director Vladimir Druzhkov said. "Now it's quickly turning into one big construction site."

More than 20 sports, education and cultural facilities have already been destroyed in the rush to develop Krestovsky Island, with or without building permits.

Many residents are pushing to have all of the islands in the Neva River delta, including Yelagin, Kamenny and Krestovsky, protected from further construction and developed as a public rest and recreation zone.

But the Constitutional Court housing development is just one of the major projects under way on the island.

Alexander Karpov of EKOM, an independent environmental organization, said that if the city goes ahead with all of the plans currently under consideration, the island will become little more than another leafy suburb.

Of the island's 365 hectares, 170 are already occupied by various buildings, roads and other facilities. Proposed new construction could consume another 80 hectares, destroying not just the park but the island's ecosystem, Karpov said. Worst of all, new development could restrict public access to the shoreline.

Meanwhile, the residents of 7 Ulitsa Esperova continue their uphill battle to hold on to their homes.