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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UNESCO Asks for Pause on Tower

The United Nations cultural arm, UNESCO, has asked Russia to withhold permission for a 320-meter skyscraper in St. Petersburg until it has assessed the impact on the city's historic skyline.

The request is the weightiest intervention yet in a project that many conservationists say could destroy the city's unique silhouette of canals, bridges and 18th-century palaces.

Gazprom wants to build the tower near the center of St. Petersburg -- an area listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site -- to house its offices and trumpet the country's resurgence as an economic powerhouse and global player.

The request was issued by the World Heritage Committee, a body empowered under an international treaty to monitor sites included on UNESCO's World Heritage list and ensure that they do not violate the list's requirements.

Mechtild Rossler, head of European and American heritage at UNESCO's World Heritage Center, said Friday that the committee had asked the authorities to refrain from issuing any building permits for now.

This was to allow it to review "whether the outstanding universal value of heritage has been fully assessed and whether this outstanding universal value has been damaged."

The request was made at a session of the committee in New Zealand that ended on July 2. Gazprom and Russian officials were not immediately available for comment.

"This strong action is very much to be welcomed," said Clementine Cecil, co-founder of the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society, which has campaigned against the Gazprom Tower.

The skyscraper, in a derelict industrial area on the edge of St. Petersburg's historical center, will be just a few meters shorter than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, dwarfing the rest of the low-rise cityscape.

Local authorities in St. Petersburg support the tower, though Gazprom has not yet submitted its detailed plans to officials for formal approval.

Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as a "window on Europe," St. Petersburg has survived revolutions, a siege by German invaders in World War II and heavy-handed Soviet planners.

It is held in special affection by Russians who see it as the country's cultural heart.

Gazprom's plan has caused widespread concern in the city, with leading members of the city's cultural elite condemning it.

But President Vladimir Putin, a St. Petersburg native, has not stepped in. Through its gas exports, Gazprom is one of the country's biggest earners of foreign revenue and has close Kremlin ties.

"[St. Petersburg] is one of the few [cities] which have been preserved with this silhouette which is lost all over the other sites in Eastern Europe," said Rossler. "It is one of the few sites which has maintained a certain integrity."