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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN Warns on Tower Ahead of St. Pete Debate

Ohta-center.ruA drawing of the 400-meter Okhta Center tower planned for St. Petersburg.

The United Nations on Friday renewed its warning that St. Petersburg was jeopardizing its status as a World Heritage site, ahead of final public hearings on Gazprom Neft’s plans to build a 400-meter skyscraper visible from within the historic center.

In a statement published Friday, UNESCO expressed its “grave concern that the proposed Okhta Center tower could affect the outstanding universal value of the property.” The organization also asked that the state-run company halt work and submit modified plans, “in accordance with federal legislation and accompanied by an independent environmental impact assessment.”

Preservationists, who have long contended that the tower would be an eyesore amid St. Petersburg’s historic architecture, say the government is trying to ram through approval without the necessary oversight or public discussion.

On Aug. 12, a city commission tentatively approved the tower and scheduled the hearings to discuss the Okhta Center project, designed by Britain-based RMJM Architects.

But protesters — including from Yabloko and the Communist Party — have filed a complaint with the Krasnogvardeisky District Court challenging the scheduling. They say City Hall printed its official announcement in a special issue of the small daily newspaper Nevskoye Vremya, which was only released on the day of the hearings.

The lawsuit also says the city has failed to establish a special land-use commission, which is supposed to be included in the hearings.

The court has yet to rule on the challenge.

“City authorities adopted two laws this year that contradict Gazprom Neft’s plans,” said Antonina Yeliseyeva, an activist of the Zhivoi Gorod movement. “The first, adopted in February, regulates the usage of city land and building policies, the second, adopted in March, determines the architectural protection areas.”

The laws limits buildings’ height to 100 meters and lists a number of places around the city from which no new construction can be visible, she said.

“If the city makes an exception for Gazprom Neft, it will be a dangerous precedent,” she said. “Then we are going to see numerous skyscrapers in the nearest future.”

Gazprom Neft could not be reached for comment Friday, but it has previously alleged that the protesters are being paid by unidentified opponents.

St. Petersburg was originally supposed to finance 49 percent of the project, but because of budgetary problems, state oil producer Gazprom Neft agreed to cover 100 percent of the costs, estimated at 60 billion rubles ($1.9 billion).

“The project is absolutely legitimate because we won it through a fair, architectural competition, and it was chosen by a jury, including the governor and city architect,” said Philip Nikandrov, chief architect on the Okhta Center and director of RMJM’s office in St. Petersburg. “The concept will be discussed Tuesday, during public hearings, and if we get approval, then we will go ahead with the project.”

The development must still be approved by several committees and federal building regulators, a process that could take several months, he said.

“UNESCO’s protest is about emotions, while they should be pointing out specific instances where the law was breached,” he said. “The building is supposed to go up outside the city’s central area.”

The disagreement stems from the fact that St. Petersburg has changed the borders of its historical center since it was included as a UNESCO site in 1990. The tower, which UNESCO says is being built in a buffer zone, now falls outside that area according St. Petersburg’s newly adopted development plan, Nikandrov said.

He also brushed off concerns that the skyscraper would be visible from some of the 130 points specified in the new law.

“If seen from Vasilyevsky Island, for instance, it will look two times lower than Peter and Paul Fortress,” he said.

He compared the debate around the project with the controversies over the construction of the 324-meter Eiffel Tower in the late 1880s.

“Lots of people were opposed to it then, now it has become the landmark of Paris,” he said. “So time will judge, who was right and who was wrong.”

Removing a site from the World Heritage list doesn’t happen every day, UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan said in e-mailed comments, making it clear that the move was still viewed as a last resort.

It has only happened twice: at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany because the sites lost their “outstanding universal qualities,” he said.

Unless changes are made, the historic center of St. Petersburg and related monuments will be put on UNESCO’s danger list.

The development, located on the banks of the Okhta River on the city’s eastern edge, sparked controversy almost as soon as details were announced in December 2006.

The building’s design, reminiscent of an ear of corn, immediately earned it a wealth of unflattering nicknames, most frequently Gazochlen (a reference to its phallic shape), Gazoskryob, or Gas-scraper, and Matviyenko’s Cucumber, in honor of its chief advocate, Governor Valentina Matviyenko.

City Hall maintains that the project would help develop St. Petersburg as a business center and bring Gazprom Neft, a big taxpayer, to the city.