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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clashes Erupt Over Gazprom Skyscraper

Public hearings on Gazprom Neft’s controversial Okhta Center in St. Petersburg became heated Tuesday, with several opposition activists detained and advocates of the project insisting that the tower needed to be 400 meters high to protect against suicide bombers.

Around 500 people met at the Hotel Karelia for a final public debate on the $1.9 billion development, which will now be sent to city authorities for approval. St. Petersburg City Hall has enthusiastically backed the project.

Many residents oppose the construction, however, and security officers prevented several dozen people from entering the hotel, local news portal Fontanka.ru reported.

Members of the banned National Bolsheviks party sneaked into the hearings, unfurled flags with the hammer and sickle and shouted, “Your hearings are a farce” and “No to Gazprom-City,” according to a statement on the group’s web site. Several members were detained and one, Yevgeny Polonsky, suffered head wounds, the statement said.

St. Petersburg police could not be reached for comment.

Despite the scandal, Gazprom Neft was “pleased with the constructive discussion,” said Andrei Vermishev, spokesman for the oil company’s unit building the center.

“Opposition leaders tried to disrupt the meeting, showing just how ready they are for discussion,” he said. “They brought knives, pepper spray, brass knuckles and eggs, but thanks to the security officers, the arsenal was confiscated and shown to reporters who attended the meeting.”

The National Bolsheviks brushed off the accusations. “These are lies, but we’re used to such provocations,” said Alexander Averin, a spokesman for the group. “We never use banned items. It would be just stupid on our part not to be aware of the punishment in the Criminal Code for carrying cold steel.”

Fontanka.ru released a photo showing an arrangement of several pocket knives and pepper spray bottles, a set of brass knuckles and a pair of scissors.

Moderate opposition leaders were also present, but they didn’t hear anything constructive, said Antonina Yeliseyeva, an activist from Zhivoi Gorod movement, which contends that the tower would ruin St. Petersburg’s skyline. “This looked like a well-directed performance, as Gazprom brought numerous supporters who asked rehearsed questions to stress the ‘social importance’ of the project,” she said. “We see no connection between bringing social benefits to the people and breaching the city’s height limit.”

City regulations enacted this year prohibit buildings higher than 100 meters and list a number of places around St. Petersburg from which no new construction can be visible. The Okhta Center violates both rules. The United Nations, whose cultural-preservation body lists St. Petersburg as a World Heritage site, warned last week that the tower would jeopardize the city’s status.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Okhta Center officials added to their arsenal of arguments for the skyscraper’s height, saying the project needed to build up — not out — to distance it from nearby roads.

“This is a natural demand by our client, as they want the building to be located at least 100 meters from the roads to avoid possible suicide bombings,” Oleg Nikandrov, the project’s chief architect and director of Britain-based RMJM’s office in St. Petersburg, told The Moscow Times.

“Gazprom’s office on Ulitsa Nametkina in Moscow meets the same security requirements,” he said.

Asked whether the building would become a visible target for jet bombers, he said the military — not architects — were responsible for the city’s anti-aircraft defense.

“If they build the offices close to the nearby streets, filling the whole construction site, the buildings wouldn’t rise above 46 meters, according to independent estimates,” Yeliseyeva said. “But they insist it should be 400 meters high.”

The hearings were more of a “theatrical performance,” while the main fight for the city’s image is yet to come, she said. “Now the city’s commission on land use and building will decide whether to make an exception and let Gazprom build it,” she said. “We will, of course, file a suit if they do, and we’ll protest until the very end.”