Dan Borden on Berlin’s ever-changing urbanscape: an old-fashioned referendum sunk the evil Mediaspree development plan, but what's in store now for Kreuzberg's most prized riverbank?

Image for MySpree
Photo by Dan Bordan

Let me take you back to an innocent place and time – Berlin in 2006. Pre-Obama, pre-Crash. No Facebook, iPhones or iPads. The Palast der Republik was still standing. Tempelhof was still an airport. Over near Ostbahnhof, a new arena was going up. And on September 17, Berliners went to the polls and elected their current mayor, Klaus Wowereit.

A lot has changed since then. In 2008, Berliners woke up to some thorny city-planning issues. They took to the streets to protest the birth of O2 World, the death of the Palast and the planned reincarnation of the baroque Stadtschloss. They voted – unsuccessfully – to keep Tempelhof open.

In each of these battles, Wowereit boldly opposed popular opinion and won. His message: it’s my city; you just live here. But then on July 13, 2008, everything changed.30,000 Berliners went to the polls and sank Wowereit’s beloved megaproject, Mediaspree.

Looking back, there was a certain dumb logic to Mediaspree. Why not transform derelict land along the Spree River in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg into a shiny, new office park as a magnet for all those creative entertainment/ media types?

Plans were drawn up. Universal music and MTV moved in. But then residents felt the pinch as rents shot up. The hulking O2 World arena cast a long, cold shadow over the low-rent art/party venues and former squats nearby. A scene was under threat. And lets face it: just as tourists don’t come to Berlin to see baroque palaces (real or fake), creative types don’t move here to work in soulless office parks.

A tiny army of savvy activists founded groups called Megaspree and Mediaspree Versenken! (Sink Mediaspree!). Sobered by a series of defeats, they realized the old tools – demonstrations and petitions – only inspire yawns among the power elite. They experimented with social networks, flash mobs and viral videos, but the tool that turned the tide was old-fashioned democracy.

If you’re collecting thousands of signatures for a petition, you might as well get enough to demand an official referendum. At least that’s how Carsten Joost of Mediaspree Versenken describes their epiphany in early 2008. Developers spent millions to sway voters, but in the end 87 percent said nein! Joost and his cohorts invited 30,000 pissed off citizens into an already crowded backroom debate between developers and politicos – and won the upper hand.

But winning access to power created a rift among the activists. Mediaspree Versenken split into two ‘wings’: idealists committed to rowdy street actions and another prepared to negotiate realpolitik compromises. Their demands: a new bridge across the Spree should be pedestrian only; no more tall buildings; and all new construction must be set back 50 metres from the river. They got 30 metres, and only in principle.

Big headline battles have given way to guerilla skirmishes as individual plots of land go on the market. The current clash is over a chunk of prime real estate known as the Zapf property. You’ve probably seen the name Zapf on vans around the city – Berlin’s biggest moving company is moving. Hoping for good PR, they agreed to choose a buyer who would abide by Mediaspree Versenken’s guidelines. A new conundrum: the activists know what they don’t want – office blocks, luxury housing – but what do they want instead?

Mediaspree Versenken’s slogan is “Spreeufer für Alle!” – the banks of the Spree for everyone! In that spirit, they’re asking the public – yes, you! – to tell them what should be built on 10 hectares (25 acres) of Kreuzberg’s most prized real estate. Low-cost housing? Museums? Schools? Circus tents? Nothing? Ideas posted online (see below) will be transmitted straight into the corridors of power.

In September 2011, Berliners will again elect a new government. Five years of public clashes have put city planning issues at the front of voters’ minds. In this age of web-based empowerment, the answer to “Who owns the city?” is increasingly “Me! Me! Me!”

You only have to look to Stuttgart to see that a truly wired electorate (it’s not just kids anymore) is a volatile one, plugged in and whipped into a frenzy by each new outrage. This time around, politicians who defy public opinion will be in for a bumpy ride.

Mediaspree Versenken has public meetings every Monday night at 8pm in the south wing of the Bethanien (1st floor, last door on right), Mariannenplatz 2A, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor. For information about the call for proposals: