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Save Berlin: The cranes are back!

Last month the news that part of the East Side Gallery would be removed awakened many Berliners to the city's changing landscape. Then it was stopped. Then it happened anyway. But the Wall isn't the only part of Berlin under threat.

Image for Save Berlin: The cranes are back!
Photo by Ryan O’Shea

Not since the 1990s have the skies over Berlin been so filled with cranes. Earthmovers chew up vacant lots, new scaffolding goes up to sanitise gutted 19th-century buildings, wrecking balls find new victims. From Ku’damm to the East Side Gallery, the call to SAVE the Berlin we love rings truer than ever.

You wake up one morning and find yourself in a scary, alternate-reality version of Berlin: monster bulldozers, alien buildings, blood-sucking investors and zombie politicians. A city where the East Side Gallery, the last intact stretch of the Berlin Wall, sits sandwiched between a Daimler office tower and luxury condos.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Last month, the whole world was stunned to hear that the remains of the Berlin Wall, now an art gallery, were being tossed aside to make way for an exclusive apartment tower: the once-terrifying symbol of communist oppression laid low by a monument to capitalist greed.

On February 26, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s mayor Franz Schulz admitted he had approved a new 15-storey apartment building on the Spree – in the former East German ‘death strip’. Workers were removing a 23-metre section of the East Side Gallery to access the site. Schulz was unprepared for the storm of protest. After all, the tower’s zoning plan had been drawn up in 2000. Its design by Berlin architects NPS Tchoban Voss had been announced last December. The opening in the Wall was part of the new Brummybrücke, a pedestrian bridge over the Spree approved in the 2008 “Spreeufer für alle” public referendum. Still, the reaction was deafening. Petitions circulated. Protesters formed a human chain to stop work. On Sunday, March 3, some 6000 demonstrators marched on the site to save the East Side Gallery. Finally Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, still smarting from the BER airport scandal, played hero by personally vouching for the Wall’s safety. The new tower’s owner, Maik Uwe Hinkel, couldn’t have asked for better publicity.

The problem: rich developers build for rich customers.

The last time Berliners were so fired up about urban planning was the 2003-2006 battle to save the GDR landmark Palast der Republik. That struggle inspired Exberliner’s November 2009 Save Berlin event: three days of exhibits, films and discussion about Berlin’s future. We were often asked, “Save what?” Our list of endangered Berlin traits included history, culture, open space and affordable housing. Among the threats: greedy real estate developers and a city government eager to play along. Has anything changed? As the East Side Gallery debacle proves, no.

History: The East Side Gallery is the last stretch of the 155km barrier that surrounded West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Over 600 people died trying to cross it. It’s the only place left to experience the Berlin Wall as it was – long, imposing and impenetrable.

Culture: Artists covered the 1.3km stretch of the Wall with now-iconic paintings to reclaim this world-famous symbol of oppression. The East Side Gallery is Berlin’s second most visited tourist site. If anything in Berlin is worthy of preserving, this is.

Open space: The strip of land between the East Side Gallery and the Spree was chopped up and sold by Berlin’s government, hoping for upscale development. Friedrichshain’s local government bought most of it back for public use, but a few parcels like the condo tower plot are still in private hands – a situation one Berlin city planner acknowledged as “insane”.

Affordability: The fact that the flashy new tower invading this hallowed ground would house for-sale luxury apartments underlines a growing trend. Berlin’s housing market is increasingly tight, but almost all the new units are aimed at high-end customers.

Greed and the government: The death strip condo tower is bad enough, but even worse is the disturbing truth it revealed: the people trusted to defend our city’s heritage are outgunned or, worse, in league with the enemy. One official, when asked if anyone in the government saw the East Side Gallery confrontation coming, answered, “Everyone.” For nearly 10 years, everyone had known that a section of the Wall had to be removed for the new bridge. And everyone knew that when owner Hinkel built on his pricey plot, he’d build a tower: the former head city planner Hans Stimman had specified in the city’s zoning plan that new Spree crossings be “marked” by skyscrapers.

More time bombs

Is the East Side Gallery crisis a one-off collision of history and commerce? Definitely not. Berlin is littered with empty lots and landmarked buildings doomed to be replaced by sterile condos, office blocks and big-box stores. They’re like time bombs, just waiting for Berlin’s simmering real estate market to reach a boil.

Like the East Side Gallery plot, most of these condemned buildings lie in the former East Berlin. When the Wall fell in 1989, the city inherited thousands of properties from the GDR government. From 2002 to 2009, Berlin’s finance minister was Thilo Sarrazin, famous for his anti-immigrant bestseller Deutschland schafft sich ab (“German y is doing away with itself”). His strategy for balancing Berlin’s books: auction these plots to the highest bidder with no strings attached. Most cities dictate the use of sold property. Others, like London and Amsterdam, lease city-owned land in 100-year blocks – they have guaranteed income forever and control what’s built there. Activists and politicians labelled Sarrazin’s policy short-sighted and reckless, but Berlin is still privatising city-owned property.

Defense shields down

The flurry of governmental finger-pointing and ass-covering during the East Side Gallery dispute revealed Berlin’s urban planning Achilles heel: its bureaucracy is fragmented and dysfunctional, leaving it open to exploitation by big-money developers. Take the case of poor Franz Schulz, the designated fall guy in the East Side Gallery affair. When he proclaimed his support to the 6000 protesters in front of the Wall on March 3, many booed. After all, he’d signed the East Side Gallery’s death order. But Schulz had no choice – the zoning plan had been approved in 2000. He had seen the conflict coming and fought with the Senate for years. He had pushed to buy the rest of the former death strip for public use, “against the dogged resistance of the former SPD construction Senator Peter Strieder,” Schulz told a German newspaper. He had lobbied Berlin’s finance minister Ulrich Nussbaum to either buy the condo site or trade it for an equivalent plot. Nussbaum refused.

Few in Berlin’s bureaucracy share Schulz’s antidevelopment stance. The city’s €65-68 billion debt drives the agenda. Berlin spends the same amount each year on public housing as Paris – €500 million – but Parisians get new buildings while Berlin just pays off debts for 1980s and 1990s housing projects. Faced with this crisis, it’s hard for planners to say no to anyone willing to throw money in Berlin’s direction. The problem: rich developers build for rich customers, not Berlin’s poor-but-sexy indigenous population. We’ll have to settle for Parisian opulence: a sprawling 95-unit condo block in Mitte “inspired by” French designer Phillippe Starck.

Move to Marzahn?

Between now and 2030, Berlin is expected to gain 250,000 inhabitants, a 7 percent increase. In the last three years alone, we’ve welcomed 100,000 newcomers, but the affordable housing supply isn’t keeping up. For 15 years Berlin’s government denied its housing shortage. No more. On March 4, Michael Müller, Berlin’s senator for city development, announced that by 2025, the city will create 137,000 new flats.

From the 1920s to the 1990s, Berlin was a laboratory for new housing ideas. But Müller’s predecessor, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, stopped the public housing programme. Berlin had thousands of vacant flats and the city wanted those apartments filled to tighten the market and push rents up to ‘normal’ levels. Since then, private developers have filled empty lots with luxury flats while the number of low and middle-income apartments is the same. With rising rents, even East German Plattenbau flats are looking good.

In the 20 years since Berlin left the housing business, the city’s lost its expertise. Senator Müller himself runs a printing press in Pankow. Later this year, the printer deciding Berlin’s housing policy will make a grand tour of European public housing, hoping to gain in a few days what planners take years to learn. One lesson: building new flats has gotten really expensive. Construction costs are up, and Germany’s building standards – disabled access, energy efficiency, etc. – are among the world’s highest.

One expense Müller doesn’t plan to pay for: land. He’s got his eyes on Tempelhof, the former airport. Under a new master plan, the city will ring the massive park with a mini-city of offices, a new library and lots of housing. Müller’s number: 4700 new flats.

That puts Müller on a collision course with activists who want the airport left alone. A public referendum to stop development is planned later this year. Müller dismisses any construction ban on Tempelhof as “impossible”. His ultimatum: let Berlin build on Tempelhof or move to Marzahn.

Of those 137,000 needed flats, there’s only room for another 10,000 on Berlin’s inner-city lots. Müller’s plan: max out the land on Tempelhof and Europacity (the new district north of Hauptbahnhof), then add another 100,000 flats through “densification of the outer city” – Marzahn, Gropiusstadt and the Märkisches Viertel.

One powerful tool not on the table (so far) would be requiring every new apartment project to incorporate affordable housing – 33 percent, for example. That’s how Munich maintains their stock of low-income housing and prevents exclusive “rich ghettos”.

Take up arms!

In the meantime, Berliners are armed with two sets of rules legal garlic to ward off bloodthirsty landlords. Milieuschutz protects neighbourhoods from gentrification by stopping luxury conversions of old flats. It limits things like the size of new balconies and the finishes owners can use – tile bathrooms, not marble. Kreuzberg’s SO36 district and parts of Pankow are under Milieuschutz. The Berliner Mieter Gemeinschaft, a tenants’ rights group, calls the concept a “toothless tiger”: with no enforcement staff, it can only delay gentrification, not prevent it.

Denkmalschutz, or landmark protection, is designed to save historic buildings, but, as with the Milieuschutz rules, it’s prone to abuse. Prenzlauer Berg’s historic Bötzow Brauerei may escape the wrecking ball – but only as an empty shell filled with luxury lofts and an upscale shopping mall.

Another weapon, the public referendum, is also a mixed bag. In 2008, voters in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg said no to the proposed Mediaspree development. The district’s mayor Schulz treats the vote as gospel, but Berlin’s Senate largely ignores it. Leave the big decisions, they advise us, to the experts. Like Senator Müller.

So what are we, simple townsfolk, to do when we see our city’s history, culture and very soul come under attack? Take to the streets – armed with pitchforks, placards and flaming iPads!