The Green Robin Hood returns

Fresh out of quarantine, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district councillor Florian Schmidt is vowing that, Corona or not, he'll keep up the fight against real estate speculation. Judging by his track record, greedy developers better watch out!

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District councillor Florian Schmidt is hailed as a Robin Hood-like figure for championing small tenants’ rights against big developers’ interests. (Photo by Marcelina Wellmer)

Last July, investor Signa Holding unveiled plans to rebuild the original Karstadt department store on Hermannplatz. With its 56-metre towers, the 1929 building was a glamorous landmark of Weimar-era Berlin. Destroyed by vindictive Nazis in 1945 its 21st-century resurrection was praised by many as correcting an act of architectural vandalism. But then suddenly, in August, the building commission of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain vetoed the project. Mayor Michael Müller was pissed, criticising the “short-sighted” municipal bureaucrats and their vocal ringleader Florian Schmidt. As the district’s building councillor Schmidt gave the project a big thumbs down. He predicted the slick faux-Deco behemoth would drive up rents.“No KaDeWe-isation of Hermannplatz,” declared the 45-year-old Green activist turned municipal executive.

Schmidt is either a courageous community-minded Robin Hood figure or a dangerous leftist radical, depending on who you ask. When we first profiled the Green politician in October 2010, he was still a young community activist touting plans to build a Berlin Kunsthalle to house contemporary art. Since then, the Cologne-born Berliner fought to expand the city’s supply of artist studios and social initiatives via projects like the Haus der Statistik on Alexanderplatz. But it was the 2011 initiative “Rethinking the City” promoting new real estate politics that brought him into the public limelight.

Faced with the current housing crisis, Schmidt found himself at the forefront of the struggle to reverse public policy direction.

When the green party joined the local governing coalition in 2016, Schmidt was appointed the head of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain’s department for building and planning. Faced with the current housing crisis, Schmidt found himself at the forefront of the struggle to reverse public policy direction – for 25 years, the government has allowed market forces to steer urban planning policy, which critics say has led to our current predicament.

In 2017, he was behind the city’s purchase of Kottbusser Tor’s iconic Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum for €56.5 million to stop the mammoth housing block from being converted into luxury flats. In 2019, he got the Berlin government to buy 800 flats on Karl-Marx-Allee, pushing away real estate giant Deutsche Wohnen. All in all he claims having saved over 4000 flats (2 percent of the housing stock) in his district. Here are some other real estate projects with the Florian Schmidt stamp on them.

Media Spree’s middle finger

Twenty years ago, Berlin’s planners cleared an industrial wasteland along the Spree in Friedrichshain and called it Media Spree, intended to be a home for Europe’s entertainment biz. Instead, it has morphed into the Zalando Campus. The Berlin-based online retailer has 10 completed office buildings surrounding the Mercedes Benz Arena, with three more given the green light for construction. This includes plans for a 90-metre-tall tower by architect Gewers Pudewill named Stream. Like other Zalando buildings, the high rise radiates a slick corporate sheen at odds with the district’s gritty character.

Still, it’s nothing compared to Edge East Side Tower, the skyscraper going up across from Warschauer Straße U-Bahn station. Better known as the “Amazon Tower”, the 140-metre office block will house 3400 of the retail giant’s high-tech minions. For locals who’ve spent decades fighting the corporate invasion of their Kiez, this looming glass slab feels like a triumphant “fuck you”.

When star-architect Bjarke Ingels presented updated plans last October, Schmidt did his best to torpedo the tower. The new design, Schmidt said, looked nothing like the original competition-winning scheme and lacked people-friendly amenities agreed to in previous workshops. Scrap the project, he said, and start over. That drew the ire of Jan Eder, chief executive of Berlin’s Chamber of Commerce. He called Schmidt’s opposition to the €400 million project “an economic hara-kiri strategy” designed to scare global investors away from the city. The Berlin city government overruled Schmidt and gave Amazon the go-ahead.

30 years to extinction

Across the Warschauer Brücke, down behind the octagonal Döner stand, lies the R.A.W. Gelände. It’s a time capsule of 1990s DIY Berlin: century-old industrial buildings repurposed as bars, art spaces, food and music venues that are glorious in their romantic decay. Throw in some drug-dealing and petty crime, and R.A.W. has evolved into an anarchic annex to Simon-Dach-Straße’s abrasive party scene. R.A.W.’s awkward location along the S-Bahn tracks kept it off investors’ radars – until now.

When its new owners proposed clearing the property for high rises, Schmidt spearheaded a months-long design workshop that united investors with locals and led to a compromise that makes the area more family-friendly while preserving its character. Key buildings – like the World War II bunker reused as a climbing wall – are protected as landmarks, while locals get wish-list items like a new grocery store and a swimming pool. Meanwhile, those endangered legacy tenants also received a new lease on life, literally: the bars and clubs are guaranteed low rents for 30 years. In exchange, investor Kurth Group can build a 100-metre office tower – a victory for Schmidt’s brand of community-focused give-and-take.

Return to sender

In September 2018, Schmidt took his anti- gentrification message to national TV, debating against developer Christoph Gröner on the ARD talk show Maischberger. Last year, the men were locked in another battle, this time over a scheme by Gröner’s company CG Gruppe, to convert the abandoned Postcheckamt tower on Hallesches Ufer into luxury apartments. The investor cast himself as a white knight resurrecting a 1960s landmark; Schmidt accused Gröner of reneging on his commitment to include 5000 square metres of affordable housing. When Gröner threatened to walk away from the project, Schmidt was happy to show him the door – then promptly pulled together a new development team. Cologne-based Art-Invest will revive the building as 70,000 square metres of office space, while Berlin-owned Degewo will construct 320 new apartments on the land around it, with 200 of those to be subsidised.

One utopia too far?

In October 2014, developer Arne Piepgras announced he’d bought a prime chunk of Kreuzberg from the German government for €36 million. Known as the Dragoner-Areal, it’s a collection of former stables located behind the long, castle-like Finanzamt building on Mehringdamm. Piepgras planned to demolish the 19th-century buildings – displacing health food store LPG and the Gretchen club – to make way for luxury condos. Local politicians cried foul, and Berlin’s Senat pushed Piepgras out and took control. Planners united the property with neighbouring city-owned plots to create a 21,000sqm block, then launched an ambitious, years-long planning process that involved three competing design teams in dialogue with stakeholders.

My utopia of buying back the city isn’t about getting the city to own new buildings, but about enabling people to take control over their own housing.

On February 1, Florian Schmidt helped unveil the winning scheme, developed by SMAQ Architektur & Stadt and collaborators Man Made Land. The plan will preserve not only the historic buildings but also less-desirable long-term tenants like metal-working and car repair shops, while the largest industrial building in the complex will get a new rooftop greenhouse for urban gardening. Commercial spaces and over 500 apartments will be built around landscaped squares and playgrounds. But the project’s centrepiece is a 16-storey residential tower, which the architects have promoted as the heart of a model residential quarter. The scheme bears the hallmarks of Schmidt’s planning philosophy: a family and eco-friendly upgrade that preserves an authentic Berlin mix of functions and residents.

But closer to his heart is the new purchase strategy he’s recently developed to help Berliners buy back real estate: a bold, new financing model that mixes public subventions and a cooperative system involving the locals. “My utopia of buying back the city, isn’t about getting the city to own new buildings, but about enabling people to take control over their own housing,” says Schmidt. “We managed to buy back 10 buildings that way,” he adds proudly.

But today, Schmidt finds himself under a political cloud. FDP, CDU and now also SPD politicians have accused him of withholding documents relating to the city’s purchase of apartment buildings through the housing co-operative Diese eG. Schmidt denies any wrongdoings. “My new strategy to buy back the city is meeting incredibly strong resistance, including from some parts of the SPD – they want to stick by their good old public housing policy,” he explains.

In his zealous push to buy back Berlin’s housing, did Schmidt break the rules? Or did he just step on too many powerful toes? Either way, the investigation seems timed to undermine Schmidt’s leverage and could possibly put a stop to his bold new plans for bringing back the city to the people who live in it.