Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -
Overnight, billboards appeared all over Belgrade depicting a gleaming cityscape, a computer-generated artists’ impression that looks part boxy 1990s British urban redevelopment, part Gulf desert fantasy. “Slavimo Beograd!” says the slogan – “We Celebrate Belgrade!”
This is Belgrade Waterfront (BW), a $3bn megaproject plan for the redevelopment of the Serbian capital, unveiled with much fanfare by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic on June 27. And it is indeed to be developed by a Gulf partner, the somewhat mysterious Eagle Hills, which is headed by Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of major Dubai-based real estate firm Emaar Properties.
But despite the fanfare from the government and developer, the project has received a sceptical response from many in Belgrade, including architects and civil society organisations, who question the BW's conception, a lack of consultation and a master plan out of context with the city’s history, needs and topography.
The development will have a site area of 1m square metres and a total construction area 1.8m sqm on a swathe of land on the right bank of the River Sava in central Belgrade, including the Savamala district that in the past has been a Roma ghetto and then a grand early 20th century merchant’s district. Savamala now ranges from glitzy restaurants through alternative artsy bars and crumbling but beautiful institutional buildings blacked by the exhaust fumes of passing lorries, to boarded-up tenements and Belgrade’s bus and train stations.
The centrepiece of Belgrade Waterfront will be an “iconic” 200-metre tower called Kula Belgrade, “serving as the beacon of the entire master-planned community,” according to an Eagle Hills press release. The development, if it goes ahead, will also – inevitably – incorporate The Belgrade Mall, with 140,000 sqm of gross construction area, which claims to be the largest mall in the Balkans.
The completed Belgrade Waterfront’s land use mix will include 60% residential, 17% commercial and 15% “retail, cultural and entertainment zone”; 6000 residential units; 24 commercial office “clusters”; and eight hotels. It will be home to 14,000 people with a further 12,000 working in the area’s offices. Landscaping will include a 1.8-kilometre promenade along the Sava – currently lined with the rusting hulks of abandoned ships and squalid semi-derelict light-industrial units – and a 37.6 hectare Central Park, presumably preferable to the muddy patch currently standing between the bus station and the grand but dusty old Hotel Bristol. There will also be a performing arts centre, and a “BW Gallery” located in the 1905 Belgrade Cooperative Building, considered by some (including your correspondent) Belgrade’s loveliest structure. Serbian contractors are to be lined up for the development, and 20,000 jobs created during construction and a similar number after the development phase.
But others use less flattering language. Milan Djuric, technical director of the Association of Belgrade Architects and speaking on behalf of its board, tells bne that while the area is certainly in need of redevelopment, the Waterfront project is fundamentally flawed. He says it is apparently designed for a seaside city (like most Gulf cities) rather than Belgrade, which stands at the confluence of the Sava and Danube, where the Balkan hills meet the flat Central European Plain. Developing “Belgrade on the Water” has been on the agenda for decades, but the Waterfront project’s design has come as something of a surprise to professionals.
“The presented project is completely out of context [with the] city’s history, needs and topography,” says Djuric. “It cannot be regarded as a contextualised solution. In the end it seems that the effort has been made to adjust current conditions in the city to the future project, and not vice versa.”
Indeed, the artist-impression plans of the development seem to depict central Belgrade as rather flatter than it is, and it is hard to spot historic buildings incorporated into them.
Duric says that the development has been planned in a “hermetic procedure” without consultation with the public or professionals. “This project that has been forced upon us has very little to do with Belgrade or local spirit of any city. This project is a general space that could be anywhere; it is, more precisely, a non-place,” he explains. “Belgrade really needs to develop this part of the city, which has, on one hand, due to historical circumstances become a kind of relic in the city, and on the other hand awoken the imagination and appetite of Belgraders with its potential for development. The intention of developing it is important, but the choice of the method is what disturbs the public, and especially the professional public in Belgrade.”
Lack of consultation
Ko Gradi Grad, a “collective” that seeks to increase citizen’s participation in urban planning, tells bne that the agreement had been made between public officials and foreign investors “without any transparent public accountability, and all the public is presented with is a model of the project and nationwide campaign celebrating it.”
Intrigued, bne went to an Eagle Hills spokesperson for more details. She said that “Belgrade Waterfront is not a radical departure from the historical architecture of Belgrade… In fact, the project’s design draws architectural inspiration from the city. One of the focal points of the master plan is to integrate the heritage elements within the location, as much as possible.”
But she did not reply to a question about how many of Savamala’s densely-packed old buildings would need to be pulled down to accommodate the Eagle Hills vision.
In response to a question about Eagle Hills’ experience of developments in millennia-old European cities, the spokesperson told bne that the “company and its team has a vast experience is undertaking similar large-scale projects in Malaysia, UAE [United Arab Emirates], Morocco, Jordan and Nigeria, among others.”
Yet some have questioned the background of Eagle Hills, which has a minimal online presence – one civil society source told bne that he thought it was connected to the Dubai-based developer Emaar, and indeed bne emails to generic BW and Eagle Hills addresses received an out of office response from Mathilde Montel, an Emaar press person. But the Eagle Hills spokesperson denied the link.
Trevor McFarlane, chief executive of Dubai-based Emerging Markets Intelligence & Research, says that while scepticism in Belgrade was understandable, the company reflected Gulf business practices, and the investment could be a boon for Serbia. “We don't know anything about the company which appears to have been established especially for this project,” McFarlane tells bne. “This leads me to think that high-profile backers are involved, but they'd prefer to keep a low profile."
"What's interesting is that it is headed up by the well-respected Mohammed Alabbar, whose involvement should put sceptics at ease because of his experience in delivering enormous projects. In reality this deepening of ties between cash-rich UAE and indebted Serbia could serve the SEE [Southeast European] country well,” he says.
The Belgrade Waterfront development is the latest stage in the deepening of ties between Serbia and the UAE, which already includes arms development, soft loans from the Emirates to Belgrade, the widely-praised deal that saw Etihad take a 49% stake in and management control of Air Serbia, and talk of further arms and agricultural supply deals. McFarlane says that private money is now following the government’s, as is common in the Gulf; this may be another reason for secrecy. “It is worth remembering that business in the Gulf is often indistinguishably intertwined with the state, and the business culture is such that government related investors are not accustomed to disclosing investment details,” he says. “Cash-strapped countries in the SEE region wanting to enter the EU, such as the Serbia, are seen by cash-rich Gulf governments and thus some companies as an early route into the European Union.”
But Djuric, Ko Gradi Grad and others remain deeply sceptical, both about the way the door has been opened for Eagle Hills and the long-term viability of the project. They say that the deregulation of urban planning regulations to accommodate the project is unprecedented and reflect a desire to attract investors at any cost, though Djuric says that this is understandable perhaps given Serbia’s difficult economic situation.
Despite sluggish growth – indeed, Serbia may sink back into recession again this year – and some of Europe’s lowest incomes, Eagle Hills remains bullish about the country’s prospects. But it adds that the project will be rolled out incrementally, depending on its success. Tellingly, the only set timeframe thus far is for the completion of Kula Belgrade by the end of 2016.
Srdjan Vujicic, director of real estate operations at Coreside, a local associate of global property company Savills, tells bne that the “vast majority of real estate professionals are supportive” of the Waterfront project, “although there are some critics.”
“We believe that developing in phases is a must and probably the project will not be completed in full quantity, but since we have lack of commercial, residential and retail space on market and fact that investors will reach for international buyers, we don’t see a viability problem,” he argues.
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