UNESCO may add Riga's Old Town to endangered list

  • 2004-07-22
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Due to the controversial construction of a highrise office complex and lack of a concrete development plan for Riga's Old Town, Riga could be moved from the UNESCO World Heritage site list to the endangered list.

The recent construction of the Saules Akmens building, built on the left bank of the Daugava River in the Kipsala area, was merely an addition to the long line of controversial projects that angered UNESCO, causing its representative to speak out.
"I hope [placing Riga on the UNESCO endangered list] does not happen, but it may," head of the Riga office of UNESCO Dace Neiburga told The Baltic Times. "I've concluded that our main problem with the construction is corruption."
Saules Akmens was also criticized at home, as the State's Cultural Monument Protection Inspection, a Latvian body, cited it and a number of other recent constructions not in compliance within the Old Town's overall look.
Built within the "buffer zone" surrounding the Old Town (see map on Page 2), Saules Akmens was constructed by the company Merks. Although UNESCO initially asked that the building be kept within 15 stories, the contractor refused and went ahead with construction that eventually took the "skyscraper" to 26 floors.
In response to the criticism, Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars said, "Our polls have shown that the larger part of the city's inhabitants like this highrise building, but there is no agreement among experts," the Baltic News Service quoted him as saying.
UNESCO, however, was adamant about the risk that the building posed to Riga.
"Of course, nobody will tell you straight out that this house will be built by my friend or, worse, money has changed hands to get approval of this project. Sometimes you just feel it with your skin," Neiburga was quoted as saying.
"UNESCO is not against high-rise buildings," she added, although citing the construction on protected property as a clear sign that laws were being evaded without punishment.
Officials from the Riga City Council disagreed.
"It's debatable whether it was a violation of the law or not," Dana Hasana, head of the public relations department at the Riga City Council, said.
"The problem is whether or not the land that the Saules Akmens building was built on was a buffer zone," she said, adding that, influenced by public outrage, the size of the skyscraper's base was reduced.
The buffer zone issue is the essential element to this case, as it's exactly what UNESCO and the State's Cultural Monument Protection Inspection believe was violated.
"We are not against contemporary buildings, but one must think about quality," head of State's Cultural Monument Protection Inspection, Juris Dambis, said. "The architecture of Saules Akmens is not bad, but the only question is if it's in the right place."
This would be only the second time that UNESCO has placed a European site on the endangered list. The cathedral in Cologne, Germany was placed on the list earlier this month due to concerns over its integrity, which UNESCO said was threatened by the number of skyscrapers surrounding it. As of now, the cathedral has the dubious distinction of being the only site in Europe on the endangered list.
Riga's 800-year-old historic Old Town was named to the world heritage list in 1997.
The City Council objected to the creation of the Council for Preservation and Development, established last October, and even fought the Law on Protection and Preservation of Riga's Historic Center all the way to the Constitutional Court, where it failed.
But the criticism of Riga didn't stop with Saules Akmes.
Neiburga said she was also dismayed by the modern addition to Riga's newly restored city hall, the Stockmann department store, and the parking garage behind Jacob's Barracks.
Nevertheless, one thing that all parties agree: Riga Old Town needs a development plan, and one that clearly lays out the rules and protects its integrity.
"We have been waiting for a development plan since 1998," Dambis said.
"The plan for the development of the old city will be ready by the end of the year," Hasana said, citing concerns as to why it has taken so long for its completion.
At the earliest, a UNESCO decision on the status of the Old Town will be made next July when the international body holds its next meeting in South Africa.