The 26 story Saules Akmens ("Sunstone") high-rise controversy has been in and out of the media for over a year, yet the argument crystallizes the ubiquitous debate between civic development and historic preservation, which countries across the globe undergoing economic growth and trying to entice foreign direct investment must tackle. In Riga, however, the debate has put the city government at odds with UNESCO, the State Inspection for Heritage Protection and many leading architects and critics.
To be sure, the "mini-skyscraper" across the Daugava River near the suspension bridge is not aesthetically bad, and almost everyone agrees on this, although it does fall within the so-called buffer zone around Riga - an area surrounding Riga's Old Town whose historic preservation is protected by law. The catch is in the dates: The Saules Akmens project was granted approval at the end of October 2002, before the law was officially enacted (June, 2003).
Still, the Riga City Council seems to be doing everything possible to slow the process of adopting more laws governing the development of the city center. Dace Nieburga, head of the Latvian branch of UNESCO, has even publicly claimed that many architectural projects were pushed through civil administration and bureaucracy on the grease of bribes. The situation has become so awful, she said, that Riga may be moved to the UNESCO endangered list.
The City Council, of course, denies any and all allegations of graft or ill intention. Naturally, UNESCO has little, if any, power to change the situation. The one weapon that it can exert is its "prestige" in an attempt to influence a City Council that is apparently hell-bent on transforming Riga's skyline and allowing any ugly glass-and-steel construction to be erected if enough money is offered under the table. The monstrous Maxima mini-mall on the Daugava riverfront is a case in point. Another: the perverse suggestion among some council members that the Occupation Museum be moved to a different location since the admittedly unsightly Soviet-era building is distasteful where it now stands, right across the square from the renovated City Hall. (One wonders what the city would build in its stead - another aquariumesque shopping center?)
The State Inspection for Heritage Protection and UNESCO both say that the city has been dragging its feet since 1998 to pass a development plan that would clearly outline the rules of the game. Once such a law is passed, heavy fines must be meted out to violators. At any rate, it's long overdue. Otherwise, under the status quo, soon Dome Square will be auctioned off and a glossy 50-story high rise will sprout right out the heart of Old Town.
Yet the law must not be so strict as to stifle all future development either. Indeed, a balance must be struck between preservation and development.