New parking garages raise questions

  • 2000-07-27
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Finding a place to park in Riga can be a nightmare. Cars are parked wherever they fit, often where they're not supposed to fit. A U.S. company wants to help with an underground parking garage, much to the dismay of environmentalists and others.

InterSource International is currently excavating for a controversial underground parking lot in a leafy area near Basteja Boulevard, which runs along the northern edge of Old Town.

Behind a tall white fence construction workers have started to carve out the land between Basteja Boulevard and Jacob's Barracks to make room for the two-story lot, which will be called "Jacob's Arcade."

There have been efforts to ease the parking burden on some downtown streets, including Basteja, a street that has seen many changes in parking policies and prices.

"It's a very busy street, and it has the only entrance to Old Town," said Eva Cerbule, manager for transportation planning in Riga's city development department. "It also has many important buildings, like the Opera house."

According to plans, the garage will contain about 320 parking places, cost of $7 million should be completed in time for Riga's 800th anniversary.

But there is a snag. The area chosen is deemed a "green zone" by Riga's City Council, and no construction is supposed to take place there.

On July 20 about 20 activists from the Green Party and the Environmental Protection Club of Latvia painted a sign reading, "Garage under construction in green zone, following the City Council's unlawful decree No. 6164."

The president and CEO of InterSource International, Sol N. Bukingolts, said he prefers to call the activists hooligans rather than environmentalists.

"I support the environment from the bottom of my toes to the top of the hair on my head," Bukingolts said.

Guards at the construction site tried to stop the protestors by force, the news service LETA reported, but did not succeed, though the 35-meter-long slogan was painted over within an hour.

"We are considering filing criminal charges against some of these people we have pictures of, thanks to the municipal police and our security company," Bukingolts said. "The idea of this parking garage has been flying in Riga for seven years."

City Council Deputy Chairman Juris Visockis said the project has met with city council regulations and approval.

But this is not the first project in an area designated as a green zone to come under scrutiny.

The Soros Foundation in Latvia hired the law firm Blukis, Elksne and Rozenfelds to investigate whether the Riga City Council broke any laws when they granted two private companies, InterSource International and the Spanish company Ohl.Madrid permission to build in green zones in the mid-90s and allowed construction of another underground parking lot near the Council's own building in downtown Riga.

"The foundation did a number of studies pursuing issues we are interested in," said Vita Terauda, the Soros Foundation Latvia's executive director. "The issue is that there should have been a public hearing before they started building."

The city council's Visockis said the investigation was based on what they could find in newspapers.

"They took news from Diena, and it was wrong," Visockis said. "We have done everything according to our rules, which are based on Riga's development plan."

Terauda also said she thinks the Council just overwrote their own procedures in the case of the parking garage near their building.

Visockis defended himself by saying he has held his position in the Council for only two months.

"It is very easy for me to say OK, the people before me made mistakes. Still, I haven't found any," Visockis said.

Ohl.Madrid backed out of their construction plans more than three years ago and is not doing any construction in the park they own in downtown Riga.

Lawyer Janis Rozenfelds, who helped conduct Soros Foundation's study, said he did not go too deep into the facts regarding the construction grants for the two private companies. It was easier, however, to find wrongdoings made by the City Council when they pushed for the underground parking garage, which is already built in what used to be a park outside the Congress Center. Their decisions were all public.

"They violated regulations in some ways. There were certain procedures that were not followed. They said everything was alright but it wasn't. The Council also conducted a survey where they questioned very few people, 100 maybe, which is too small a number to get a fair answer on their opinions regarding building an underground parking lot in the park," Rozenfelds said.

Visockis said the public had its chance to comment on the garage.

"There were discussions, two or three meetings for the public, where opinions could be vented," Visockis said.

Before the actual construction commences there will be an archeological excavation on the site. A transparent fence will be put up around the dig. Kiosks will be installed next to the site where information on the excavation process will be displayed.