Green activists stage protest to stop hotel

  • 2001-03-22
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The proposed construction of a hotel within a few meters of St. Peter's Church in Riga's Old Town has prompted Latvian environmental activists to stage a two-week protest outside the 790-year-old church.

Protests are also coming from the City Council's environmental department, which says the site is in a green zone that needs to be protected. The City Council, however, has already approved other building projects in green zones in the Old Town.

Members of the Latvian non-governmental organization the Environmental Protection Club has managed to collect more than 7,000 signatures from curious passersby protesting the hotel's construction.

The greens are protesting against the fact that no development plan exists for the Old Town. In their statement they say all construction in the Old Town should be halted until such a plan has been developed.

One club member, Alise Babre, said the protest lists will be used to make an official protest against the planned construction.

"This site needs to be protected. It's not only the church that needs to be considered but also the architectural site itself," said Babre before sighing.

Leslie L. Pato, owner of the Italian restaurant 1739, located next to where the hotel is to be erected, said the whole idea of doing something like this beside one of Latvia's most famous churches is sacrilegious.

"The Old Town should be preserved. An independent committee should scrutinize all suggested projects in the Old Town before they are approved," Pato said.

Uldis Pastnieks, city development department director at Riga City Council, admitted that there is no real development plan for Riga's Old Town. He stressed the importance of developing a plan to protect and preserve cultural and historical sites.

"We are currently working on such a plan, but it won't be finished within 18 months," Pastnieks said.

Environmental Protection and Regional Development Minister Vladimirs Makarovs told The Baltic Times that the City Council is interested in developing the Old Town, but the council must pay greater respect to the interests of the public, tourism and business.

"I think the activities of the greens are very normal, and I think more and more people are seeing things their way," Makarovs said.

However, he declined to speculate whether the protest is actually achieving anything.

The idea for the hotel comes from Latvian businessman Matiss Klavins. He owns the plot where the hotel would be built. He spoke to The Baltic Times about his vision.

The project has been continuing now for about two years. At first he thought about building only on his own plot, but he said he was told he needed some sort of plan for the remaining two plots next to his, so he decided to lease those two plots for the hotel as well.

Klavins reckons the hotel will take about a year to build and will cost somewhere in the vicinity of $3 million.

There are currently about 10 hotels in Riga's Old Town, but Klavins says he would not be pursuing this course if he did not believe he could compete with them..

"The planned hotel will have 54 rooms. It will be at a four-star level by standard but with a two-star hotel pricing," Klavins said. "Latvia does not need any more huge four- or five-star hotels."

Makarovs said he agreed Riga needs more hotels with two or three stars for the bulk of the tourist market.

"For this coming summer we will need more hotels," Makarovs said.

Still, the environment activists might have been waiting out in the cold in vain. Klavins has all his documents and licenses in order.

All but one.

"Klavins has all the licenses and permission he needs. The only authority that has not yet given permission is the environmental department of the City Council," Pastnieks confirmed.

Raimonds Janita, the department's director, said the garden on the plot was renovated last year. The square has been deemed a green zone, which is why they are against the hotel project.

"The environmental department has no clear definition for refusing a permit to build," Klavins exclaimed adding: "This is not an environmental issue."

Pastnieks has nothing against the hotel. In fact, he would not be sorry if more hotels were built in the Old Town.

"We must fill the empty spaces in the Old Town where it is possible to build, and hotels are not bad solutions. I'm not talking about the big squares, but land plots where there used to be houses," Pastnieks said.

The City Council, the Environmental Protection and Regional Development Ministry and Klavins all agree that Riga needs more tourists and hotels. The greens are not against hotels per se, but they say the location of future hotels should be properly discussed.

The Baltic Times contacted St. Peter's Church for its point of view on the matter.

"What am I supposed to think about it? I think Riga is beautiful, Riga should be beautiful, but a hotel on that location will not make it beautiful," Marianna Ozolina, the director of St. Peter's, said.

The final decision on construction will be made by the newly elected City Council before the end of May.