Development fit for a king

  • 2002-07-04
  • Matt Kovalick, VILNIUS
Asphalt, parking spaces and a bridge: Gifts fit for a king?

In July 2003, Vilnius will celebrate the 750th anniversary of the crowning of King Mindaugas by presenting the descendants of his subjects with presents far more practical than crown jewels: New parking lots, repaved roads, a public square and a bridge.

The projects are valuable to the city's future, say officials.

"Both a reconstructed Gediminas Street and the new bridge will benefit traffic by clearing traffic jams and providing more efficient access into and around the city center," said Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas.

"The projects will become a living symbol of Vilnius' next large step into a brighter and better future for our residents, our investors and our visitors."

But revelers intent on celebrating early on Gediminas Street, Vilnius' main drag, should rethink their plans, because this July, there is no street.

Roads from Gedimino Prospect to Jogailos Street to the Cathedral Square, as well as Vrublevskio Street near the Neris River, have been torn up and buried under construction projects.

These and other construction sites are at the start of a long renovation project that officially began in late June.

The first initiative is to create some 260 new parking spaces in three underground lots beneath sections of Gedimino Prospect and Liauksmino Street at a cost of approximately 7.5 million litas ($2.15 million).

One parking zone under Gediminio and the newly renovated Municipal Square will connect with spaces that will be built for a new Novotel hotel, which will be constructed at the end of Vilniaus Street, perpendicular to Gediminio. Developed by Pinus Proprius, the hotel will connect underground to the business center, owned by the same developer.

"The new business class hotel will have 160 rooms, a restaurant, fitness center, retail passageway" and will attract more visitors to Vilnius, project architect Alvydas Songaila said.

The hotel will overlook a renovated and repaved Gedimino Prospect and refurbished Municipality Square. The landscaped 8,500-square-meter park will also provide access to the underground lots.

Imported black bricks and gray stones from China will line Vilnius' main streets and sidewalks that stretch to the national cathedral.

Replacing the dated, bumpy prospect will be a new Gedimino Prospect lined with more than 100 trees and street lamps and refitted with new utility pipes.

All additions are part of the new 20 million litas street that is scheduled to open in June 2003, supposedly with a 400 year life span.

The crowning achievement of the King Mindaugas jubilee projects will be the construction of a 15 million litas ($2.8 million), 101-meter bridge spanning the Neris River. The span is a joint project between the city and the national government.

"The new bridge will provide access to the right bank of the Neris that we have zoned primarily for commercial development. It will serve to accommodate an ever-larger growing business community with space to expand and develop," said Zuokas.

The 19.75-meter-wide, arc-shaped bridge will have designated lanes for cars, pedestrians and bikes, as well as space for a possible tram.

Planned parking spaces located on the right side of the river are aimed at curbing traffic congestion in the Old Town area.

As Vilnius residents look toward the future with these projects, they also have a chance to glimpse the past. Archeologists recently uncovered buildings underneath both Gedimino Prospect and Vrublevsko Street that date back to the beginning of the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th century, respectively.

"The late-Renaissance-style building in front of the central post office under Gedimino is more interesting and can be found on old maps of Vilnius. People lived at that location since the 15th century," said Augis Gucas, the municipality's director of culture and heritage.

He also said that possible plans for conserving the building remained undecided at this time. Ironically, the building found on Vrublevsko Street was constructed with bricks that formed the walls of the palace that once stood at the foot of Gedimino Tower.

Construction to rebuild the same palace officially began this spring as well. The benefits of the multimillion dollar renovations should become evident starting in February 2003 when the first zone of underground parking located beneath Gediminio Prospect opens.

In the meantime, some business owners caught in the middle of the construction sites have little to celebrate. Some feel they cannot wait for the future benefits of a renovated downtown area. The municipality says it informed area businesses of the construction plans, but many remain unhappy with the scope of the projects.

"Obviously the construction adversely affects us. People think we're closed. The municipality does not put up appropriate signs telling people where they can go," said Ines Cernerkiene, owner of the Hotel Dvaras, which opened in May.

"Some companies are going out of business. It's very sad?there is no need to have the street closed," she said.

Despite a visit from Mayor Zuokas to the hotel on Tilto Street bearing a promise to help, she and other local cafï and shop owners contend that the work progresses slowly and better road directions are needed.

Others complain that small sidewalks and lingering dust hampers foot traffic on Gedimino Prospect.

If local businesses can tough out a difficult winter, the municipality contends that they will reap the benefits of a revamped city.

"There is no doubt that a reconstructed Gediminas Street and a new and attractive square in the center of town will benefit not only the residents of Vilnius, but visitors to our city as well," said Zuokas.