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One of the greatest infrastructure headaches in the Baltics that has yet to be fully cured is the glut of old, decrepit Soviet apartment houses blotting the landscape.
Slowly but surely, however, steps are being taken to do something about improving these omnipresent eyesores.
Riga City Council last month approved budget funds for restoring some of these old apartment buildings. Rigas Pilsetbuvnieks, a company commissioned by the City Council to focus on restoring Riga's wrecked suburbs, will be the recipient of most of the funds.
Founded by city authorities in March, Rigas Pilsetbuvnieks was allotted 8 million lats (15 million euros) for the first year of operations. However, due to the time it took to hire staff and organize operations, these funds will be extended to 2003, general director Guntis Grinbergs told The Baltic Times.
But core operations have begun. Last month Rigas Pilsetbuvnieks bought for 3.6 million lats five buildings – two of which are inhabited – that it will restore. Located in various Riga districts [Kengarags, Jaunmilgravis or Bolderaja], the buildings differ in age, resistance structure, shape and number of apartments.
Grinbergs said it is likely they will be finished during next summer.
The apartments themselves in the renovated buildings should go quickly, he said. The rent system proposed by Rigas Pilsetbuvnieks will give tenants the option of buying the apartment, with monthly interest rates covered by the state budget. With a monthly rent of 1 lat per square meter, this would pay off all additional expenditures within a 15-year period.
The face lifts are certain to be welcomed by all. Indeed, the majority of Riga's existing apartment houses are more or less similar, as the general design did not change significantly during the Soviet era. The idea at the time was to reproduce a unified system of apartment buildings - conceived in Moscow - with details produced on the local level. The emphasis was on speed, since Moscow needed to house the booming population.
"This was the signature. Very simple buildings, just to satisfy the main needs," said Vilnis Strams, Riga's city architect.
Overall, there were around 10 types of buildings conceived for the whole Soviet Union, above and beyond which local architects had little liberty to improvise.
In many parts of Riga the most expensive and sought-after apartment houses are the famous "stalinski doma," said Ingulis Leilands, a Riga representative of Ober-Haus.
Built immediately after the war, these massive low-risers are supposedly safer than the brick-and-panel "krushchevki" or "brezhnevki" typical for the 1960s and 1970s. Having thicker walls, wider rooms and higher ceilings, the old Stalin-era buildings turned into a coveted dwelling place in the suburbs, a place that can effectively be turned into luxurious apartments.
But none of these will be up for renovation by Rigas Pilsetbuvnieks. There are many newer, unfinished apartment houses dating from the late 1980s that are in need of completion. Also, from an economic standpoint they are the cheapest option to provide additional housing.
Other renovation programs have also been activated in Riga. A joint pilot project estimated at approximately 1 million euros, in cooperation with the urban planning department in Berlin, began in 2000, and by September 2001 a building of old apartments in Riga's Zemgales district received a new lease on life - complete face-lift, with new windows, new doors, new draining, heating, electricity and ventilation systems.
Rigas Pilsetbuvnieks managers said they planed to draw on this successful project to boost their own development.