TARTU - As the Estonian real estate boom rumbles on, central Tartu waits for a new face-lift while a battle rages between fiery developers and conservatives over the construction of high-rises and clashing architectural visions.
After the 1998 completion of a 13-story riverside office building, which quickly became an important symbol for the low-lying town of 90,000, the atmosphere has been relatively cool as developers waited for fresh official guidelines. The calm appears to be over now as plans have been tabled for almost a dozen large construction projects lining the historical center.
According to approved plans, Tartu's highest building could soon be a 23-story apartment block between the old market and a local water park, near the new pedestrian bridge opened last year. In fact, the whole district is likely to emerge as Tartu's major development hub in the years to come, with visions of creating something of a modern city for the greenish university town.
Alar Kroodo, chairman of the board of AS Linnaehitus, which holds the right to put up Tartu's tallest building, would not comment on exact plans yet. "The plan says up to 23 stories, but final decisions have not been made. We shall probably launch designing later this year," he said.
According to Kroodo, however, the town is not likely to get a typical high-rise business district any time soon, as the local office-space market is already oversupplied.
"As laid down in Tartu's general plan, this is an area where high-rise buildings are acceptable," commented Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip. Besides the one envisaged high-rise, which would easily qualify for a tower in a town where just a few houses break the unwritten five-story limit, plans are being drafted to erect blocks of apartments as high as 15 stories on the other bank of river Emajogi. "This is another acceptable spot, at the other end of the new bridge. So, obviously, there is really no hostility towards tall houses, except that they just have to fit in."
Other sources say a hotel and conference center of up to 10 stories may soon dominate the riverbank adjacent to Atlantis restaurant, just a stone's throw from Tartu's Town Hall. There are known plans for at least two other larger hotels, which, however, shall not materialize any time this year.
While some are happy with the modern retouch of Tartu's townscape, discussions between developers keen to start new projects and conservatives pushing to preserve historic views are as heated as in the capital city Tallinn, where the Heritage Protection Board has blocked plans for any buildings reaching above the medieval spire of Oleviste Church, claimed to have once been the world's tallest building at close to 150 meters. After several fires, most recently in the 19th century, it now stands at 127.5 meters above the ground.
Many in Tartu would rather safeguard the town's current image as a quiet university hub where life takes its own pace. Reflecting this, authorities have recently rejected a 20-story apartment block, deeming it unfit for the riverside surroundings and likely to cause traffic and parking problems.
Ansip said that the owner of the lot had just lost touch with reality. "Such building would have contrasted with adjacent projects, which are already in development stage. Even in North America, such random jumbos would not be accepted in towns of 100,000," he said.
Apart from offices and apartments, authorities have thrown their weight behind public projects, such as a new 3,000-seat sports hall just near Annelinn, Tartu's concrete-jungle sleeping district. An even larger sports and music hall is envisaged near the center.
One more long-awaited development is the new emporium of leading retailer Tallinna Kaubamaja, which was supposed to fill a gaping water-filled hole in the city center a couple of years ago, but has since been delayed for several times. Kaubamaja executives have now promised to launch construction works early this summer.
According to recent statistics, 2003 broke all records of the Estonian realty market amid pre-EU anxiety and sinking interest rates, with the number of transactions up a third and an overall price increase of 20 percent or even more. Development investments reached all-time highs as well, although exact data have not been made available yet.