Chrome and Glass Encroach on Historic Prague

Since the fall of Communism, fast-food outlets and office towers have risen in Europe's 'Sleeping Beauty'

There is a sound in Prague that can be heard all year - in the summer, when the tourists clatter across the cobblestoned streets, and in the winter, when the orange trams rattle along the foggy embankments. It is the sound of construction.

Prague, the "Sleeping Beauty" of Europe, which survived untouched by both world wars, had settled into gentle decay through 40 years of Communism. But now, six years after the Velvet Revolution, the chrome-and-glass revolution has arrived.

Mirrored office towers and fast-food outlets are sprouting all over the historic center, providing uneasy company to the Baroque palaces and Rococo faades of an earlier age. Foreign real-estate developers, prevented from carrying out their multiplex visions under Western Europe's strict zoning laws, have rushed East.

The result, say local historians and preservationists, is that Prague's new caretakers - out of greed or naivet - are repeating many mistakes made in the West 40 years ago. These mistakes have led to the depopulation of city centers, the ruining of historical zones by overdevelopment, and inner-city decay.

Many cities, especially in neighboring Germany and Austria, have tried to counter these trends in the past decade by bringing back pedestrian zones to town centers and shifting commercial development to industrial parks in outlying areas. But Prague is not pursuing these measures.

Prague's Landmark Preservation Area, which covers the city's historical core, is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Within its 2,100 acres (860 hectares) - second in size only to Rome in all of Europe - rise the gothic spires of the Old Town, the Art Nouveau faades of the Jewish Quarter, and the ramparts of Hradcany Castle. Beneath the castle stretch the red-tiled roofs of a hundred palaces and medieval taverns.

It's little wonder Prague has been attracting tens of millions of tourists a year. But the city is unique among historical centers in Europe in having no zoning plan to protect this area.

Jan Kasl, an architect and former planning adviser on the Prague City Council, says, "After the '89 revolution you could barely even mention the word planning. The word was connected with 'Socialist planning.' "

This trend continued when Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) came to power. The ODS soon also became the dominant force in city politics, and the party, as Mr. Kasl puts it, "wanted to encourage a liberal capitalist investment policy."

Reluctant to involve themselves in unresolved land claims on the city periphery, and with an eye on the bottom line, city authorities quickly sold off real estate they directly controlled in the historic center.

Things got so bad two years ago that President Vaclav Havel and the Prague Board (Prazske Gremium), a citizens' initiative, wrote a letter to the incoming city administration, asking it to cancel a bulky hotel project on the banks of the Vltava, within sight of the Charles Bridge. President Havel and the board won a temporary reprieve, but a new design competition has been ordered, whose conditions, for precaution, are being kept secret.

Jiri Kotalik, professor of the history of architecture at Prague's Academy of Fine Arts, and the head of the Prague Board, says what bothers him most is that "Prague's City Council has no strategy of how it wants the city to develop." The city is still working on a vast urban plan, and smaller zoning ordinances for the historic center are not even under consideration.

While districts like Holesovice and Smichov, just outside the Landmark Preservation Area, would welcome investment, most construction still goes on within the fragile historical core.

Adding to Prague's woes is the issue of restitution. Many individuals to whom the state returned decaying historical properties behaved like the city authorities and quickly sold off their buildings to real-estate developers. Residential property rents remain largely state regulated, but commercial rents are not. With no financial help from the city, it made little sense for property owners to renovate their restituted buildings or to rent them out to tenants at state rates when a bank would pay to turn a building into an office or tear it down.

The result is that Prague 1 - the heart of the historical center, encompassing the Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, and the Castle district of Mala Strana - now has a residential occupancy rate of only 26 percent. The rest is office space and government buildings that empty out as the workday ends. One-third of Prague works within the Landmark Preservation Area, but only 5 percent of Prague lives there.

Professor Kotalik has thought up several proposals to reverse the trend, including tax breaks and subsidies to owners of restituted property to enable them to repair their dilapidated houses. Kotalik says businesses that buy property in the center should also be made to set aside a fixed proportion of residential units as compensation to the city.

Companies that relocate to other areas of Prague should get tax deferrals, Kotalik adds. But so far, he says, City Hall has shown little interest.

Kasl, the former planning adviser who quit public service to run his own architectural firm, says part of the problem is that community involvement remains very low. "When we held public hearings to explain our new ideas for the city after the revolution, no one showed up. People have to learn that being a citizen of a democracy means expressing oneself. If you don't, then you're not part of the process."

Kasl says whenever civic groups, such as the Prague Board, try to press their point, they are treated as a nuisance. "We're stuck between the Anglo-Saxon concept of decentralization and the Communist-reinforced Austro-Hungarian tradition of rigid central planning."

At City Hall, council member Zdenek Kovarik is in charge of urban development. He doesn't see many problems. Mr. Kovarik espouses a blend of laissez-faire capitalism mixed with Communist distaste for meddling outsiders. The preservationists, says Kovarik, are a "bunch of academics" who "think they should have a voice in every decision."

He says dissenters who stand in the way of modern development are wasting their breath. "Prague," he says, "has always been a mixture of styles. So to claim that an area should be all Gothic or all Baroque, for example, would be pure idiocy."

As for the depopulation of the historic center, according to Kovarik, it's an insignificant phenomenon caused by "improvements in real estate." That is to say, people who used to live in dank apartment houses have happily taken up quarters elsewhere while the buildings have been gutted and turned into office complexes.

Jaroslav Hejna is one of those people. He was moved out to the city's edge when the Czech owner of his apartment building sold the site to an Austrian developer for office space. Mr. Hejna considers himself fortunate. He agreed to move, while a neighbor resisted until his apartment was flooded and he had to give in.

Hejna's rent is now higher, but he is philosophical. "We were all victims of this new wild capitalism," he muses, but adds, "I've got nice memories, and you get used to new things."

Vlado Milunic is one of Prague's top modern architects. His latest and most controversial project is a pair of conical office towers rising along Prague's embankment. Commissioned by the Dutch insurance giant Nationale Nederlande, the towers have been criticized by preservationists.

Mr. Milunic shrugs, "Yes, the project was once likened to a gold tooth that spoils a smile." But, he argues, it is up to City Hall to impose restrictions on developers before they acquire a site. "Once a foreign investor has bought a plot of land for a wad of cash," he says, "the city's hands are pretty much tied."

Kasl is in his Old Town office, pointing to blueprints thumbtacked to his wall. "Look," he says, "mistakes have been made and city officials are still learning on the go. But even from a business standpoint, every enterprise has to have a strategic plan. That's even more true for a city."

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