The Malling of Eastern Germany

THE thinking behind the ``malling of America'' has taken root in east Germany.

Outside every major city here, bulldozers are turning green fields into office parks and shopping malls.

The usual incentives of space and favorable development costs partly explain the explosive growth on the fringes of cities such as Leipzig.

But a uniquely east German phenomenon plays an important role too. In the city centers, where the prime real estate is located, legal battles rage over who rightfully owns property confiscated by the Nazis and expropriated by the Communists. In many cases, land registers and records of ownership are missing or incomplete.

``Every interesting piece of property has at least three claims on it,'' says Rainer Fornahl, who specializes in property ownership for the city's housing authority, Leipziger Wohnungs und Bau Gesellschaft mbH.

Turned off by the time and costs to settle such disputes, developers simply bought up farmland or industrial tracts on city outskirts. Around Leipzig, there are now so many office parks and shopping centers either planned or built that city officials wonder whether they can all survive.

Dirk Dettki, director of the BIG shopping center at Saxony Park, just north of Leipzig, concedes that ``competition is tough.'' He ticks off the names of five competitors - all within a half-hour drive and all established names with experience. ``We're in good company. They understand their business,'' he says in a serious tone.

Although this BIG shopping center only opened a year ago, it's already running in the ``pure, pure black,'' says Mr. Dettki. And he is counting on the building of Leipzig's new trade fair, just on the other side of the highway, for a steady supply of customers and continued profitability.

MONIKA, a customer at BIG, voices a typical east German concern that shopping centers ``are killing off the Tante Emma stores,'' or mom-and-pop shops.

People who do not have cars, such as pensioners, have a hard time getting here, she adds, although there is public transport, and BIG runs several free buses a day.

Still, these social concerns have not yet moved Monika to give up shopping at BIG, which sells everything from televisions to bananas. Like her counterparts in America, she comes here because it is conveniently located, the prices are competitive, and all she needs is under one roof.

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