Project has Muscovites going 'round and 'round

A factory that used to build supersecret armaments for the Soviet military has been handed a new mission: to construct the world's largest Ferris wheel – with a mini-bar and washroom in every car – and erect it on a hill overlooking downtown Moscow.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov quietly signed off on the $20-million rotating colossus at a February meeting of the city building council. That prompted ripples of irritation among architects and urban planners who say Moscow is sinking into chaos while City Hall plays with grand construction projects that turn out to be unlovable eyesores.

But enthusiasts say the 558-foot diameter wheel, which will be visible from any point in the city, will stimulate tourism, provide affordable fun for all, and change Moscow's age-old reputation as a dour, gray, and wintry place.

"We wanted to construct something remarkable in Moscow," says Vladimir Gnezdilov, director of the Pax Co., Russia's largest builder of amusement-park machines. Pax expects to begin assembling the giant Ferris wheel on the Sparrow Hills, about two miles from the Kremlin, by the end of this year.

The titanic device, named the Rus-3000, will have 60 heated cabins of transparent plexiglass, each comfortably seating 24 people on recliner chairs and sofas. A single revolution will last half an hour, time enough for a light meal – served airline style – or a few refreshments from the onboard bar. One special VIP cabin will be permanently reserved for President Vladimir Putin, another for the project's godfather, Mayor Luzhkov. Other cabins may be rented for weddings, birthdays, and special occasions.

Year round, passengers will soar some 650 feet above the Sparrow Hills, from which the entire metropolis of Moscow and its surrounding farmlands will be spread out beneath them. At night, the wheel will be illuminated by strings of high-powered colored lights. "I believe this ride will become the new holiday symbol of Moscow, and will revolutionize entertainment in this city," Mr. Gnezdilov says.

The Pax Co. is one of post-Soviet Russia's few successful experiments in military conversion. Its sprawling factory in the Moscow suburb of Mitino produced high-tech equipment for the USSR's military and space programs. In the past decade the company has successfully reinvented itself as a maker of roller-coasters, Ferris wheels, free-fall towers, giant centrifuges, and other scream-inducing amusement park rides. It sells its products all over the world. "Our specialty is anything based on a wheel-like mechanism," says Gnezdilov. "No matter how big and complex the design, we can build it."

Up to 10 million people are expected to ride the Rus-3000 annually, Gnezdilov adds – five times more than the wheel's nearest competitor in size, the 410-foot British Airways London Eye, built in 1999. Although the London Eye has exceeded the number of projected visitors, it struggled financially in its first year of operation.

Pax intends to assemble, own, and operate the new attraction, though Moscow City Hall will be given an undisclosed stake in exchange for the land it will sit on. The company believes it can recoup its investment within two years.

Critics complain that the wheel is the latest in a string of Luzhkov-sponsored boondoggles, decided with no public input and without concern for more urgent development priorities. "From 200 meters [650 feet] in the air, passengers on this ride will get a clear view of the mess post-Soviet Moscow has become," says Marine Tutcheva, director of Rozhdestvenka, a large, private architectural bureau. "They will see deserted industrial zones, roads snarled with traffic jams, dilapidated housing estates, and depleted green zones. The wheel itself will further disfigure Moscow's skyline and become yet another standing joke."

Luzhkov has been praised for repairing Moscow's notoriously bad roads and building new ones. But the rest of the city's vital infrastructure, particularly its underground sewers, pipes, and building foundations, are reportedly in a state of near-collapse. "Apart from the roads, there is little being done to keep Moscow afloat," says Dmitri Stoyanov, an architect who works for a federal government engineering design workshop. "At the same time, there are some wild projects like this Ferris wheel, that appear to be about politics rather than sound urban planning."

Luzhkov's monumental projects of the past decade – all of which will be clearly visible from the peak of the Rus-3000 – include the Church of Christ the Savior, a $300-million reconstruction of a cavernous cathedral, just two blocks from the Kremlin, that was destroyed in the 1930s by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Another is the Manege underground shopping complex, adjacent to Red Square, so hastily constructed, in time for Moscow's 850th birthday in 1998, that it already requires fundamental repairs.

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