A corner of Moscow fights to keep history from being built over, literally

Why We Wrote This

While political speech is tightly controlled in Russia, there is increasing room for apolitical civil debate. That is what’s happening around the development of the old Badaevskiy Beer Plant site in Moscow.

Fred Weir
Oksana Skolotina stands in front of Tbilisi, a Georgian restaurant, in the Badaevskiy Beer Plant in Moscow on Sept. 25, 2019. The restaurant proprietors spent millions of dollars restoring the building before being ordered to vacate by Oct. 15.

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A coalition of small-business people, local residents, and newly elected opposition deputies of the Moscow City Council is uniting to stop a mega-development project in a picturesque corner of central Moscow. It’s the sort of apolitical, grassroots civic movement that may be familiar in the West, but is new – if seen with increasing frequency – in Russia today.

One of Moscow’s biggest developers, Capital Group, plans to build huge apartment blocks, raised by 30-yard columns, on the site of the former Badaevskiy Beer Plant, a rare example of 19th-century industrial architecture. But despite the company’s suggestion that the site is largely derelict, it currently houses more than 50 thriving small businesses; some have spent millions of dollars restoring large sections of the old factory. They all received eviction notices ordering them to leave by Oct. 15, without compensation.

“We won’t leave,” says Oksana Skolotina, owner of the Mayer Art Gallery at the site. “It’s not just about all the money we have invested here. We are struggling against arbitrary decisions made by big business and the authorities working hand in glove.”

For the past two decades, the technocratic leadership of Moscow has remade the face of the city under development priorities set by a partnership between big business and the authorities. And while that has resulted in many widely acknowledged achievements, officials have moved ahead without paying much attention to public input.

Activists now want that to change, and the battle over the Badaevskiy Beer Plant could be the moment.

A coalition of small-business people, local residents, and newly elected opposition deputies of the Moscow City Council is uniting to stop a mega-development project in a picturesque corner of central Moscow, whose plan calls for building a vast luxury housing complex on stilts atop a rare and protected gem of 19th-century industrial architecture. It’s the sort of apolitical, grassroots civic movement that may be familiar in the West, but is new – if seen with increasing frequency – in Russia today.

The $750 million project by one of Moscow’s biggest developers, Capital Group, is bold and unorthodox, and is the design of a noted Swiss architectural bureau. It has already excited plenty of controversy on its architectural merits since being made public last year. But the plan to eclipse a beloved historical monument, the Badaevskiy plant, under a forest of columns that will hold up huge apartment blocks has also annoyed local residents and elicited angry responses from historical preservationists.

Despite the company’s suggestion, repeated in some media, that the site is largely derelict, it does currently house more than 50 thriving small businesses, including restaurants, art galleries, sports clubs, and shops that employ hundreds of people. All of them signed long-term leases with the property’s owners in recent years, and some have spent millions of dollars restoring large sections of the old factory.

But over the summer they all received eviction notices ordering them to leave by Oct. 15, without compensation. The developer’s agents cite a clause in the fine print of their leases enabling this measure, and are threatening to switch off the heat and electricity to the complex for those who refuse to comply. The small-business holders are up in arms.

“We won’t leave,” says Oksana Skolotina, owner of the Mayer Art Gallery, who also holds leases to other parts of the former factory. “It’s not just about all the money we have invested here. We are struggling against arbitrary decisions made by big business and the authorities working hand in glove. ... We have a unique chance to turn this around, and we will be using every possible means, from court challenges to petitions to protests to stop this.”

“We are dealing with a whole system”

The developer, which has not yet completed the formal process of getting permission to proceed with the project, appears to be in a great hurry to force the existing tenants out of the property as quickly as possible. Ms. Skolotina says that negotiations with the company’s agents, in which tenants begged for a one-year extension so they might recoup some of their investments, were summarily brushed aside.

Most say this could not be happening if top officials in the Moscow government had not tacitly assured the Capital Group that getting final approval for the project would be a mere formality. But that was before the stunning results of the Sept. 8 Moscow elections, which saw opposition candidates win nearly half of the city council’s 45 seats. Though the council has little actual power, the status of a city deputy provides an important public pulpit, as well as the right to view official documents and ask the government hard questions.

District 42, which contains the Badaevskiy plant, is a mainly middle-class downtown area centered around the avenue of Kutuzovsky Prospekt, which has reliably elected pro-government deputies in the past. But after a summer of angry middle-class protests against electoral manipulations by the Moscow government, local residents came out on Sept. 8 to vote for anyone except a candidate associated with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. They overwhelmingly elected Ekaterina Engalycheva, an outspoken and dynamic young Communist who, as a district councilperson in recent years, has cut her teeth on sometimes successful opposition to big-business encroachments on Moscow’s historic neighborhoods.

“This is not just about the Badaevskiy plant. We are dealing with a whole system, in which endless constructions are causing conflicts all over the city,” says Ms. Engalycheva. “Look at this Badaevskiy project. They want to disrupt this neighborhood with a thicket of 35-meter-high legs with ugly, big housing units on top. Small businesses have just put the Badaevskiy territory into order, and now they are being told they must leave, without any remuneration for their losses. In light of the government’s constant claims that it wants to support small business, this looks bizarre at the least,” she says.

“This place is not a wasteland”

The Badaevskiy Beer Plant was built in several stages beginning in 1875, and three of its core buildings are still on the city’s list of protected architectural monuments. The brewery itself was finally closed down in 2005. The state owns the land, and the owners of the building who granted long-term leases to the currently besieged tenants are mostly unknown, represented by a hired agency. Most admit that their leases contain a clause entitling the agency to evict them in the event of a major construction project.

But at least one tenant, Mikhail Semyonov, who has created a popular art cafe on the territory, insists that his lease – good until 2023 – contains no such clause.

“The owners clearly knew that a big housing project was in the works here, but they decided to rent out the premises to small businesses to make some money in the meantime,” says Mr. Semyonov. “As soon as people settled in and renovated the premises, they decided they needed the territory. I think this represents a real abuse, and maybe fraud.”

The Capital Group’s project includes plans to renovate the three protected buildings – while demolishing the rest – and hand them over to new businesses, including a microbrewery to preserve some semblance of historical continuity.

In an unsigned statement in response to questions from the Monitor, Capital Group lauded the Swiss design as a constructive way to save the old buildings while creating a modern, green, and publicly accessible space in a long-neglected corner of the city. It made no direct reference to the site’s current tenants or the imminent threat of eviction facing them. “Any project with outstanding architecture will inevitably find both supporters and critics,” it says. “And this project to redevelop the Badaevskiy plant is really unique.”

The main objection of architectural critics is that the vast housing-complex-on-stilts will obscure and dwarf the remaining structures, while totally changing the district’s traditional look. Some also warn that local infrastructure is not designed to handle a huge increase in inhabitants, especially given the traffic jams that already clog Kutuzovsky Prospekt on most days.

“There are laws to protect this plant, but under pressure of an omnipotent investor, Capital Group, the number of protected objects on this territory has already been considerably reduced,” says Natalia Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute.

“The desire to have spectacular architectural creations on the Moscow skyline has apparently prevailed. But there are a lot of questions about the experts who took part in this process. The way they have treated these historical buildings is a direct violation of ethics, at the very least. The project itself is really weird. The plant, or whatever will be left of it, will be lost somewhere amid all those huge legs holding up big apartment blocks,” she says.

Many of the tenants say they are preparing for a battle.

“We are bringing photographers, public figures, and journalists here to show them that this place is not a wasteland, but a living space filled with cultural life and community activity,” says Ms. Skolotina, the art gallery director. “We are organizing petitions, letter-writing campaigns, flash mobs, and if it comes to that, we will stage pickets. We’re not going to leave. We will fight.”

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