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Tuesday 16.07.2019 | Name days: Hermīne, Estere

Crumbling buildings and the future of Riga’s slums

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RUThere are many empty buildings in Riga at the moment. However, Riga’s slums have a way to be reborn. One option is Rail Baltica, which could potentially change the situation with jobs in the city centre. Developers might have many complicated objectives ahead of them, considering that more and more people may decide to relocate to Riga’s central districts, said Riga city’s chief architect Gvido Princis in a conversation with BNN about Riga’s slums.

Rail Baltica project will «put us on the map»

Rail Baltica project provides for creating a railway line from Tallinn, Estonia, all the way to Lithuania’s and Poland’s shared border by 2026 to ensure Baltic States are connected with other EU member states. Because Riga is part of the route, architects and developers are hard at work, assessing how it could affect the city’s dynamics.

«Rail Baltica will pass through Riga. This is why it is entirely possible there will be increased need for jobs and housing in Riga’s centre. This means many of the empty buildings and run-down houses within close proximity to the Central Railway Station may see some use,» says architect Gvido Princis. It should be said that it is expected that Rail Baltica will ensure it is possible to travel from Riga to Pērnava (Estonia) and Panevėžys (Lithuania) within one hour. Currently many people spend as much time getting from home to work in Riga. «I think Rail Baltica could potentially change gravity in the city. Jobs are one thing, but it is no less important to ensure leisure, commerce and tourism. It seems this project could become an impulse for people to come closer to the centre. Additionally, many of the historical buildings are also fit for housing, but this is a planning and design matter,» said the architect.

He stresses that the city is interested in seeing this real estate return to active circulation and acquire new owners. The architect says old buildings should be surveyed from different angles – how they fit in a city environment, their overall state and usefulness. «Every such piece of real estate can be used for jobs, housing, leisure or commercial needs as long as they can pay taxes and offer jobs,» comments the architect, pointing towards many of Riga’s empty houses.

If the number of people wishing to move to Riga’s centre increases, it will create a complicated task for planners and developers, because it is clear that not only the wealthy will want to live there. The architect says: «I would like middle-class people to settle for life here, too. Affordable housing, services for families without children, as well as students, and families that would want to live in one of Riga’s central districts.» Developers should also think about the environment, starting with playgrounds and ending with a comfortable way for people to store bicycles and skis. «We have to look at things in a complex manner.»

«I think one major challenge is planning everything properly. People that would live in the centre may have to spend a lot of money to maintain a car and remain mobile at the same time.»

People’s desire to live in Riga’s centre could increase because, according to the architect, one important factor people care more and more about is time – they do not want to waste in in traffic congestions when travelling over long distances. «More and more people want to live in places where they can spend time with family, hobbies or work.»

For the right people to meet the right houses

Continuing the topic about houses worth restoring and breathing new life, the city’s architect stresses «it is very important for wood buildings to not disappear from the map and have people live in them». The architect says people would take care of those buildings and value the environment provided by wooden buildings as opposed to brick or concrete buildings nearby. I think this work – education and promotion – should be continued so that people who like the environment provided by wooden buildings are able to find apartments. To help the right people meet the right houses.

There are also buildings in such poor state they risk crumbling down on our heads

As for the reasons why buildings end up in such poor state, the architect told BNN that they do not immediately become run-down. «If they are left unattended a long time, or of builders leave the construction process without proper control, buildings start degrading in two to five years.»

According to official information from Riga City Council’s Real Estate Department, there are at least 616 objects in Riga declared run-down. There are 160 buildings currently under direct supervision. 511 buildings are listed as waiting for evaluation.

Riga city architect says if owners managed buildings in accordance with the law and rules there would not be any slums. There are buildings that are not in a bad shape – they have a roof, regular maintenance, and nothing bad happens there. Buildings can remain in such a state a long time and no one would care. «If something does not happen as it should – the building left without tenants or heating, if its windows are broken and the roof leaks – this results in degradation of structural integrity. Active use helps buildings remain in good shape.»

The architect explains that objects should be observed from two angles. «First of all, buildings have functional aspect: buildings are functional, secure and nothing illegal and unsanctioned happens there. Secondly there is visual presentation: if a building looks good, especially if it’s a historic building, it is possible to identify it and work of restoring its visual design. But there are also special procedures and additional costs that come with that. Still, when this does happen, it is what we want to see in the city.»

As for what building under monitoring means, the architect explains that buildings fall into this category if they have certain risks: visual degradation, poor state, unlawful activities being performed inside, etc. There are also buildings in such poor state that they are liable to collapse and kill people.

When asked if there is a reason why entire apartment homes become abandoned, Princis said this happened after the financial crisis of 2008, when many development projects and their owners became bankrupt. «Some projects may have been based on unrealistic plan, some projects simply lost funding. Once it became complicated for owners to continue financing their projects, many buildings changed hands – banks and other financial institutions took over.»

Paying 3% or 0.2% real estate tax

When asked how it is possible to motivate building owners to invest lots of money in restoring ruined buildings, Riga city architect said if the territory becomes clean and the look of the historic building is restored, owners could be provided with tax discounts. «It is a tax instrument municipalities can use to motivate owners.»

He says this does not always week, but there have been cases when it did. «As far as I know, real estate developers calculate property tax during the development process. People calculate that an increased real estate property tax could come up to a significant amount that could potentially motivate them to find solutions for putting property back together.»

Real estate tax for slums is 3% of their cadastral value, whereas the tax for normal buildings is 0.2% or 0.6%.

Expanding the topic regarding large finances that have to be invested in restoring ruined buildings, the architect said restoration of cultural historic buildings receives additional funding through projects. «Budget there is formed from the finances that come in from real estate tax payments. This money does not disappear in some city’s bottomless pot,» says the architect.

Building in an open space vs. restoring buildings

In response to BNN comment that it is far cheaper to build from scratch, the architect said a comparison between starting from scratch vs. restoring existing buildings shows that restoration is more complex and contains more underwater stones. «My experience shows that developers who are long-standing market participants and not single-project thinkers, consider preserving more – both constructively (preserving walls and facades of damaged buildings), because old decorations add value to the project. There could be a story behind a building that can help with marketing.»

He adds that institutions follow restoration projects. Developers are also deeply interested in preserving historic buildings. «Of course, each side has its own look at things. I believe synergy can be found on every turn. Riga has a very thick cultural layer. The city is 800 years old, especially its central parts. Riga has a lot in terms of architectural heritage.»

«This is a challenge for government and countries around the world were principles of capitalism – arguments in favour of increasing capital – trump heritage and preservation of cultural historic values.»

Buildings that «burn down»

«I can imagine someone may consider it beneficial to burn down an old two-storey building and built on top of it a five-storey concrete house. I cannot in good faith exclude motives why some buildings simply burn down,» says Riga’s architect, adding that the fight against this is nothing new for any country. «But if we look at Riga’s historic centre, the ruling laws are that it doesn’t matter if a monument of architecture is lost to malicious or accidental fire, as long as something else can be put in its place.»

Commenting on the situation with Art Nouveau building located on Kalnciema Street 2b, the architect only said that it is necessary to draw conclusions why this happened to make sure it does not repeat somewhere else. «I wouldn’t want this to be an example of systematic malicious practice.»

Values people are better with than without

When asked why old buildings should be preserved, Princis said Europe has had a tradition for preservation of cultural heritage since the 19th century. «The main philosophy is preserving what it left form previous generations and adapting it for modern needs.»

He says buildings embody many different values, not just visual values we see in art. Architecture is useful in household and cityscape context. As an example the architect mentioned Old Riga, where a special atmosphere can be found, largely thanks to ancient buildings and specific environment. «If we compare Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, we will see that each one is unique purely based on their heritage. If we look at ways to initiate construction in Riga, Tallinn or Vilnius, we are unlikely to find many differences – the same technologies and principles. Nevertheless, all three of them were founded based on their own needs, so for a time they did not have much in common. This means their cultural and historic locations are unique for their different traditions and different interesting facts. History is a tourist magnet for Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius.»

«On an individual level, people who like history and know their value want to live in a historic environment and know to maintain it. Still, society in Riga and all of Latvia have values there are better with than without. This offers opportunities for us as Riga residents and Latvian people to expand and present out identity in the world – it’s what makes us different from others.»

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