The case of Hala Matache in Bucharest
Demolishing old buildings to give more place for cars
Acest articol este preluat din broșura EURBANITIES “Our Neighborhoods’ Heroes – The EUrbanities Booklet on Participation”, pe care o puteți descărca de aici.
Vera Marin, Irina Zamfirescu
THE INITIAL PROBLEM AND CONTEXT
A Place Next to The North Railway Station
The problem started in 2006, with the approval of an urban planning documentation aiming at the enlargement of the two streets. It was not a complete Zonal Urban Plan: it was not based on the necessary sets of data and analysis that should have been made for an urban planning documentation and did not provide any urban regulations for the remaining plots after the demolition and the permits for the Ministries.
The Historical Context
The modernization of this axis was first mentioned by the 1935 development plan of Bucharest representing the objective to make the city of Bucharest a capital city for a relatively new nation state at that time.
The Plans of the 1930s aiming at the modernization of the city of Bucharest had been elaborated before the huge demolitions accompanying the construction of the House of the People, that completely changed the morphological and functional context of the area.
During the communist regime, the buildings of the area were nationalized and inhabited by the tenants of the Municipality. Despite the lack of any public maintenance, the area remained very vivid, the food market was prosperous due to its central position and the vicinity of the North Railway Station.
A few elements of the context
In 2006, urban planning documentations were not subject to compulsory public information procedures yet. Between 2006 and 2010 (the date when the demolition started), there was no real professional debate about the project and no information had been provided to the media concerning what was supposed to be a major intervention in the city – the first „urban project” in Bucharest after 1990.
Only few people knew about this project, even though, one of the analysis that had been ordered for the elaboration of this urban planning documentation pointed out the importance of social dialogue in this area. As a result, after the approval, the Municipality started the expropriation procedures without any previous communication or involvement of the stakeholders concerned.
Some information was provided in 2009 by the Union of Architects’ Monthly Newsletter about the meetings of the Urban Planning Technical Commission dedicated to debate the construction of the road’s next section – from Dambovita River to the Flowers Market area in the South of the city. The discussion was about to dig this street connection underneath the Parliament hill.
Following closely the activity of the Bucharest Municipality Council as well as district level local councils, the Save Bucharest Association tried to reach the revocation of the decisions concerning this area several times, but only a few close supporters of the NGO knew about their struggle. At that time, there was very little media coverage of such subjects.
THE STAKEHOLDERS AND THEIR INITIAL POSITION
The mayors – gaining popularity among car drivers
Car ownership is a very important issue in Bucharest: it is a sign for prestige on the one hand and a necessity on the other due to the bad conditions of public transport in the city. Affluent people possessing a car are less numerous than those who cannot afford any, but this latter segment of the population has less political influence. 2004 to 2008 was the period of mayor Videanu’s second mandate. He had a personal commercial interest in street investments because he owned shares in a Titan Mar Company producing street paving materials. The schematic Plan for urban Zones (PUZ) of 2006, elaborated during his mandate, was the most feasible way to evaluate the costs for this intervention over the street, with little concern for other aspects. Many street surfaces were improved during his mandate but there were complaints about the quality of these works deteriorating after only few winters.
The NATO summit event in April 2008 revealed, in the eyes of the political leaders of the Municipality, a problematic connection for high level officials between the Government and the Parliament. In June 2008, Oprescu became the elected mayor of Bucharest promising ambitious infrastructural projects in the city. In 2012, the same mayor was re-elected without much debate and one of the topics attracting the media’s interest was the suspended (urban) highway. These facts prove that the general approach of the decision-makers was very much in line with the mobility of cars.
NGOs involved in heritage protection
In 2010, several NGOs experienced in watchdog activities in relation to heritage protection are active in Bucharest:
Save Bucharest association is in the core of the events around Matache, since the approval of the PUZ, when they went to court against the Municipality. Apart from their legal actions, they also act as a watchdog.
PRO_DO_MO Association is an NGO involved in heritage protection, applied research with case studies, comparative approach with mechanisms in place in Western countries, but also with legal actions against local authorities that do not fulfil their obligations.
Also, important stakeholders are the young professionals who have blogs and websites becoming more and more visible and visited. One article published at the end of November 2010, with the title RECVIEM (1) FOR HALA MATACHE3, presented the demolished buildings in details.
The professionals who reject the project
Unfortunately, until the start of the demolitions, the majority of experts and scientists were not aware of the real danger represented by the plans of the municipality. The number of experts rejecting the plan grew considerably following the start of demolishing the buildings in the area.
The professional supporters of the project
Urbis 90 was the group that prepared the schematic urban planning document in 2006 for the enlargement of Buzesti Berzei and Vasile Parvan streets. It was not an urban regeneration approach, but a document addressing traffic issues and the juridical status of the land for street widening. The group of professionals was in favour of this intervention because a coherent circulation network was given higher priority over the sacrificed buildings.
In 2010, the same team was assigned by the municipality to prepare the Urban Planning Documentation. This time, the new PUZ was prepared with more concern for the urban design since this time it had to provide urban regulations for plots on both sides of the streets to be widened.
PHASE 1: 2010 – 2011: expropriations and demolitions in the area
In November 2010, the associations engaged in the area held a press conference with the title “The Legality and the Opportunity of the Buzesti Berzei”. Side by side with the objective of exposing the failures of the project regarding contemporary urban planning principles and sustainable mobility, this study highlighted the high costs of the planned interventions and the importance of heritage protection.
After the awareness raised on the internet and some coverage in the media, there were the first signs of concern expressed by the civil society and some of the professionals. The Municipality ordered the elaboration of another PUZ to follow the steps of the elaboration procedure and to get all the permits from the various ministries.
The 3D simulations presented to the public showed a new boulevard with buildings requiring more space than what was left after the expropriations. A significant densification of the area was foreseen through the construction of 7-storey buildings. The simulation intended to prove their feasibility and their compatibility with the existing urban tissue. These images were considered not only false but also damaging for the area and enraged part of the professional community.
In May 2011, several organizations of architects, planners and anthropologists launched an online call for participants called Alternative Bucharest Workshop Interdisciplinary Approach. Young graduates and master students responded to the call and the workshop resulted in proposals for urban regeneration interventions in the area. Authors of studies elaborated for the PUZ were also invited; they claimed that the conclusions of their studies had not been taken into consideration by the PUZ.
The organizers and the participants agreed that the renewal of the road should have been realised through an integrated approach as part of a complete urban regeneration program. Interviews carried out with the inhabitants and the owners of the shops and small restaurants in the area supported this argument.
1st turning point: the Ministry of Regional Development intervenes as a mediator
In April 2011, the Court of Cluj revoked the general council’s decision of 2016 concerning the adoption of the PUZ as well as one of the building permits issued for the plan. The court decisions did not stop the demolishing of the area and on the 2nd of June 2011, the NGOs organized a protest in front of the Ministry of Regional Development asking to close the working site and to start a public debate about this project. They also continued to struggle to attract the attention of the media and the citizens. The Ministry of Regional Development invited the NGOs to a meeting, where high rank public servants from the Ministry also participated and agreed on the principles and ideas presented by the group. They seemed to be convinced that this intervention was made without a proper consideration of all aspects and made promises to organize a negotiation process.
PHASE 2: Facilitated Negotiations: June-August 2011
As a result of the involvement of the Ministry as a mediator between the NGOs and the Municipality in June 2011, the demolitions were stopped in the area. Negotiations were held in June and July. Several meetings were organized, facilitated by an academic specialized in public, appointed by the Ministry and accepted by the Municipality. The negotiation period was short, the parties had to find quick solutions for the existing situation. The meetings at the Municipality and the NGOs were attended by various external experts and representatives of the Union of Architects.
At this point, there were no comments coming either from the expropriated inhabitants or shop owners. They were not directly present in the meetings. Some of the expropriated owners and the evacuated families had been previously interviewed by the Human Rights NGO called Active Watch. Some of the shop owners expressed their hope that the working site would not last long and that it would bring modernization to the area. They were not aware of the major changes in the area after the intervention.
Hence, the decision of the halt of the project was unpleasant to both the remaining inhabitants and shop owners.
Because of the negotiations, on 1st of August the Municipality promised to maintain Hala Matache in place and to narrow the lanes for the cars; on the other side the NGOs accepted the traffic solution with 2 lanes on each side even though they wanted only one lane on each side for the benefit of the historical character of the area. Both parties agreed with the Ministry to launch a call for tender of expertise to elaborate an urban regeneration study.
Meanwhile, the Municipality was supposed to offer temporary shelter for commercial and cultural activities in the area. It was supposed to be the first example of urban regeneration project in Romania.
2nd turning point: The fall of the National Government
The Central Government of Romania fell in autumn of 2011. The situation was used by the Mayor for re-launching the intervention
PHASE 3: The Municipality withdraws the promises – autumn 2011
The terms of the agreement reached in
August 2011 were reconsidered by the Municipality and the Transport Director insisted on the relocation of Hala Matache through demolition and reconstruction. Tension grew between the representatives of the Municipality and the NGOs.
The mayor called the public opinion to consider the bad effects on the city, if this project was on hold for too long. He even publicly asked for the support of the inhabitants and the shop owners to express their interest in the reopening of the working site.
Meanwhile, a group of professionals called Volunteer Architects presented a design solution to the Municipality that allows the street widening with preserving Hala Matache at the same time. The good will of the volunteering professionals met resistance from the representatives of the Municipality: the issue of the sewage network in the area was brought up as an argument to reject the solution offered by the Volunteer Architects.
The new PUZ had to follow the compulsory public information procedure and permits were requested from various ministries. The discussions were often very technical. Many people from the initial heritage protection group got tired. The danger of demolishing Hala Matache remained present even though it was hard to believe that it would get the approval of the Ministry of Culture.
3rd turning point: the shop owners want a deal with the Municipality
Local shop owners organized themselves to ask for solutions from the municipality to unblock the area.
PHASE 4: Matache becomes an issue of a long lasting political
struggle in the city April – June
A group of inhabitants and shop owners established an NGO called Pro Matache. They organized press conferences explaining the difficult conditions they must live with because of this never ending working site.
In spring 2012, several shop owners and inhabitants attended a meeting with Mayor Oprescu, who made promises to continue the works and to rebuild the Market Hall if the shop owners publicly showed their support for the project.
The NGOs representatives warned the inhabitants and shop owners about the lack of reliability of the Mayor in fulfilling his promises made in the meetings.
On the other side, the NGOs began to use specific tools of activism: they organized flashmobs, demonstrations and workshops to get public attention and support from the other inhabitants of the city. The issue of Matache became subject to a political struggle and it also became an issue at the coming municipal elections.
Autumn 2012 became a period of fatigue for the NGO group. The NGOs’ calls for demonstrations were bringing less and less people together. Nothing seemed to be able to deter Mayor Oprescu from his decision to get rid of the market hall and all the other old buildings staying in the way of the street widening. The Ministry of Culture denied to have any competence to refuse the permit for the operation of the so-called relocation. During the process of approval of the new PUZ started in 2010, official letters came back and forth from the Municipality to the Ministry of Regional Development. The quality of the analysis as well as the viability of the solutions were questioned as the latter still failed to provide any real operational solutions for the remaining plots. The final approval imposed several conditions. An urban regeneration program was requested and the project for this new boulevard was to be the basis for social, economic and environmental projects aiming at an integrated and sustainable development.
The Group of Volunteer Architects published a book entitled Who is afraid of Matache Neighbourhood? It was an attempt to present the market hall in the spatial relationship with the North Railway Station area. The 3D simulations show a lot of concern for urban composition and even though the theoretical references speak about urban regeneration, the proposal is focused on urban design.
PHASE 5: A complete break of the community
An online emergency call was organized by the NGOs after the start of the demolition to form a human chain around the building. The system worked, even if the demolition started on a Saturday night, but the building was surrounded by policemen, so the people who arrived on the site in a hurry could not approach the building. The event had an important press coverage, but it did not matter.
After the demolition, both the group of NGOs, the inhabitants and shop owners went through a phase of depression. The communication among the defeated organizations involved in heritage protection was weak.
The demolition was made in a hurry and the elements of the building were not taken away with care. There are experts who claim that the reconstruction will have very little from the original substance of the building if ever this reconstruction will take place. The boulevard was opened – less pompous than expected. The impact on the overall fluency of circulation in the city was not evaluated.
During 2015, in an attempt for reconciliation, the chief architect worked with the Bucharest branch of the Union of Architects to organize an urban design competition around Hala Matache REBUILT in the future. In summer 2015, Mayor Oprescu had a corruption trial and he was removed from office.
The important conclusion for the Matache experience is that the legitimacy of the NGOs is not always accepted. Even though there were people with a lot of professional knowledge involved, they failed to convey their message about the principles of sustainable mobility. It may have happened also because the people concerned by the heritage protection or the quality of public spaces were not experienced in dealing with economic and social issues as well. There was no solidarity in the society of Bucharest with the evicted people. They were evicted during winter from the apartments owned by the Municipality. Human Rights NGO Active Watch presented their situation, but the rhetoric of the mayor on cleaning the area of old buildings and socially unsuitable inhabitants received more public support.
One of the main reasons of the failure was the lack collaboration between the professional NGOs mostly composed by intellectuals and architects, and the group of local inhabitants and shop keepers. As a result, the latter could be mobilized against the former group. Community building, an important tool for the development of common interests, was not successful in this case.
The mainstream media covered the story only occasionally, when the events were somewhat spectacular. Substantial materials were only published in a few specialized magazines. The level of the discussion was too often very technical, making the debate rather inaccessible to most people.