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Save Berlin: Road to nowhere

Did we need more proof that Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit doesn’t give a damn about good urban planning? Dan Bordan explains what our re-elected leader has in store for the city.

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Did we need more proof that Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit doesn’t give a damn about good urban planning?

After his re-election in September, everyone expected Wowereit’s SPD to form a coalition with the eco-friendly Greens. The sticking point was a plan to extend the A100 highway through Neukölln, Treptow and Friedrichshain, wiping out homes, gardens and landmarked buildings. The Greens insisted on scrapping the plans. Wowereit was glad to go along with them… if the federal government would let him spend the €420 million on something else.

The feds said no, and Wowereit chose cash over community. He dropped the Greens, doomed a neighborhood to destruction, and, even worse, doomed Berlin to five years of a coalition government with the conservative, pro-business CDU.

For 10 years, Wowereit has made urban planning decisions based solely on financial gain. He’s cleared huge swaths of prime land for future corporate office parks – sort of like building a UFO landing strip and praying for alien visitors. So far, no lights in the sky.

He and his ex-finance minister Thilo Sarrazin (better known today for his anti-immigrant rants) cooked up a scheme to auction city-owned landmarks to the highest bidder. Now Berlin’s family jewels have been sold off at bargain-basement prices and the city’s only deeper in debt.

The last time the CDU ruled over Berlin in the 1990s, they pumped up a real estate bubble via cheap loans from the city-owned Landesbank Berlin. When the bubble burst, the bank went broke and the CDU left in shame. Now activists fear the pro-development CDU will only feed the misguided dreams of a mayor who craves the snazzy glories of New York and Paris.

Instead of helping long-time Berliners pinched by gentrification, he’ll pour his energy into attracting more corporations and wealthy newcomers.

A lot can happen in five years. Between now and the next election, several major urban planning projects will take shape. Here are some hot spots to keep an eye on:

Tempelhof The former airport is now a much-loved park, but plans call for new “development zones” on the north, east and south borders. But what development: schools, libraries and affordable housing – or corporate headquarters and luxury condos?

Europa City Like Mediaspree, this strip of former rail lines north of Hauptbahnhof has been officially designated a future office park. Will a more biz-friendly city hall finally attract a flock of corporate towers?

Moritzplatz This once-forgotten crossroads has been given new life by the new Planet Modulor/Aufbau Verlag complex. But what about that enormous city-owned lot across the street, now home to the Prinzessinengarten? Neighbor-friendly mixed-use complex or Moritzplatz Arcaden shopping mall? Expect a mighty tug of war for the neighborhood’s soul.

Tegel Airport Slated to close in 2014, various plans call for this former woodlands to house a high tech industrial park or new sports facilities – in preparation for another Olympic bid?

Humboldt Forum The demolished royal palace is set to rise again. Of course Wowereit would never turn down €380 million euros of promised federal money – unfortunately that will barely pay for the faux-Baroque marble façades. Everyone knows the total cost will be closer to a billion euros and no one knows where the money will come from, but no one has the guts to stop this slow-motion train wreck.

IBA 2020 An open-air showcase for new architecture and urban design. Berlin’s last, in 1987, transformed Kreuzberg with postmodern housing blocks. The next, planned to be completed in nine years, could be equally groundbreaking – or may never get off the ground. More about this next month.

One bright spot in the gloomy election aftermath is that Regula Lüscher will stay on as Senatsbaudirektorin, head of Berlin’s building department. When she arrived here four years ago, this Swiss architect declared Berlin’s construction approval process a chaotic mess: each Bezirk, or district (Kreuzberg, Mitte, etc.) has its own system for okaying new buildings.

So Lüscher created the Baukollegium, a kind of architectural Star Chamber that scrutinizes all new building plans. They’ve forced developers to scrap designs and hold architecture competitions. They’ve also tied auctions of city-owned land to design quality instead of highest bids.

The current exhibition Bauen ist Dialog (Building is Dialogue) celebrates Lüscher’s approach and shows off the Baukollegium’s victories, like the master plan for Tempelhof. This strong-minded designer has stood up to big-money developers – let’s hope she can stand up to the greedy new kids in city hall.

Bauen ist Dialog | Spandauer Str. 2, U+S-Bhf Alexanderplatz Mon-Sat 12-17:00, Through Nov 15