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Save Berlin: Checkpoint showdowns

What’s happening with Berlin’s Cold War border crossings?

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David Chipperfi eld Architects’ entry for the Senate’s 2018 “ideas competition”. Image courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects

What’s happening with Berlin’s Cold War border crossings?

In October 1961, US and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie, making Berlin the likely flashpoint to spark World War III. Now two of the city’s former checkpoints are again battlegrounds, this time in a fight to preserve that Cold War history. Berlin bureaucrats are up against big-money property developers in a high-stakes game with all the suspense and shady dealings of a John le Carré spy novel.

A for Almost Abandoned

Everyone knows Charlie, but there were two other checkpoints, Alpha and Bravo. They stood at each end of the 170km-long Autobahn corridor through East Germany, the lifeline that linked walled-in West Berlin with the Bundesrepublik. There’s nothing left at the deserted ex-Alpha site outside rural Marienborn besides a small museum, the Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung.

B for Big Bucks

As motorists pulled into West Berlin at Checkpoint Bravo just east of Potsdam, they were welcomed back to civilization by a Gaststätte, a roadside rest stop offering bratwurst and beer. Designed in 1973 by renowned subway architect Rainer Rümmler, the complex includes a bright red half-cylindrical tower and a bridge over the road, both icons of Cold War West Berlin.

Businessman Werner Scharwächter bought the site at auction in 2012 for €535,000, unaware of its historic stature. Thus followed a 6-year game of cat and mouse as Zehlendorf officials shot down each of Scharwächter’s proposals to re-use the listed building including a low-cost hotel, disco and a showroom for construction equipment. Last June the squabbling ended when all parties agreed Scharwächter could turn the landmark into a sales room for high-end Oldtimers, as in antique cars. With the approvals finally in hand, Scharwächter turned around and put the whole package up for sale. He claims international buyers are lined up to pay millions for Checkpoint Bravo’s unique selling point, its Cold War past.

C for Climactic Clash

Charlie is Berlin’s checkpoint star with 700,000 visitors a year. The city-owned plots of land on Friedrichstraße north of the crossing point were sold to investors in 1992 for €38.2 million. For decades, this ground zero of Cold War angst has been bought and sold in a game of high-profit speculation. While other tourist must-sees were meticulously master-planned down to the last millimetre of bus parking, the government allowed Checkpoint Charlie to decline into a chaotic tourist circus.

That all changed in 2018 with a dizzying flurry of activity aimed at finally giving Checkpoint Charlie the master plan it deserves. Officials collected ideas at public forums in May, then rushed seven teams of top architects to draw up proposals in time for an August exhibition. More feedback led to a “final” plan presented in early December including a 3000sqm museum and open park/memorial.

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Why the rush? The land in question is controlled by property developers Trockland, but they weren’t scheduled to sign the purchase contract until early 2019. With this deadline looming, Berlin’s planners squeezed a two-year process into nine months, a last-ditch effort to pressure Trockland into buying their “enlightened” plan along with the land. The problem: Trockland already has ready-to-build designs for the sites including a Hard Rock Hotel. Would any smart money guy forego tourist-driven profits in favour of the city’s museum and park?

One solution pushed by the Senate’s opposition CDU party is for Berlin to buy the property back, but the 2019 price of around €200 million seems out of reach. Instead, the Senate is staring down the developer in a high-risk game of chicken. In July, the government unexpectedly designated the land a protected landmark, but it’s unclear whether that’s enough to get the developer to follow their rules. If Trockland plays along, the city gets its dream Checkpoint Charlie while the new owner pays the bills. But it’s a major gamble, and the city, through its decades of neglect, has dealt Trockland the winning hand.