In his bid to transform Belgrade into a global metropolis, Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s Prime Minister, set out to do what many are doing: regenerating and gentrifying the inner city.
Decay has long been seen as an opportunity for capital to benefit from an increase in rents, and, luckily for Prime Minister Vučić, Belgrade is full of it. Under the guise of infrastructure improvement and overall betterment of Belgrade’s quality of life, his newly elected government presented a project targeting the city’s waterfront, a significant chunk of the inner city. Dubbed Belgrade on the Water, and now officially Belgrade Watefront, the project is meant to be accepted as panacea for the city’s ills. The project is to be entirely financed by private capital.
With a price tag of €3.5bn, Emirati investors soony emerged as the generous donors supporting the project. The main investor, Abu Dhabi based Eagle Hills, already has a portfolio of Dubai models which it's used to build new towns, or economic hubs, in the Middle East and Central Africa.
Although initially greeted with the usual dose of skepticism and indifference, the project eventually penetrated the public mind, when all sorts of images and other marketing props popped up throughout Belgrade. But despite the glitz and glamour of said images, not everyone was keen on the karaoke architecture that is meant to replace the decaying, but beautiful, buildings that echo the city’s complex and diverse history.
More opponents surfaced once the full scale of the project emerged. The 30-year scheme will cover 1.8m m2 of central Belgrade, and include a 140,000 m2 shopping mall, the largest in the Balkans. The most vocal opponens have been the local art, design and music venues in Savamala, Belgrade’s bustling cultural district, and a part of the waterfront itself. Some are asking what will happen to the small businesses that have been booming there.
Local residents, too, face a tough situation. Many have used this space without official endorsement – but that also gives the authorities the right to kick them to the curb without providing suitable alternatives. Essentially, Belgrade on the Water, is a case of accumulation by devaluation – not just of property, but of any urban activity taking place on these grounds.
Practitioners and students of architecture and urbanism have questioned why they were not included in any stages of the project’s conception. They've asked why there was no public consultation, and no competition to showcase local knowledge or talent. The government's response was that it wouldn’t have minded a competition, had there been someone local to contribute at least €2bn. But since there wasn't, the project, therefore, was devised entirely by its investors.
A year into the controversy, all that's happened is that the marking of territory. The maquette in one of the city’s most beautiful neo-classical buildings in Savamala was renovated by Eagle Hills as a sign of good faith – yet it soon emerged that the building would be used only for purposes related to the Belgrade Waterfront. Train tracks have been removed, without any apparent alternative for the central rail route, too.
Belgrade Waterfront was envisioned as a high-end residential and commercial district with property values that are well beyond Serbia’s economic capacity per capita. It's an unrealistic megaproject, designed to generate profit and the opportunity to sweep Belgrade’s many issues under the rug. In a city whose population is already heavily in debt, luxury condos and shopping malls are already selling at €400,000; the average salary is €450 per month.
Meanwhile, local policing strategies are changing, with occasional arrests for tampering with promotional material, and unwarranted raids of cultural establishments. Public opinion, expert and otherwise, is still being ignored, contracts remain hush hush, and the authorities continue to dance around financial arrangements. It's a very expensive facelift that threatens to push the city, if not the country, further into debt.
Belgrade’s volatile political climate, and the absence of long term urban planning, makes it particularly susceptible to the whims of investors. The dangers of megaprojects such as this one have already been discussed by the likes of David Harvey, Neil Smith and Thierry Paquot. Nonetheless, the allure of becoming a global city remains potent enough to overshadow pressing needs and address real problems. As Europe as a whole deals with its financial and social crisis, perhaps it's time for Serbia to focus on investing where it counts: in its own human capital.
Filipa Pajević is studying for a PhD in urban planning, policy & design at McGill University, Montréal. She tweets as @Filipouris.