Showdown on the Spree: Cult-Bar Site Symbolizes Battle over Berlin's Future

By Tobias Rapp

Berlin's Bar 25 was one of the city's most famous underground clubs before it closed in 2010. Now its founders want to build a new 50 million euro development on the site. The debate surrounding their proposal is symptomatic of a city seeking its true identity.

Photo Gallery: Building on Berlin's Bar 25 Photos
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At the moment, there isn't much but a few trees and a lot of sand on the site. Traffic rushes by along a major road outside the wooden fence, commuter trains squeak by every few minutes, and the water of the Spree River flows slowly past.

It takes a good bit of imagination to envision a new development on this somewhat run-down property on Berlin's Holzmarktstrasse, near the Ostbahnhof train station.

"The restaurant will be over there. It'll be underground, at water level, and next to it will be a hotel," says Christoph Klenzendorf, 38, pointing to his left. "The gardens will be developed in this spot here, where we're standing, which we call Mörchenpark. There'll also be shops, workshops, studios and housing units. The visual arts center will be back there." Klenzendorf points to a group of trailers arranged in a circle, next to a large pile of scrap wood. On the other side of the railroad line, he says, "will be the apartments for students and the developers' office."

The planned development is called "Holzmarkt" ("Lumber Market"), a reference to the fact that until the 19th century, lumber was traded and stored at this riverside site. If approved, it could turn into one of Berlin's spectacular urban projects, a green oasis surrounded by rails, streets and the river, and a new nucleus for an area that has no center.

Track Record of Success

Christoph Klenzendorf is a well-known personality in Berlin. He is one of the partners behind KaterHolzig, which is an upscale restaurant, techno club and a hand-built adventure playground just a few hundred meters away, on the opposite bank of the Spree.

Hardly anyone would support his ambitious plans if Klenzendorf hadn't stood in the same spot eight years ago and imagined something that could be built on what was then an abandoned lot. His idea became the legendary Bar 25, one of the clubs that helped establish Berlin as a globally renowned nightlife hotspot. The club was forced to close in September 2010.

Bar 25 began with a simple lease, a VW bus repurposed as a beer van, and a weeklong party. Things are a little more complicated today. Until recently, Klenzendorf still lived the life of the club owner, a man whose weekends often lasted until Tuesday morning.

But he now meets with members of the Berlin state senate to discuss possibilities for Holzmarkt; with investors to drum up the money for the consortium that will support the project; with architects to iron out the plans; and with bankers to tie down the financing.

Under the plans, hotelier Michael Zehden would collaborate on the development of the hotel, and the Berlin student dormitory complex, Studentendorf Schlachtensee, would be involved in the student apartments. An estimated €50 million ($63 million) is needed for the entire project.

Holzmarkt's developers envision it as an investment project with serious financing that will generate profits. They also see it as a kind of playground, where the transformable architecture will preserve the spirit of improvisation and the makeshift nature of its previous incarnation.

Land for Sale

Berlin's municipal waste disposal company (BSR) owns the site, but it wants to get rid of it. To do so, it has turned the property over to the "Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin," a company that has organized and processed the sale of city-owned properties for more than 10 years. The bidding process ended in late May, and a number of proposals are now being reviewed. The identity of the remaining bidders is unknown. The city expects to sell the property for at least €10 million.

Although the BSR and the Liegenschaftsfonds are fundamentally required to sell to the highest bidder, the district wants to modify its zoning ordinance, which could bring down the site's value. Berlin's top urban development official, however, must agree to the move.

A complicated game of poker will decide the fate of the riverside property. There is more at stake than the 18,672 square meters (about 4.6 acres) of prime real estate, which is about the size of three soccer fields. What is really at stake is the future of the city, or at least one of its symbols.

The Value of Culture

In the last 10 years, Berlin has almost always sold its properties to the highest bidder. But a new way of thinking has taken hold in the capital, as it has in other cities. When a city sells off its real estate, shouldn't it also consider cultural and social criteria that could very well pay off in the long term? Do we really need more glass towers?

These kinds of questions are particularly pressing in Berlin. The city is poor. Although it has raised more than €2 billion through the sale of real estate so far, many fear that without the necessary open space, Berlin could soon say goodbye to the only major success story of recent years: its booming cultural scene.

To prevent this from happening, surprising alliances are currently taking shape. For instance, the "Coalition of Independent Artists," a group of various artists' groups, is working on a joint position paper with the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Its message is that Berlin, a major city with plenty of debt and without a single company listed on Germany's DAX blue-chip stock market index, must nurture the only capital it has, the creativity of its residents. This, according to the joint document, also includes a real estate policy that takes social and cultural benefits into account.

Tourism also contributes to the new power of the cultural community. There were 1.9 million overnight stays in March 2012, roughly a 17 percent increase over the same month in 2011. Most guests are attracted by the city's cultural offerings -- and its subculture.

Most of the important players in the city and district governments sympathize with the Holzmarkt plans. Everyone wants this culture village on the Spree, which would invigorate a lifeless corner of the German capital, to be a done deal. Several state senators have already attended evening meetings at KaterHolzig. Everyone supports the plan, but no one knows exactly if and how they can make the project a reality.

Districts like Kreuzberg and Neukölln are undergoing fundamental transformations not unlike the radical changes that took place in the eastern part of the city after the fall of the Berlin Wall. New arrivals from Italy, Spain, France and Greece are now displacing immigrants from Turkey. They are people the city wants to have, young, well-educated, creative and inquisitive -- Europe's future. No one expected them, and yet they already make up a third of the population in some areas.

They are probably searching for the kind of freedom and open space that their crisis-ridden countries lack. Whether Berlin can adjust to these new residents remains to be seen. The way it handles the property on Holzmarktstrasse could very well be an indicator.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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