Gentrification in Hamburg: Can Ikea Save a Run-Down Neighborhood?

By Ole Reissmann and Sven Böll in Hamburg

Part 2: Traffic Concerns and Gentrification Fears

Residents are worried first and foremost about traffic. According to Ikea's plans, half of its customers would arrive by train, bicycle or foot. But will shoppers from far-flung parts of Altona really be convinced to change their ways and come by public transport rather than by car? What will happen on the weekends, when other Ikea stores typically experience a massive influx of traffic?

Many in Altona would love to hear an answer to these questions. But when SPIEGEL ONLINE asks local authority spokesman Rainer Doleschall about the possibility of an Ikea-related gridlock, he simply leans back in his chair and smiles. "Good question," he says. "Next question."

Photo Gallery

10  Photos
Photo Gallery: Hamburg Activists Take on Ikea

It's responses like these that enrage opponents of the project, who see them as representing the ignorance of politicians and local authorities. On top of that comes the discomfiting prospect that an Ikea-driven boom could cause the area surrounding Gross Bergstrasse to transform into a luxury quarter for high earners, similar to what happened in the nearby neighborhood of Ottensen. Experts call the phenomenon gentrification -- as poorer residential areas appreciate in value, first rents begin to rise, then residents who can no longer afford the new cost of living move away.

Linda Heitmann, 27, head of the local Green Party and a member of Hamburg's state parliament, isn't concerned about gentrification. "You just need to look at other trendy Hamburg neighborhoods to see that this process happens no matter what you do," she says. The Greens are proud to have formulated a few demands for Ikea. Among other things, they want to forbid the company from raising flags in front of the Altona building.

A Vision for the Building

Critics see that as capitulation, an admission on the part of the borough administration that it doesn't have the money, patience or imagination to deal with the area. And that's where the artists come into play.

More than 130 artists and other freelancers have moved into the Frappant building as interim tenants, setting up studios, exhibition spaces and offices in the upper floors. A room called the Blinzelbar faces the street, providing a venue for concerts, parties and exhibitions. It is also the Ikea opponents' window on the city, where they drink steaming tea from plastic cups. The building's owner, a real estate company located in far-off Munich, has shut off the heating.

"Altona is going to be inundated with traffic," says Anna Bergschmidt, who lives around the corner. She is wearing a button with a crossed-out Ikea logo on her jacket. She finds a building full of artists a more attractive prospect for her neighborhood -- and is frustrated that the local authorities won't accept that idea as a realistic alternative.

"We have a vision for this building," says Benjamin Häger from the activists' Frappant Association. He developed an idea together with others to turn the concrete block into a community center complete with shops, a meeting place for seniors, a preschool, studios, workshops and a landscaped parking deck. Everything would be under one roof again, the way it was in the 1970s. Häger gives the examples of London and Zurich, where urban districts have been made attractive again through cultural and educational centers, rather than mega shopping centers.

What will happen if the result of the referendum is a "no" to Ikea? The city could buy the building from the investor and develop something new in concert with the residents and artists.

In the past, however, politicians and local authorities generally adopted an easier solution -- they left the building alone, in the hands of an anonymous investor, for years. Many residents find it hard to believe anymore that anything will change on Grosse Bergstrasse unless Ikea gets involved.

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