Hipster Village Berlin Nightlife Grows Up

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Part 2: A Coup for the Underdogs

Because the Holzmarkt property belonged to the city-owned refuse removal service, local ordinances required that it be sold to the highest bidder. Few thought that a couple of club operators, who had done a lot of drugs in their lives, would stand a chance in a bidding process against developers and large investors.

But Swiss pension fund Stiftung Abendrot, which developed out of the anti-nuclear power movement, said it was prepared to purchase the property and to provide a 75-year lease to the Holzmarkt Cooperative. Klenzendorf, Dieziger and Husten began analyzing other potential bidders. Who would be prepared to bid how much? They were at pains to keep their own bid under wraps and have never revealed how much they paid. By the time of the auction, Andreas Steinhauser, a name known in the Berlin start-up scene, had joined them, as had the famous Chaos Computer Club, a hacking society. They all agreed not to disclose the true size of their offer. It's possible the Holzmarkt Cooperative deliberately leaked a low number shortly before the auction closed. Either way, they raised their offer at the last minute and prevailed.

With €500,000 in ground rent now owed to the Swiss pension fund each year, they are under pressure to build as quickly as possible. They need income. To that end, they've opened up a location called Pampa on the eastern part of the property, a place where you can hang out, eat and drink. There are food stalls and a temporary theater. They also quickly erected a wood-clad building in which they have opened a nightclub, called Kater Blau. In addition, they've established a restaurant inside the arches beneath the commuter train tracks near by. Just like at KaterHolzig, it is booked out every night, with main dishes going for up to €30, accompanied by expensive wine.

An old barge is anchored in front of the restaurant and the deck has become a kind of terrace. It offers a view of the evening sun and the city's famous Fernsehturm tower and city hall in the distance. It's also where Klenzendorfer, Dieziger and Husten meet with those who want to come and talk about the project -- and there are many. They include Russian investors who want to build on a piece of property across the river. The owner of an old ice cream factory is also interested in working together. Specialists present modern energy plans in the hope of landing contracts. Building contractors drop by seeking work as well. It's strange to see these men in checkered, button-down shirts and horse-leather shoes schmoozing with these shaggy partiers in shorts. Klenzendorf and Husten were initially impressed when one expert for wooden structures dropped by to make a pitch. But after Klenzendorf saw the man drive away in a Mercedes S-class, his enthusiasm waned.

Berlin's El Dorado

All around them, on both sides of the Spree River, you can see an El Dorado, the green shoots of a new Berlin that wants to be a little like New York or London. High-end lofts are currently being erected across the river on the site of the former KaterHolzig and the construction noise can be heard throughout day. There's also a piece of property belonging to German-American billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, which is currently still home to a techno nightclub aimed at tourists. To the southeast, you can see the construction site of the Living Levels skyscraper, which will be home to some of most expensive apartments ever seen in Berlin.

On this particular evening, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal also stops by. He's been given a tip that the Holzmarkt people might be interested in helping Detroit find a way to turn itself around. Not long ago, Mario Husten had been part of a delegation of Berlin club owners who traveled to the city to give presentations and to have a look at decaying buildings that could be repurposed. Dimitri Hegemann, who created one of the pioneering locations of the Berlin club culture with his techno club Tresor in 1991, is also on the barge on this evening, sharing a photo of the run-down Wurlitzer Building in downtown Detroit. You could do something great with that, Hegemann says. The reporter from America looks taken aback.

"I mean it," says Hegemann. "That's how we like it in Berlin!"

The reporter takes a look around the barge. Hegemann should know what he's talking about. In the early 1990s, he invited Detroit DJs to his club in Berlin and turned them into stars. But why, the American reporter asks, should Berlin care about Detroit?

The reason is obvious. These Berliners have gotten a bit older and their own city has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. In the abandoned ruins of Detroit, they see something of 1990s Berlin -- a place where they would find a run-down building in the east, somehow come across the keys, set up equipment and open up a club the next day.

A Scene Grows Up

Although that Berlin has long since disappeared, Klenzendorf wants to preserve some of its spirit in an updated version at Holzmarkt. In a sense, it is the techno spirit of the early 1990s that is growing up here: the sense of community, the hippy-esque feeling and the fearlessness of trying new things and the confidence that they will, somehow or another, work out in the end.

But the new thing they are now trying will cost at least €100 million if they want to realize all of their plans. Sure, they made a load of money with Bar 25 over the years, but they also squandered a lot of it with their extended parties. At the moment, Dieziger and Klenzendorf aren't even paying themselves a salary and things are getting tight.

Their cooperative now has more than 120 members. To join, investors must pay €25,000, and some have even bought several shares. This has raised funds in the single-digit millions. The rest will have to be borrowed. Husten says they have had no trouble finding banks willing to lend them money.

The next stage is the construction of the project's first phase, the so-called Eckwerk -- an ensemble of five high-rises up to 12 stories high with the river-side path winding through them. The plans also call for the rooftops to be used as fish farms, with the dung recycled to fertilize vegetable gardens. The buildings look good in the plans, but so far no permits have been forthcoming.

Bureaucratic Hurdles

Which means Mario Husten must make yet another foray into the bureaucratic maze. Klenzendorf and Dieziger aren't up to it. Husten takes along their lawyer as well as the architect Jan Kleihues with Kleihues + Kleihues and Wolfram Putz of Graft Architects. Kleihues designed the new headquarters for Germany's foreign intelligence service in Berlin and Putz became famous for doing several projects for Brad Pitt. Now they're discussing their plans with three women from the building permits office and city planning. The women, who look like typical Berliners, have colorful dye jobs. They say the plans are nice but that they deviate too far from the master development plan. The women speak of building regulations, fire protection, fire-fighting elevators and safety stairwells.

Husten then talks about the fish farm on the roof and the fact that there will be no individual refrigerators, that washing machines will be forbidden and that a laundry service will instead be provided. To top it off, he says no one will live at Holzmarkt for longer than 900 days. Settling down here is taboo, he says, and there are no plans to sell the apartments either.

"Umm. Yeah," the women from the building permits office say. It's not that they don't find it interesting, it's just that the master development plan may have to be altered.

Husten stares over at city councilor Panhoff, who is leading the meeting. Really?

It could take years to create a new master plan. But Husten doesn't have years -- he'd go bust if he had to wait that long.

Panhoff hesitates before saying that he could allow deviations from the master plan. The problem is that doing so might set a precedent and others might then demand similar concessions. Panhoff then proposes a compromise: an amendment to the master plan. He also pledges to expedite the process so that it can be pushed through the appropriate committees quickly. With a little luck, he says, a new decision could be ready in October. It's a partial victory for Husten.

The same evening, they prepare for what they hope will turn into another small victory. The Holzmarkt people meet with Jony Eisenberg, a feared lawyer from the Berlin left-wing scene who has represented everyone from former Red Army Faction terrorists to senior Green Party politician Jürgen Trittin.

They want to discuss a problem with him. The thump of techno from the tourist club across the river is starting to create a problem. It's a bit silly -- they themselves spent years caring little about noise pollution. But now they have a much bigger project ahead of them and they fear the loud music could become a problem -- at a time when they are trying to do everything right.

They ask Eisenberg if there's anything he can do about the techno noise pollution.


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aviator9152 09/04/2014
1. Growing up!
Interesting article. I recall a young British Paratrooper posted to Berlin in the mid 1970s. Oh my! you didn't tell me about these particular "birds and Bees" dad. Loved every minute of my 2 years in the city and it was the only time that I came close to leaving the army to settle. Eventually did 32 years later.
nsmith 09/05/2014
Good Luck! They've got about as much a chance of making this happen, as re-building the Wall. Anybody who lived in Berlin before the Wende (like myself), will tell you in a heartbeat -- there ain't no goin' back! -- The city has been over-marketed, over-built, and over-done to the point where you have to look really hard to find it. That said, "Berlin bleibt Berlin"...und ick hab' noch eene koffa da.
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