Building Spree Developers and Dreamers Battle Over Berlin Identity

Politicians, residents and investors are embroiled in a fight over the banks of Berlin's Spree River. Part of the issue boils down to the fundamental question of whether it will be citizens or the business community that shapes the city's image.

By in Berlin

To reach the core members of the resistance movement, one walks through a shadowy park, across the courtyard of an old hospital, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, right and into a room painted gray. Under a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, two dozen students, teachers and architects are sitting on wooden chairs. The building is in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood and, like many buildings there, it was once occupied by squatters. This is the meeting spot for the opponents of Berlin's largest ongoing construction project, a development known as "Mediaspree."

The opponents discuss their next campaign: taking shovels and filling in a hole in the ground near the Spree River. Two kilometers (1.25 miles) away, construction companies have already brought in their heavy drilling equipment. The development project along the Spree River is backed by investments with an estimated value of between €3 billion and €5 billion ($4.35-7.25 billion), and its opponents are using shovels to stand up for their rights. They want the high-rise buildings in the development plan to not be as tall or as close to the water as the plan envisions. They are demanding that the riverbank remain public, and they are concerned that rents will go up once capital starts seeping into their neighborhood.

The dispute has been fueled by developers and anti-development groups alike. It has also been going on for two years -- with no end in sight.

Vox Populi

The anti-development group has organized itself like a classroom. Anyone who wishes to speak must first raise his or her index finger. Meanwhile, Carsten Joost seems to be sinking lower and lower into his seat. With his spiked hair, stubble and carpenter's pants, he looks more like a student than a 43-year-old architect. Joost, who heads the "Sink the Mediaspree" initiative, is determined to win the fight, no matter how many excavators Stefan Sihler -- with his allegedly "lord-of-the-manor ways" -- and the other investors bring to the site. "I'm used to getting involved in things that are much too big for me," says Joost.

Architect and anti-development activist Carsten Joost.
Werner Scheuring

Architect and anti-development activist Carsten Joost.

After studying architecture in Frankfurt am Main, Joost eventually realized that it is difficult to erect buildings without becoming embroiled in politics. He later moved to Berlin, where he founded the "Association of Critical Architects" and decided to get involved in campaigns to prevent the sale of public land and property. He fought against the demolition of a house for artists and the Palace of the Republic, the old parliament building of the former East German state. Lacking a full-time job, Joost survives on welfare under Germany's Hartz IV welfare program.

Joost's supporters see him as a penniless crusader against the injustices of urban development. But Stefan Sihler, the investor, sees him as a "bonsai demagogue," an old communist dreamer and a misguided Robin Hood.

This ideological conflict between the architect and the investor is nothing new for Berlin, which has been in a continual process of reinvention over the 19 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their dispute revolves around one of the last large tracts of undeveloped land near the city's downtown area, money and the fundamental issues of whether it is citizens or investors who own the city and what it should look like.

Berlin's city government is ruled by a coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the Left Party, which emerged from the communist party that ruled the former East Germany. Under these circumstances, it seems only too obvious that the city's politicians would side with Joost and that his task would be fairly simple. In this case, however, Social Democratic Mayor Klaus Wowereit is on the investors' side, and the Left Party is, too. Harald Wolf, Berlin's economics senator and a member of the Left Party, says: "Investment can and should happen." As a result, the leftist anti-development groups in the alternative district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg find themselves in the unusual position of having to face off against the city's left-leaning government.

An Issue of Necessity?

As far back as the early 1990s, city planners began discussing ways to utilize and develop the left and right banks of the Spree River in the former East Berlin in an area that was once divided by the Berlin Wall. They prepared draft plans and a land-utilization scenario, which succeeded in attracting the interest of real-estate developers. With almost €60 billion in debt, Berlin needed money. At a certain point, the city, landowners and investors formed an organization to market the riverbanks. They called their group "Mediaspree."

If they have their way, office and residential buildings will eventually replace derelict land now covered with grass, bushes and random sections of concrete. Some of the new buildings will be more than 100 meters (328 feet) tall. Viewed in the context of a city map, the wedge-shaped site stretches into three neighborhoods and projects into the heart of the city. In total, it covers an area of 180 hectares (445 acres), divided into more than 50 parcels.

Six years ago, American billionaire Philip Anschutz snapped up the largest piece of land, on which he has constructed an arena that can hold 17,000 people. He sold the naming rights to a mobile phone company, and the "O2 World" opened its doors Wednesday for the first time to invited guests, including Mayor Wowereit. Joost, the architect with the anti-development movement, was planning to be there for the opening gala. Police estimate that 1,000 protesters showed up late Wednesday, some of them donning evening wear in attempts to infiltrate the crowd while others made loud disturbances.

Large billboards advertising credit cards and beer have been illuminated for weeks on the grounds surrounding the arena, as capitalism casts its glaring light toward Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. Were it not for the building, Joost would probably not have been able to attract so many people to his cause. For them, the arena has become a symbol of cold, inhuman urban planning.

The planned site of "Mediaspree."

The planned site of "Mediaspree."

Joost and some of his friends launched a petition for a referendum. They demanded a 22-meter (72-foot) height restriction for buildings and a 50-meter (164-foot) buffer zone along the river. They also wanted a bridge across the river to be open exclusively to cyclists and pedestrians.

Joost and his fellow development opponents also took every possible opportunity to campaign on behalf of their demands. On one occasion, they jumped into the Spree on air mattresses and inflatable rubber boats, which succeeded in forcing a sightseeing boat filled with investors to turn around.

'Evil Investors' Find a Voice

And then, in mid-July, something unexpected happened. Close to 30,000 residents of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg spoke out against the Mediaspree plans. Joost had won -- at least temporarily. The district council formed a special committee to address the problem. Franz Schulz, the mayor of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, announced his intention to negotiate with both sides.

Since then Joost has been convinced that the investors will have to make compromises. Although some politicians agree with this position, the chaotic situation has only deteriorated. As a consequence of a referendum, 12 construction plans are now on hold. And if the district government gives in to the anti-development groups and their supporters, the investors and owners are threatening to sue for damages into the "hundreds of millions." The 12 developers then went out looking for a voice, someone who would talk to the press and to politicians. They found one. "The evil investors have a face now," says Stefan Sihler, "mine."

Berlin developer Stefan Sihler.
Werner Scheuring

Berlin developer Stefan Sihler.

Sihler, 46, is a tall, powerful-looking man. He likes to wear polo shirts and drive fast cars, and his rise to the upper echelons of the real estate development community was swift. In 1991, he moved from Munich to Berlin, where he was in charge of privatizing former socialist real estate on behalf of Treuhand, the government agency that privatized the former East German state-owned enterprises after the Wall came down. After working as a lawyer, he began buying buildings in Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy district in East Berlin, renovating them and selling them off individual condominiums. A real estate professional and privatizer from the start, Sihler has been buying, building, renovating and selling for many years.

Two years ago, Sihler invested a lot of money into renovating an old warehouse at the Osthafen ("eastern port") -- which is also part of the Mediaspree project -- and leased it to fashion companies. The demand was so great that he now plans to build a second building next to the first one, and he has already purchased the land he needs to do so. Sitting in his office, Sihler taps his finger against a green-tinged computer screen on the wall depicting his second construction project. "I'm going to build this," Sihler vows, "and Mr. Joost won't be able to do anything about it."

As Sihler sees it, the city is not supported by "transfer recipients" -- meaning Hartz IV welfare recipients, such as Carsten Joost -- but by men who create jobs. Sihler also believes that the Spree River development will bring tens of thousands of new jobs to the city. "O2 World is a godsend for Berlin!" Sihler says, adding that he has no intention of bargaining over a few meters of riverbank -- not with Joost and not with Franz Schulz, the district mayor.

Mayors in the Middle

It isn't easy being in Franz Schulz's shoes these days. He has promised to implement the wishes of local residents. Meanwhile, the papers are constantly reporting on Joost's latest campaign, and Sihler refuses to negotiate. Instead, Sihler wants the city government to strip Schulz of oversight for the construction project. In a letter they recently sent to Mayor Wowereit, the investors argued that the Mediaspree project is of "paramount political importance to the city," while the referendum is nothing but an "expression of opinion." They want Berlin's executive body, the senate, to intervene.

It isn't as though Schulz couldn't have seen this problem coming. He has the residents in his district polled regularly, and the results reveal what many in the neighborhood had already suspected: rents are going up. In fact, many people spend more than one-third of their income on rent or mortgage expenses, which is far too much, says Schulz, adding that he is not surprised by those who fear that they could be priced out of the neighborhood.

On the other hand, Schulz could really use the developers' money for his district. But, as complicated as things are, there is little chance that the mayor's dilemma will grow any less serious anytime soon. It would help, though, if the opposing sides could at least get to know each other better.


Until now, Joost's encounters with Sihler have been limited to contact over the phone. In many of their conversations, Sihler has ended up shouting at Joost, such as the time when Joost suggested that Sihler paint his new fashion boutique red instead of green.

Despite the tension, Joost still wants to discuss things and negotiate a compromise with Sihler. To this end, he has driven to Osthafen to meet with Sihler at his boutique. There, they sit facing each other on upholstered stools, the activist and the privatizer. Joost unfolds a sheet of paper on which he has outlined two options for Sihler: a building 10 meters (33 feet) and another one 20 meters (66 feet) from the riverbank. "In the second version," Joost says, "you lose only half of your parking spaces." Sihler takes a deep breath. He wants to build a building, and he has the necessary permits to do so. This is his position, and he has no interest in talking.

"Mr. Joost, what exactly is the issue here?" Sihler asks. Joost's response: "We have 30,000 citizens behind us. The issue is democracy!"

Sihler looks at Joost. This isn't working, he thinks. He pulls an envelope out of his jacket. "Here, I wanted to give you this." Joost reads the words "banned from the premises" printed in bold letters. The architect, who wants to discuss everything, has just been handed an order forbidding him from entering Sihler's property in addition to the undeveloped concrete areas next door. As chance would have it, Joost had planned a public hearing in that location for the next day.

"Well, this looks like a declaration of war," Joost says.

The meeting is over after an hour. Joost wobbles away on his bicycle while Sihler climbs into his Audi -- two men embroiled in a hopeless dispute over a piece of land.

Mayor Schulz wants to continue negotiating. Joost wants to discuss the plans with the district council in the hopes that democracy will prevail. But Sihler's crews are already digging the ditches for the foundation of his new fashion company.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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