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08/24/2010 06:31 PM

The 'Stuttgart 21' Revolt

Protests Against Mega Project Grow

By and

Stuttgart 21, a controversial project to build a new underground train station complex at a cost of billions of euros in this southwestern German city, is facing growing resistance and has sparked nightly protests. But is the idea genuinely bad or just poorly marketed?

Wolfgang Drexler is standing at the window of his office on the seventh floor of a run-down 1970s building near Stuttgart's main railway station. From here, he can see the station's north wing and the gray plaza in front of it-- and he can watch the resistance to it growing. Drexler has noticed that, every week, more and more people are taking to the streets, demonstrating against Stuttgart 21, a massive railway and urban-development project backed by politicians in this southwestern German city that is the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg.

Drexler, a 64-year-old politician with Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) who wears his salt-and-pepper hair short, sees the banner on the construction site fence and the flickering memorial candles that have been placed where "the new heart of Europe" is to be constructed. He shakes his head and says: "I just don't get it anymore."

Ironically, Drexler is the man who is supposed to save everything.

For the past year, Drexler has been the spokesman for the Stuttgart 21 project. When it is completed -- which is scheduled to happen in 2019 -- the currently above-ground terminus station will have been transformed into an underground through station. The massive project has been in the works for more than a decade. It has been a period marked by controversy and debate, and all the legislative and legal hurdles that have been thrown up to block it have now been surmounted. Still, now that the excavators are finally in action, thousands of people are staging regular protests below Drexler's office window, chanting "O-ben blei-ben! O-ben blei-ben!" (Keep it aboveground!) and venting their rage every evening by whistling, shouting and booing into the night sky.

A Protest Movement Takes Shape

Drexler admits that the project's organizers had expected resistance. But the kind they expected was from the sort of people who always protest when there's something to protest about, such as men who ride recumbent bicycles and wear wool socks and adolescents donning black hoodies.

But now? Drexler looks down at the plaza in front of the station. It was the usual suspects at first, but the composition of the group of protesters gradually changed. Suddenly there were doctors, lawyers and engineers in the crowd, men in dark suits and frameless glasses -- like the ones he wears himself -- and women with expensive handbags and pearl necklaces.

These are the kinds of people to whom Stuttgart -- famous for being the home of Daimler, Porsche, Bosch and a number of other major German manufacturers -- owes its reputation, its prosperity and, most of all, its success. Drexler has every reason to be concerned: The people he now sees congregating in front of the station are not there to celebrate Stuttgart 21 as a technological and architectural miracle. Instead, they are expressing their frustration and anger by banging on pot lids with kitchen spoons. And they're not conservatives anymore but, rather, supporters of the Green Party.

What's wrong with this city? The world's first television tower was built in Stuttgart, as was the world's first streetcar tunnel. The world's largest artificial tornado was generated in Stuttgart, and the city boasts one architect for every 172 residents and the highest percentage of engineers in any German city. The ring binder was invented in Stuttgart, and so was the spark plug. And now these innovative Stuttgarters, of all people, are trying to block the construction of one of Europe's most cutting-edge train stations?

Drexler prefers not to think about it. He looks tired as he rubs his hand over his eyes. "All of this comes as a shock to me," he says, showing thin laugh lines that are a product of better times.

A Conversion to Protester

It's a balmy Friday evening in August. Eberhard Schöttle, an engineer who works as a marketing manager for a company in the nearby Stuttgart suburb of Böblingen, and his wife, Gabriele, a physical therapist, have come to the city's Schlossgarten Park to take part in a protest against Stuttgart 21. There, they have joined about 18,000 fellow Stuttgarters carrying lights to form a human chain around the train station and a portion of the park. In some spots, the protesters have formed a protective wall by standing in rows three-deep.

Schöttle describes himself as a middle-of-the-road kind of person who isn't quick to sign petitions. As evening falls over the park's trees and lawns, he lights the candles in the purple lanterns he and his wife have brought along. Then, there is a moment of silence, broken only by the sounds of fountains and birds.

Schöttle, an athletic man in his mid-50s, is wearing black jeans and reddish-brown leather shoes. The button attached to the neck of his light-green polo shirt reads "Keep it aboveground." It's the same slogan the Stuttgart 21 opponents have been chanting without interruption, their words resonating all the way up to Drexler's office.

Schöttle -- an engineer, a man of progress -- is one of the protesters Drexler finds so perplexing.

Before answering a question, Schöttle reflects for a moment. He is not a hothead, but he still has strong feelings about Stuttgart 21. "I'm very upset about the fact that they see us as being unable to judge this correctly," he says, "and about the arrogance with which they ignore us." His wife nods in agreement.

It's quite possible that Schöttle would have supported the project if things had gone differently -- if citizens had not perceived their politicians as being part of an authoritarian state, if the people had been taken seriously and if the city had permitted the citizens' initiative that many Stuttgarters wanted.

As Schöttle sees it, Stuttgart 21 is not well thought-out. "There are eight instead of (the current) 16 tracks," he says. "And you don't have to be an expert to understand that it'll create a bottleneck." He can quote to you from a number of expert reports that are critical of Stuttgart 21. He is also opposed to a planned new high-speed railway line to the city of Ulm, at a price tag of almost €3 billion ($3.8 billion), which he believes is much too steep for a freight-traffic line.

When the Schöttles describe their friends and acquaintances, they list off therapists, engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs. Most, they say, are opposed to Stuttgart 21. "It's a topic of discussion at every dinner," says Schöttle, waving the lantern in his hand like a wine glass. The members of the Schöttles' circle are all in touch now, he says, using text messaging and e-mail lists to send each other articles and new expert reports as well as to alert each other about upcoming TV and radio broadcasts on the issue.

The Schöttles, who prefer to spend their vacations on a sailboat along the Côte d'Azur, are now members of "Protectors of the Park." The resistance group now has more than 20,000 members trying to prevent 282 trees from being cut down to make way for the massive railway project. "Recently, when I got a text message alerting me to the fact that the construction fences and wrecking equipment were being set up at the north wing (of the current station), I left my office immediately," says Schöttle. "At this point, I would even cut short a business trip."

Not Your Pauper's Protest

Stuttgarters -- who enjoy a reputation in Germany for being respectable, upright and hard-working folk -- are dead-serious about this issue. Even Walter Sittler, a Stuttgart-based actor, is setting priorities that he would have hardly thought possible in the past. He, his wife and his children had just returned from a week's vacation in Burgundy. Their suitcases were still sitting in the hallway, unpacked, when he left the house to appear on the stage at the north wing of the train station to get the protesters in the right mood for their daily protest.

Sittler is wearing a black whistle around his neck. He glances at his watch. "Only 45 seconds to go!" he says into his microphone before counting down the seconds aloud. When he reaches zero, he blows his whistle, and more than 10,000 citizens join him in banging tambourines, blowing into vuvuzelas, whistling, shouting and booing for the next minute. It's an obnoxious form of protest -- and deliberately so. It's meant to make sure that the bigwigs get an earful this evening, including: Wolfgang Drexler; Wolfgang Schuster, the city's mayor and a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU); Stefan Mappus, the governor of the surrounding state of Baden-Württemberg; and Rüdiger Grube, chairman of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway operator.

"I want to make sure that our protest spreads throughout the country," Sittler shouts, as the crowd cheers him on. In the fight against Stuttgart 21, Sittler -- a graduate of one of Europe's most elite private boarding schools and a winner of one of Germany's top television awards -- has become the figurehead of the protest movement.

After the protest is over, Sittler sits down on a wall. A man wearing a quilted jacket shakes his hand and thanks him for his commitment. The woman at his side is wearing expensive suede pumps.

Sittler isn't surprised that people from the city's exclusive hillside neighborhoods are now taking to the streets. "Based on the results of geological studies," he explains, "many are worried that the tunnel work could damage their houses."

Ignoring the People for an Intoxicating Project

Sittler has the pleasant voice of someone who records audio books, and he stays calm while speaking. Still, he says he's growing angrier by the day. He characterizes his rage as a cold one, though, adding: "Hot rage only makes you lose your mind." He then stares off into the distance for a moment to a point where -- if the Stuttgart 21 people get their way -- a new neighborhood will be built on the site of the former track bed.

Sittler says that he was initially among those who weren't opposed to the Stuttgart 21 project. In the early 1990s, he says, the idea of having an underground train station at least sounded interesting. "But then the project bobbed along for a while," he says, "and when the Transrapid (high-speed maglev rail project) was cancelled, I was sure that it was the end of Stuttgart 21. But then, all of a sudden, everything was signed! And the 67,000 signatures that had been collected for a referendum" -- Sittler waves his hand to mimic pushing aside a stack of paper -- "were simply swept off the table."

It was then that Sittler says he began to oppose the project. By then, he had discovered his public spirit, as had many other Stuttgarters. It was the beginning of a citizens' revolt. Meanwhile, the public officials responsible for the project remained stubbornly committed to their plan. "The course has been set for Stuttgart 21," Mayor Schuster insisted. Johannes Schmalzl, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and president of Stuttgart's regional council, agreed: "The question has been asked years too late."

'They've Become Intoxicated by this Project'

"And they even stuck to this crazy project after finding out about the unbelievable cost increases," Sittler adds. The Federal Audit Office believes that Stuttgart 21, including the new stretch of track to Ulm, will cost about €8.5 billion, or almost twice as much as the original estimate. According to Federal Environment Agency, total costs could run upwards of €11 billion.

"They've become intoxicated with this project," says Sittler, who has been actively fighting Stuttgart 21 since the beginning of the year. "At a certain point," he adds, "every politically engaged citizen had to decide where he or she stood and whether he or she was prepared to stand up." Indeed, by now, many people in Stuttgart are likely to decide whether someone is a friend or foe based solely on their answer to one question: Are you for it or against it?

Sittler isn't surprised that people in higher-income groups have now joined the protest movement. "After all," he says, "they're intelligent people! They're well-informed, and they can't see the benefits of this project. Besides, they're Swabians (the name given to people from Germany's Swabia region), which makes them down-to-earth people who can do the math and who pay very close attention to how they spend their money. That also applies to those who have a lot of it."

Sittler lowers his head. "Can you imagine how humiliating it is," he says, "for an adult citizen to have to constantly witness a show of force without having any say in the matter?"

This feeling of powerlessness has driven people into the streets. And the city's mismanagement of the crisis guarantees that their numbers will only grow in the coming weeks. City officials have rejected calls for declaring a moratorium and temporarily halting construction so as to survey residents on whether they support or oppose the project, arguing that there is no political reason to do so.

The Cost of Poor Marketing

Wolfgang Drexler, the project spokesman, says that what Stuttgart is witnessing today is a "fundamentally social phenomenon." "People seem to have lost their willingness," he says, "to give change a chance and view it as something positive." As he sees it, people only see the risks -- and not the opportunities.

Drexler sits down at the small conference table in his office. He removes his glasses, places them on the table and looks around his office before saying: "We should have set up this office eight or nine years ago." He also admits that it was a "huge mistake" for the people in charge of the Stuttgart 21 project to have "practically suspended their public-relations activities and abandoned the field to its opponents" after getting a political majority to approve the project.

Drexler also says that he recently told members of a district council in the northern part of the city that the development would have a particularly strong impact on their neighborhood. "The last time someone was there to talk about Stuttgart 21," he adds, "was way back in 2003."

An Example in Vienna

All of a sudden, Drexler changes the subject and starts talking enthusiastically about Vienna. The Austrian capital is also in the process of converting a terminus station in its downtown area into a through station. The construction period is shorter by a few years, the costs are lower by a few billion, but, Drexler says, "most of all, the Viennese are crazy about their new train station." He attributes this fact to their having been "systematically involved in the project from the start," adding that: "Today, the majority of them are proud of it."

Drexler now feels that it will be almost impossible to enjoy the same success in Stuttgart. "The opponents' motives are too varied for that. Stuttgart 21 isn't just a football field with a fence around it. It's extremely complex," he says, adding that this is why the marketing aspect is so difficult.

Perhaps the project's supporters would have fared better if they had had a genuinely charismatic person as their ambassador, a person capable of convincing others, a person like Sittler. At any rate, Mayor Schuster is clearly not the right person for the job. He has spent the last few weeks holed up behind the walls of City Hall, and he uses every opportunity to repeat that the project has political legitimacy and that people should just finally calm down. Drexler, for his part, has been getting death threats.

A Failure to Communicate

Not far from his office, there's a man you might expect to be one of Drexler's allies, a supporter of Stuttgart 21. Lukas-Pierre Bessis, 33, is the owner of an advertising agency and communications expert. He is sitting in a retro leather armchair on the second floor of an old factory, wearing black, horn-rimmed glasses. Lounge music is playing quietly in the background.

Stuttgart 21 is a project with a "unique outlook for the city's future," Bessis says enthusiastically, adding that the "subjective and emotional discussion" of its opponents is off-putting. When asked about the projects risks and various side effects, an astonished expression appears on his face. "I have confidence in the abilities of our engineers here in Baden-Württemberg," he says. "And I see what a massive job-creation machine it is," he adds, referring to the tens of thousands of jobs the construction of the new train station will reportedly create.

So much for the positive side. Unfortunately, says Bessis, in the public perception, there is one serious problem with the attractive new underground train station: the underground part. As he sees it, this is what's really driving the city's elites into the streets.

"It has to do with the organizers' bad communications policy. They gambled away a huge opportunity," says Bessis. "They should have focused far more heavily on the pride people feel as residents of the city, and they should have worked with positive images." Likewise, Bessis argues that the city should have launched the project with a major advertising campaign instead of just a handful of meager exhibits and panel discussions.

By now, Drexler and his staff have figured this out for themselves. In June -- or four months after construction got underway -- new posters and billboards were put up throughout Stuttgart. "It's true that 282 trees will be cut down in the Schlossgarten and around the train station for Stuttgart 21," one large, white billboard reads. "But it's also true that 293 trees, up to 12 meters tall, will be planted and that the park will actually grow, by 20 hectares, for the first time in years."

Still, as an advertising professional, Bessis thinks the campaign has been a disaster. For example, he notes, someone driving past one of the billboards at a higher speed will only read that 282 trees are about to be cut down in the Schlossgarten. "Those people are just doing advertising for the opponents!" Bessis says, with exasperation in his voice.

Bessis isn't alone in his criticism. Other supporters of Stuttgart 21 have realized that there has been a permanent breakdown in communications between the city's citizens and politicians. Even Baden-Württemburg's new governor, Stefan Mappus agrees. "If there were a prize for the worst marketing campaign," he recently quipped, "we would stand a good chance of winning with Stuttgart 21."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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