Am Graben

Chain Store Massacre: Vienna’s Struggle to Keep Its Character

You could be excused on your first day in a new city for forgetting where you are. Need a couple of T-shirts? H&M, New Yorker, Benneton at your service.  Hungry? McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks beckon. Itching to bend your Amex card for a modest $6,000 handbag? Versace, Chanel, Louis Vuitton can help.  Paris, London, New York – and Vienna – the same familiar logos await you. Why bother to get on a plane?

Of course, shopping isn’t everything. Most people still travel for the fun of change – different scenery, different people, surprising food and exotic drinks. Perhaps even better weather than back home. And in the world’s great culture cities, familiar icons of art are on display in the original. But it is the cafés and stores along great boulevards or tucked in narrow side streets that give a city its personality – and it is this individuality that has been steadily eroded. In Vienna, too, as we know all too well.

It’s Not Too Late – or Is It?

“Confronting urban monotony” headlined the business section of the Austrian daily Der Standard on a quiet Monday morning. The accompanying photo showed a shopping street dominated by the familiar logos of international retail with the caption: Which city this is? It was, in fact, Vienna, but it’s not so easy to tell. The boring visual conformity of sanitized brand presentation is killing the appeal of our unique city. 

The problem is much more than just the loss of visual idiosyncrasy – it is the disappearance of a whole infrastructure of small businesses, hardware stores, violin makers and locally-made clothing, cobblers and neighborhood cafés. The relentless pressure of rising rents has driven them out of the inner city and often out of business. The explosion of tacky tourist tchotchke sellers, who scuttled like hermit crabs into the vacated newsstands and tobacco shops, is no improvement.

“It’s not too late,” urban planner Peter Payer told the paper. His explanations are obvious enough: The well-financed big companies buy up or undersell their smaller rivals; It’s just the natural result of a capitalist system. Unless the city authorities intervene, he added rather lamely. 

So is there any pushback from Vienna’s famously dedicated planning bureaucracy?

Who Needs Nostalgia

There is indeed a Viennese plan for longer-term urban development, “Step 2025.” It is not concerned with the nostalgic aesthetics of Mozart, Strauss and ball season, but with outer residential clusters where real people live, work and shop. In planning bureaucrat speak: “Polyzentrales Vienna.” The first step is to stem the metastasizing of shopping malls, which drain the lifeblood out of inner city businesses. The planners’ goal is to put some magic back into local neighborhoods, to improve public zones with more generous spacing for trees, gardens and places to hang out. This is not anti-business, quite the opposite: It guarantees everyday goods and services – a plus for the people who live there, and, of course, for the chains who will put up their familiar logos to meet local needs. 

So while Christian Bartik from the Vienna Business Agency (VBA) may personally regret the loss of smaller individualistic businesses, but he remains clear-eyed about supply and demand: 

“The ‘50’s are over” he said. “You can’t force a shop to sell hand-made Tyrolean cheese if what people want is kebab.” He sees the changes in the restaurant business with mixed feelings: Immigrants offering their own ethnic foods is a gain for the Viennese. “What we don’t need are more McDonalds and Subways.” City planner Katherina Conrad is equally unsentimental: “This not about good guys or bad guys. The big companies are more efficient, they offer value for money.” For good measure she added: “Where the tourists go, that’s not authentic.”

Wheeling and Dealing

While a city belongs first to the people who live and work and die there, the sad reality of creeping commercial conformity will continue unless addressed. The Corona shutdown has only accelerated this process of brutal Darwinian retail survival. 

Smaller family businesses will file for bankruptcy first, the big logos will survive. But architect Gerhard Binder’s work with city planners has left him a realistic optimist. What’s done is done, he says cheerfully, but we can still influence the future. And here, there are several tools available – the city-owned Vienna Business Agency has a discretionary fund aimed at KMUs (small- and midsized businesses) and startups, just the kind of businesses that can create a contemporary and intriguing visual cityscape. 

Binder understands the financial realities that must be overcome to make this work. The key, he says, is the Erdgeschosszone, the street-level spaces. Developers usually want height and this is where the city has leverage: If a developer agrees to a mix of affordable street level spaces suitable for small businesses, then the city can grant an extra floor or two. Give a little, take a little.  

Another current development confuses the issue however. Binder believes that several chains are well aware of their negative big biz image and may well reinvent themselves as smaller, more cuddly versions.  If he is right, all that will change are the logos, now with a local, “This-is-Austria” flavor.  

So it won’t stop the march of the big-money monsters, but at least we will know where we are when we wake up in the morning.

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