Under pressure from Federal Culture Minister Gernot Blümel, Vienna’s controversial Heumarkt project was suddenly called off late Sunday (Mar 17), delayed for at least two years, pending further discussion and possible redesign.
The decision followed a stinging memorandum Friday (Mar 15) from the non-profit preservation advisory Icomos Austria (International Commission on Monuments and Sites) in association with UNESCO, which has threatened the withdrawal of the inner city’s World Cultural Heritage designation.
The main bone of contention was a 66-meter, block-like tower of luxury apartments, 23 meters over the limit set for the UNESCO designation. This, said Icomos, would “destroy” the cityscape, causing the area to lose its “historical authenticity” and “cultural meaning”.
The memorandum was a gift to the city’s political opponents, led by Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache (FPÖ). “The report is a damning proof of the failure of the red-green government,” Strache said at a press conference Monday. “This disposable (“verwerfbares”) project should be disposed of once and for all,” he crowed, while Blümel urged the city to go “to any lengths possible” to preserve the World Cultural Heritage status.
It’s a complex project: In exchange for a lucrative zoning waiver, developer Michael Tojner of Wertinvest had promised to rebuild, and in several ways improve, the popular outdoor public skating rink of the Wiener Eislaufverein (WEV) in an expanded, mixed-use public plaza that, among other things, will open up the north side of the Wiener Konzerthaus. Underground, the project will add a second smaller WEV indoor rink and athletic facilities for school students – this most likely in exchange for the slice of Beethovenplatz at the Akademisches Gymnasium opposite, needed to redirect the street.
To many, none of this makes up for the project’s sheer ugliness, what we described at the plan’s unveiling in 2017 as “an oversized, graceless block with all the charm of a container port.” For those living in the neighboring 3rd district Botschaftsviertel, it threatens the timeless Caneletto-view of the city looking down from the upper Belvedere. For others, it’s simply a cultural no-go. “It’s as if you were supporting the death penalty!” complained ORF culture journalist Ernst Grandits in Der Standard.
Caught in the fray is the Eislaufverein, the 150-year-old association that operates the skating rink, open to all and the largest inner-city rink of its kind in the world. The endless on-again/off-again threatens “to run us into the ground,” said Peter Menasse, the spokesman for the association in an interview with Der Standard. “As the leaseholder, we sit here in the middle and find ourselves a political football.”
Happiest with the whole situation was perhaps the tabloid daily Österreich, which had released the Memorandum. “This is the bombshell of the year!” it reported gleefully on Monday, as the project was “put on ice”. The city was in “intensive talks” with Icomos and UNESCO, reported Council President Ernst Woller on behalf of Mayor Michael Ludwig, after a crisis weekend at the UN organization’s Paris headquarters. The mayor himself is holding his fire. Only 10 months in office, this mess was not of his making, and who knows? He may be just as glad of an excuse to call a halt.
To be continued…