Vienna has traded their skyline to improve the Wiener Eislaufverein and other public spaces in the area. But at what cost?

In this proud old city, the prospect of tearing down a familiar landmark for a high gloss commercial development feels a bit like your mother getting a facelift: Must you? Really?

On the Heumarkt Project, a new high-rise hotel and luxury apartment complex on the site of the Hotel Intercontinental approved June 1 by the Vienna City Council, tempers are particularly short. Everybody, it seems, is angry about something. For a start, it’s ugly, embarrassing even – an oversized, graceless block with all the charm of a container port.

This makes it tough on anyone who thinks it’s a good idea. “It’s as if you were supporting the death penalty!” complained ORF culture journalist Ernst Grandits in Der Standard. Worse, few seem to know any of the details. All they know, he says, is that the apartment tower will be 66 meters high – 23 over limit – spoiling the skyline and threatening Vienna’s UNESCO World Heritage status. Isn’t that enough?

Well, let’s see what we’re getting: In exchange for their lucrative zoning waiver, developer Wertinvest promises to rebuild, and in several ways improve, the popular outdoor public skating rink of the Wiener Eislaufverein (WEV) into an expanded, mixed-use public plaza that, among other things, will open up the handsome north side of the Wiener Konzerthaus. Underground, the project will add a second smaller WEV indoor rink and athletic facilities for school students – most likely in exchange for the slice of Beethovenplatz at the Akademisches Gymnasium opposite, needed to redirect the street.

So far, so good – at least, mostly. Other aspects of the deal start to get ugly; for example, Stadt Wien’s crass trampling over a time honored public right to challenge planning projects. Any Citizens’ Initiative (Bürgerinitiative) with 500 signatures must be taken up by the city’s Community Appeals Board. This procedure is not just important, it is bürgernah (inclusive), a core tenet of socialist Vienna’s motherly love for her people, as proudly proclaimed on the city’s website.

Just a lot of Wiener Schmäh, it turns out. The date set for review of the petition was June 7, six days after the city council had already voted 51 to 46 to approve. Green Party charter member Franz Klug commented dryly that Deputy Mayor Maria Vassilikou had  “whipped” (gepeitscht) her Green Party colleagues into line to assure passage. Admittedly, the stakes were high. A loss on this high-profile contest would have meant the collapse of the city’s SPÖ-Green coalition – not something either party wanted in this turbulent season.

The bottom line: We know we’re lucky. Mother Vienna gets so many things right. But when she sells herself cheap, it feels all the more like a betrayal.