This article first appeared in The Local Germany. It’s part one of a two-part series.
From Tempelhof to Tegel, Berlin’s airports cause its politicians headaches. In the first of two articles, The Local looks at plans and problems for development in the city’s western half.
Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper recently asked its readers in an online poll: “In your view, what do rising rents and gentrification lead to?”
About half of the voters said “Berlin will lose its unique character,” while a quarter each went for “Living in the city centre will become unaffordable for average earners” or “As the economy grows, Berlin becomes more exclusive.”
The response to the question suggests many Berliners are not overly optimistic about the development path their city is taking.
But that may be about to change, particularly in the western districts. It began in May with a humiliation of Berlin’s political class, when citizens voted to halt development plans, which included a library, for the former Tempelhof airport that initially had the backing of all parties in the state parliament.
The public face of the plans was Michael Müller, the city’s senator for urban development.
The man who helped bring him down is less well known but arguably more successful. Michael Schneidewind is one of the leaders of “100% Tempelhofer Feld,” the initiative that forced the referendum.
He says the referendum could fundamentally change the way urban planning is done in Berlin but he is not confident Müller got the memo.
“Politicians cling to their term and their electoral district. Citizens, on the other hand, think more in life cycles and long-term across city borders,” Schneidewind told The Local in the group’s office near the former airport.
Since the last plane took off from Tempelhof in 2008, not much has changed. Urban gardeners took over a small part of the field and recreational facilities like a beach volleyball court were built on its edges but most of the 320ha are open space.
That is exactly how Schneidewind’s team – and a majority of voters – want it, rejecting plans for housing and commercial development and a new state library.
In an attempt to demonstrate he learned his lesson, Müller recently appointed a board led by one of his critics to engage citizens on the airfield’s future.
But Schneidewind remains sceptical. “In the past, civic involvement was purely decorative when it came to large investment projects,” and he questions whether this time will be different.
The debates about Tempelhof’s post-referendum future have just begun but one thing has already been won. Schneidewind said: “The feeling of powerlessness – that those in power will do whatever they want anyways – that has decreased.”
But delegating all power may have its downsides. Look at “City West,” the area around Kurfürstendamm and the Zoologischer Garten train station.
It is where West Berlin’s heart beat loudest during the decades of the Wall and in the last few years has the area been revived through projects like the Waldorf Astoria, self-described “concept mall” Bikini Berlin and the 118-metre skyscraper Upper West which is to be completed in 2016.
Across the street, big plans for the Zoo – as Berliners call the Zoologischer Garten train station – are being finalized.
Station operator Deutsche Bahn wants to give the landmark a much friendlier face in the next three years.
One of its highlights will warm the heart of every true West Berliner: “The Zooterrassen restaurant on the first floor… will be restored with an open air terrace, just like in the past,” the company told The Local.
But one eyesore remains: the square outside the station. “Hard, harder, Hardenbergplatz” is how Tagesspiegel newspaper described the difficulties of transforming what is currently a mix of a parking lot and a bus stop into an urban space.
Local authorities wanted to pedestrianize the square by allowing an underground car park underneath. Worried about complaints from neighbours, however, they limited the project to 300 spaces. Private investors no longer thought the project could be profitable and backed out.
All plans for Hardenbergplatz’s redesign are on hold after local authorities scrapped a round table of 50 businesses and residents from the neighbourhood, saying it was too big to come to any results.
Further west, another Berlin landmark shares Hardenbergplatz’s uncertain fate.
Since the last event took place there in April, the future of the International Congress Centrum (ICC) is up for debate. Many hope that after the failed Tempelhof plan, the building could become the new home of the state library.
But Finance Senator Ulrich Nußbaum effectively ruled out this idea by insisting on an “economically sustainable” use of the ICC to refinance any potential investment.
A renovation could cost €400 million, depending on how much asbestos is found from when the centre was built in the 1970s.
Some of the cancer-causing material has already been taken out but experts disagree on how much is left. If Nußbaum’s demands are not met, the ICC may even be demolished.
On the other hand, the new Estrel Hotel on Neukölln’s Sonnenallee has a brighter future.
District authorities have hailed the hotel’s founder, Ekkehard Streletzki, as “an idol” for his plans to build Germany’s biggest hotel (1,125 rooms) by erecting Berlin’s tallest skyscraper (175 metres). So far, no visible protest movement has formed to oppose the plans.
Development senator Michael Müller is also working to make sure that the next major project in the west is met with the same level of support.
Tegel Airport – the city’s biggest – will close once its much-delayed successor Berlin Brandenburg (BER) opens.
Unlike Tempelhof, where no plan for the future existed when the last plane left, Müller already has a blueprint to turn Tegel into “Berlin TXL – The Urban Tech Republic.”
His expectations are high. By 2030, he wants Berlin TXL to be a “competence centre for urban technologies” like automotive and life sciences.
Müller promises to put the existing structures to good use.
The hexagonal terminal building, for example, is set to become the new home of Beuth Hochschule für Technik, a university of applied sciences focusing on tech degrees.
The terminal’s surroundings will be a campus for higher education, science, research and technology, complemented by a “commercial belt” if Müller gets his way, and the airfield will be reserved for companies that need lots of space.
The goal is to bring back some of the industrial manufacturers that were based in Berlin but left the city in the decades after World War II.
Some areas will be reserved for housing. “In its eastern part, Berlin TXL will be a socially diverse residential area, a place of ecologic balance and novel sceneries,” the urban development department says.
The description sounds almost as nebulous as the plans for Tempelhof, where doubts about whether new housing would be affordable for average Berliners contributed to the success of Müller’s opponents in the referendum.
But Müller is determined not to let that happen again.
“Tegel airport will have a completely different future than the former airport in Tempelhof,” the senator said in a video. At the end of his introduction he presses his lips together as if to say, this time, I mean it.