By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
Yerevan’s chief government architect insisted on Wednesday that a massive redevelopment in the city center is proceeding in accordance with the law and poses no threat to the original design of the Armenian capital.
Samvel Danielian was at pains to dispel the widely held belief that urban development has been left at the mercy of greedy private investors and their government cronies keen to cash in on growing demand in expensive housing and office space.
“The city and the state as a whole have no means to carry out large-scale urban construction,” Danielian told reporters. “It is therefore done by private investors. And they don’t do what they what. That’s a wrong impression which seems to be dominant among the public. That is definitely not the case.”
The process was strongly criticized on June 30 by the chairman of Armenia’s Union of Architects, Mkrtich Minasian, who claimed that the new high-rise buildings emerging in downtown Yerevan are constructed with little government oversight and in violation of the existing safety and architectural norms. Minasian said they are also at odds with the city center’s masterplan that was designed by Armenia’s most famous architect, Aleksandr Tamanian, during the 1920s and 1930s. It envisaged mainly five-story buildings made of tufa, a light volcanic stone widely used for construction in the mountainous country.
The redevelopment, initiated by President Robert Kocharian five years ago, will essentially yield two new avenues that will run through the heart of the city in place of old and decrepit houses. Danielian admitted that some of the expensive buildings already constructed there look like “monsters.”
“But they all will be part of a single ensemble after construction is over,” he said. “I think there is nothing wrong with that.”
The construction of the Northern and Main avenues is going on amid a broader real estate boom which is translating into new upscale housing built on just about every empty lot in Yerevan’s central Kentron district. Apartments there usually cost around $1,000 per square meter.
Local press reports have identified senior officials in Kocharian’s staff and the government among the owners of those buildings. Danielian refused to comment on this, claiming that he does not know any of the owners personally.
The process has also been marred by allegations of foul play in the compensation of the owners of houses torn down to make room for the new properties. Many of the owners complain that the sums offered by the government are well below the prices of decent apartments in other parts of the city.
Some have been protesting outside Kocharian’s residence on a daily basis for more than three weeks. The protesters issued another statement on Wednesday alleging high-level government corruption and saying that they will resist eviction orders unless their demands are met.
“I barely contain the people’s anger,” their leader, Vachagan Hakobian, told RFE/RL.
“This is a process led by a group of bribed officials and ‘businessmen’ closely cooperating with them,” said another protester, Arsen Ghasabian. “Our struggle will not end. It will only gain more momentum.”
Danielian, however, defended the integrity of the process, saying that most local residents are happy with the amount of compensation paid by the state. “Naturally, there may be disaffected people and there are problems which we have to resolve through negotiations,” he said.