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Czech Republic: Far From Tourists, Prague Housing District Struggles

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Most tourists associate Prague with the medieval Charles Bridge or the sight of a hundred baroque spires from the Castle ramparts.

But nearly half of Prague's residents wake up each morning with an altogether different view outside their window: row upon row of gray, cinder-block high-rises stretching as far as the eye can see.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, farmland on the city's outskirts was plowed up and turned into a series of gigantic building sites. Out of the small plots grew a harvest of identical housing estates. The late Nobel-prize winning poet Jaroslav Seifert compared the new buildings to jagged dragon's teeth, ready to devour the magic alleys of his beloved Prague.

Jizni Mesto, or Southern City, is the largest of these new suburbs. Construction began here in 1974 and was completed at the start of this decade. Over 80,000 people, nearly 10 percent of Prague's population, now live here.

Jizni Mesto was never meant to be beautiful, but original plans called for a fully-equipped functional satellite city, replete with parks, playgrounds, shops, movie theaters, schools and shopping centers. But then the money ran out, so most of the infrastructure was never built.

The scenario was repeated across many Eastern European cities. What was left in the end were mazes of identical buildings separated by weedy, empty lots. A couple of cinemas, a few schools, and a handful of state stores did little to relieve the drabness or provide for the needs of Jizni Mesto's citizens. Most of the inhabitants of these boxy, anonymous blocks treated the estate like a dormitory suburb. Work, shopping and entertainment took place in the center and as soon as the weekend hit, people left town for their cherished country houses.

Not much has changed in Jizni Mesto in the eight years since Communism fell. It's not for lack of trying on the part of local officials, who have drafted a room full of plans on how to transform this drab appendage of Prague into a lively city in its own right. But a powerful constellation of factors prevents any of those plans from becoming a reality.

One of them is the way Prague's city administration works, or sometimes doesn't, and the other is the issue of land restitution after the fall of Communism.

The city of Prague is divided into 15 administrative districts. Each district has its own popularly-elected council and a district mayor appointed by councilors. In addition, all of Prague's residents elect a city-wide central council which appoints its own city mayor.

In theory, these two parallel systems should complement each other, with district mayors setting policies in their immediate constituencies and Prague's mayor responsible for the overall running of the city, in consultation with local colleagues.

In fact, district mayors have few concrete powers. They do not sit on the city-wide central council, which makes all essential budget decisions. District mayors have no power to set or collect taxes or to make binding decisions on the use of land and buildings in their neighborhoods. District mayors rarely even communicate with Prague's mayor, except to argue over the parceling out of resources.

Jitka Bouskova, the architect in charge of urban planning for Jizni Mesto, which forms one of the 15 districts, calls the political set-up "absurd."

"Prague City Hall has all the rights but the burden of responsibility is shared by the city's individual districts," is how she characterizes the system.

Six years ago, Bouskova and a team of architects began drafting a comprehensive regeneration plan for Jizni Mesto. The project's main component is the creation of a central boulevard and square, lined with parks and shops, to give this sprawling agglomeration the physical center it now lacks.

"We wanted to create an attractive focal point for the estate where people would want to congregate," says Bouskova.

The project, for the first time, also creates a zoning plan which designates which areas can be built-up and which areas must remain green.

Prague's City Hall has sent back the proposal for modification six times and has yet to give it final approval. In the meantime, central city authorities have given a private investor authorization to build a skyscraper in the middle of a planned "green" area on the estate. Jizni Mesto's mayor has appealed to the Czech Ministry of Local Development to stop the project.

Jizni Mesto's Deputy Mayor, Jan Simunek, says his district's "enemy number one" is Prague City Hall. "This is absurd, of course," he notes, "because we are one city, and the individual districts are an integral part of the city."

But the fact is that councilors at Prague City Hall are elected from political party lists, which means there is no requirement that all city districts be proportionally represented on the central council. Some districts have no representatives at all.

And the central city authorities are more interested in boosting property tax revenues than preserving a piece of greenery on the outskirts of Prague -- where many of them don't live and where no tourists are ever likely to venture.

Lack of cooperation from central authorities is one reason why Jizni Mesto's plans remain mere pieces of paper. Another, even more important one is the issue of land restitution.

After the fall of Communism at the end of 1989, Czech authorities, like many of their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe, began to give back confiscated land and buildings to their former owners or heirs, in a process called restitution.

Many of the strips of farmland on which Jizni Mesto's high-rise apartments blocks now stand, were also restituted. Other claims to land in the area will be tied up in the courts for years to come. One private plot can easily cut across several housing projects or public areas. It also means that each apartment building, or school yard or park, will invariably sit on more than one private plot.

Simunek, the deputy mayor, estimates that 70 percent of all land in Jizni Mesto is now tied up in restitution claims. He says the decision to give back land in this area was a fundamental mistake which will have, in his words, fatal consequences for the future development of the estate: "Restitution is giving back land under playgrounds, in between apartment blocks, in parks...."

Paradoxically, post-Communist privatization is also proving a major impediment to the regeneration of panel estates like Jizni Mesto.

In 1990, a year after the Velvet Revolution, the government got out of the housing business and transferred ownership responsibilities for state apartments to individual cities. Rents in those apartments continued to be set by the state, however. This means that city authorities must use their own funds to maintain public housing while only being able to collect minimal rents.

Given this situation, municipalities have no funds for the costly re-outfitting of panel-block apartments, half of which remain public housing.

The other half is made up of apartments that have been sold to individual owners, who cannot afford major structural repairs. More than 20 percent of high-rise apartments are in the hands of cooperatives. Under this system, the apartment dwellers in one particular building own it collectively -- often having paid for the building's construction under the former regime. But current Czech law bars cooperatives from receiving state loans or credits for home improvement.

Ivan Prikryl, the head of the Association of Czech and Moravian Cooperatives also has plenty of ideas on how to regenerate housing estates. In cooperation with urban planners from Germany, England and Norway, Prikryl's association devised a complex reform program aimed at making Communist-era housing estates both more attractive and structurally sound.

Prikryl says this "humanization" program may seem unrealistic to some, but he maintains that it would be perfectly realizable, given a measure of state support: "All of these high-rise apartment buildings have flat roofs. We recently conducted a study that shows we could add another floor with a new tilted roof on top of each building. And if we moved people currently living on the ground floor into these new penthouse apartments -- and most would gladly move -- we would then gain space to be able to create shops and office space on the ground floor. From those office rents, we could pay off the bank loans for building the new roofs. We could then insulate the apartment buildings and put in new garages to get rid of these huge parking lots...This humanization would improve the environment -- at least a bit -- because we can't tear down these blocks."

Prikryl adds that if interest in panel housing drops, as he forecasts will happen, walls could be knocked down to create larger living spaces out of two or more apartments, to offer more choice to families wishing to remain in the suburbs. But with no encouragement from the state and initial loans to get the process started nothing will happen. "We're not asking for handout," says Prikryl, "just a chance to do what needs to be done."

For now, it seems, creative thinking is only building castles in the sky. Aside from all the legal entanglements, officials in Jizni Mesto say there is no political will to deal with the issue of regenerating housing estates. More than that, the central authorities often actively stifle local initiatives.

Prague City councilor Zdenek Kovarik, who is responsible for overall municipal development, told journalists last year that he did not consider high-rise estates to be any different from other neighborhoods. He added that he would personally oppose any special programs for such areas.

Deputy Mayor Jan Simunek explains how his district used some of its scarce funds last year to install thermostats in several buildings to cut energy waste. Utility bills immediately dropped by over 15 percent. The district then asked city authorities if they could use the money saved on energy to install more meters and make other improvements. "But," says Simunek, "the city authorities laughed and took the money we saved."

Says Bouskova: "No one wants to hear about our problems...And yet when you take into account that 40 percent of Prague's citizens live in high-rise housing estates and over 30 percent of the Czech population as a whole lives in them, then I think it is a special problem that someone has to consider. It's shocking that up to now, no one has looked into this problem in a systematic way. There is no concept and when we try to come up with an overall strategy, no one is eager to help us."

This is part two of a five-part RFE/RL series on housing in Eastern Europe and the United States.