MOSCOW -- The spectacular Zaryadye Park opened to great fanfare last weekend, despite being unfinished, with President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's mayor helping to mark the occasion, coinciding with the Russian capital's 870th anniversary.
Days later, however, the park's opening times were abruptly cut back, after reports that a glass dome had been broken, thousands of flowers had been destroyed, and even rare plants dug up and made off with. City Hall immediately announced "restoration" work.
It was the latest grist for debate around the swanky landscaped park that was built in Moscow's historic center on the long-vacant site of the monolithic Rossia Hotel -- at an eyepopping cost of 14 billion rubles ($245 million) during a two-year recession.
Critics have long questioned the price tag, and its lack of "Russian-ness," not to mention the dramatic overhaul of an area at the heart of historic Moscow, although it has also received high praise from Russian architects.
Designed by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro according to a concept called "wild urbanism," the Zaryadye Park features four zones with exotic flora representing Russia's steppe, tundra, wetlands, and forests.
It features a philharmonic orchestra hall, a viewing point -- or "floating bridge" -- that juts out over the Moscow River, an amphitheater, and botanical gardens on a mound under a glass dome. Against the backdrop of Moscow's onion domes and the hodgepodge of tsarist and Soviet architecture, the park's modernist landscape is a striking contrast that wouldn't be out of place in downtown London, central Manhattan, or next to Berlin's famed Tiergarten.
"This is a typologically unprecedented object. Nowhere in the world is there anything like it. And that in itself is a wonder for a professional," Yevgeny Ass, a prominent Russian architect, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Secondly, this is high-quality work. I don't know how it will develop, but so far it looks like a very well-made project."
The park is the latest addition to a city that has changed dramatically under Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Once-ubiquitous kiosks have been cleared off the streets. Public spaces like the legendary Gorky Park have been transformed from bleak-and-Soviet into hip-and-new, visited by tourists and residents alike. Sidewalks in the center have been widened and some streets made more pedestrian-friendly, while strictly monitored paid parking has been introduced.
Some like journalist Yulia Latynina have hailed the changes as a transformation of Moscow from a "big Asian village into an entirely decent European capital."
Many, however, have bristled at constant road work and big traffic jams, and say City Hall has not consulted with residents before making huge changes.
Kirill Martynov, political editor for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, reflected other criticism about the price tag, which was originally projected to be several times smaller.
"This park was designed before we became a 'great geopolitical power,' before 2014," Martynov said wryly on Ekho Moskvy radio on September 14. That was a reference to the Kremlin's confrontation with the West over Ukraine, a period that coincided with a sharp downturn in Russia's economy amid sanctions and a falling global oil prices, Russia's main export.
"The dollar then was worth 35 rubles, and everything in general was somehow more calm, oil was more expensive. We looked to the future with confidence," Martynov said. "Now these expenses on the park and all these mosses just look strange. People's incomes have been falling for four years in a row, and here, just imagine, some kind of exotic lichens have been brought to Moscow."
As soon as the park was opened to the public on September 11, swarms of people descended on it, with visitors veering from paths onto recently laid turf lawn, despite signs asking them not to.
The park's chief conservationist, Yury Safronov, on September 13 told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper that the park had well exceeded its capacity, and that people had ruined 10,000 flowers and 30 percent of the turf lawn.
He also alleged that visitors "are digging up plants, hiding them in their bags, and leaving."
The latter comment sparked outrage online, although the park's press service quickly distanced itself from the claim, calling it "conjecture" and saying they had no information of plants being stolen.
Many of the visitors at the park on a balmy September weekday said they had not heard of the furor and the supposed vandals.
Others had critical opinions. Ksenia, 24, a lawyer who declined to give her surname, ridiculed the idea that people stole rare flowers -- or trampled them. "Who walks on flowers? No one would do this. I think they hurried to get the park open and they weren't ready," she said as she walked in the park's botanical gardens.
Alik, a talkative security guard from southern Astrakhan who was on duty at a flower bed under the glass dome, said, "I wasn't here, but this is the place," pointing to a garden area sealed off with a wheelbarrow.
"This is what happens here in Russia. People don't do this abroad," he said.
Galina, 55, visiting her son from Nizhny Novgorod, said she was underwhelmed by the park, which she said had been hyped on TV but appeared not to be finished. "I expected more. It's not finished yet," she said, gesturing toward workers rolling up brown and battered turf near the northern entrance, and carrying out work on a glass roof.
Others were brimming with positivity. Two retired women visiting from the Urals region city of Yekaterinburg were taking in the panorama from the top of an amphitheater overlooking St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin walls, and a skyline of onion domes tapering away to the Russian Foreign Ministry in the distance.
"What, are you expecting us to say something bad about the park?" asked one of them, declining to give her name. "I think it's a wonderful park. I'm having a great time. I heard about some vandalism, but I can't see anything wrong. Look at this view!"