Lack of plans, environmental impact studies, feasibility studies, or even public opinion polls are unlikely to prevent the Hungarian Parliament from passing a law today awarding the Budapest city park (Városliget) to a development corporation for 99 years.
In a country where “scandal” is just another word for government business as usual, the government sanctioned theft of Budapest’s main city park is truly scandalous.
Spanning some 300 acres and connected to historic downtown Budapest by Andrássy Avenue, Városliget is Budapest’s most important city park. First mentioned in historical texts dating back to 1241, the park changed hands between feudal lords a number of times before finally becoming the world’s first public park at the beginning of the 19th century.
In 1896 the city park was chosen as the venue for celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of the Kingdom of Hungary. That year also witnessed the completion of Andrássy Avenue and continental Europe’s first subway, connecting the city park to downtown Pest.
Over the course of the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries the city park expanded to include many notable buildings and monuments, including the Petőfi Hall (1885), the Gundel Restaurant (1894), The Palace of Art (1895), the Budapest Museum of Transportation (1899), the Millennium Monument at Heroes’ Square (1905), the Museum of Fine Arts (1906), the Vajdahunyad Castle (1908), the Municipal Zoological and Botanical Garden (1912), the Szécsenyi Medicinal Baths (1913), the Budapest Grand Circus (1971), and the Budapest Amusement Park (1971).
Earlier this year the government ordered “a concept for the construction of facilities to house public collections and the utilization of Városliget” with the intention of investing some HUF 150 billion (USD 690 million) over a period of four years turning the city park into a cultural and recreational attraction for families and a stand-alone destination for tourists.
Conceptual plans call for the construction of a new building for the Budapest Circus, the renovation of facilities housing the Budapest Museum of Transportation, the construction of a culinary park, the expansion of the Budapest Zoo, the reconstruction of Petofi Hall, and the construction of a “Youth’s Learning Experience Center”. Transportation routes to the park are to be transformed and a new parking structure built.
They also call for the construction of a new museum quarter to house the National Gallery, the new Ludwig Museum, the Hungarian Ethnographic Museum, the Hungarian Music House, the Hungarian Museum of Photography, and the Museum of Architecture.
Construction of the project is to start in June 2014 and be completed by 2018 without any environmental impact studies, feasibility studies, market surveys, or even public opinion polls having been commissioned.
Klara Garay, editor of Varosliget Hirmondo (a website dedicated to Varosliget conservation), told hvg.hu in November that the decision to transform Varosliget into a tourist destination should only have taken place after researching the project’s impact on trends in tourism. According to Garay no such research has taken place.
Following the announcement of the ambitious plan, the government announced the formation of a committee tasked with organizing a concept design competition for the new Varosliget.
The landscaping and scenery division of the Hungarian Chamber of Architects reacted by calling for a boycott of the project. Arguing that any further construction would compromise the natural scenery of Budapest’s favorite park and even jeopardize its legal classification as a “natural environment” the Chamber encouraged designers to propose alternate locations for the Museum Quarter, citing the project’s “conceptual nature”.
The Hungarian Society for Urban Development refused to join the government-created committee on the grounds that the museums should be constructed in parts of the city in need of urban renewal and not within the area of the city park.
A number of city conservationists and environmental organizations have voiced concerns regarding the project’s impact on the natural environment. Current laws only permit a maximum of 3 per cent of a public park’s total area to be developed. With 5 per cent of its area already developed, the city park already exceeds this threshold, according to Garay. “If so much as a doghouse were to be built on the park’s land, Varosliget will no longer qualify as a public park.” Garay adds that the concept plan does not conform to current laws limiting the height of buildings constructed on public park land to 7.5 meters.
Despite concerns voiced by urban planners, architects, naturalists, and environmental experts over the construction of a new museum quarter in the city park itself, the committee designated 12 of the 47 concept designs as winners.
Additional grounds for concern is that the project is to be fast-tracked and built by a development corporation at public expense without any NGO or government oversight.
The “Varosliget Renewal and Development” bill submitted on 2 December by Fidesz MP Ferenc Papcsak (who is also mayor of Budapest’s 14th district to which the city park currently belongs) is one of 20 bills being debated this week over the course of two day-long “special sessions” announced by Parliamentary speaker Laszlo Kover last Thursday.
The bill grants the national government 100% percent ownership of the city park for 99 years. The ownership rights of the property would be exercised by Varosliget Ingatlanfejleszto Zrt. (Varosliget Real Estate Developer Corporation), a special purpose vehicle (SPV) created solely for this purpose, and the Minister of Culture.
Currently, Varosliget is jointly owned by Budapest and the local government of Budapest’s fourteenth district. According to the draft law no contract detailing the terms of the 99 year transfer of ownership is required. If the law is adopted, the property will become the asset of Varosliget Ingatlanfejleszto Zrt. on 31 January 2014.
As the exclusive owner of the property, the development corporation is to be the project’s only decision-making body. As such it is responsible for planning, permitting, procurement, contracting, engineering, and oversight. Once the Városliget Renewal and Redevelopment Project is complete, the newly erected buildings will be classified as “national treasures” by the Minister of the National Economy and ownership of the buildings will be transferred to the national government.
The draft law also stipulates the kind of construction projects the corporation may organize within the city park. The list includes cultural, educational, sporting, community center, tourism facilities, as well as facilities for small businesses dealing with hospitality services, religious centers, transportation, and public security.
The seven page bill also empowers the corporation to carry out its work without taking into consideration the city’s long-term city development plans, zoning laws, or district building regulations. It also calls upon the city of Budapest to make all necessary arrangements so that work can begin in June 2014.
“Essentially, this just means the developer doesn’t have to deal with anything that would require him to develop the property in a way that takes city planning into account” say Budapest-based architect Samu Szemerey, who claims that if ‘extraordinary’ projects like this start taking place in a way that totally disregards Budapest’s construction standards, “the city will eventually implode”. “No one has seen so much as a plan” claims Szemerey. “If they can sidestep all the architectural and construction controls, the entire procurement process will be just as non-transparent.”
Opposition party politicians also voiced concerns during a three hour parliamentary debate in early December. MSZP parliamentary representative Pal Tibor criticized the plan as yet another Fidesz attempt at shrouding a public works project in secrecy.
Bernadett Szel of LMP criticized the fact that the project is to be conducted without any oversight or limitations on what the corporation can do within the city park’s boundaries. She asked whether the citizens of Budapest’s 14th District had been asked whether they approved of the plan.
Dialogue for Hungary MP Rebeka Szabo pointed out that half of Budapest’s green scenery had disappeared since the fall of Communism a quarter of a century ago and called for guarantees that the natural scenery of the park not be impacted by the plan.
Ferenc Papcsak dismissed criticisms, calling them “impulsive”.
Editor: The Budapest Beacon wholeheartedly agrees! What could possibly be impulsive about turning Budapest’s main city park over to a development corporation so that it can spend money the country doesn’t have erecting buildings for which there is no obvious need?
The effective appropriation of 300 acres of park land in the very heart of Budapest is a scandal of the highest order. And what is to be the fate of the landmark buildings presently occupied by the museums in question? Are they to be sold off to real estate developers with good political connections and allowed to fall apart until some bigger fool comes along prepared to pay three times their purchase price?
Stay tuned to the Budapest Beacon and find out!
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