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Pushkin Square Face-Lift Criticized

City authorities say the project shouldn't change the surface of the square. Igor Tabakov

A hotly contested plan to build a transport hub and commercial center underneath Pushkin Square has undergone several transformations, but while city authorities have tried to satisfy public demands, many see the project as a high-profile boondoggle.

The project involves the construction of a transport hub under the intersection of Tverskaya Ulitsa and Tverskoi and Strastnoi bulvars, as well as a four-story underground complex with parking for up to 1,000 vehicles, shops and entertainment facilities like a movie theater, an exhibition hall, a skating rink and several cafes.

"It will be kind of an underground city with a number of corridors," said Ali Visayev, head of TLC Tverskoi, the company established by City Hall to build the 96,500-square-meter underground complex. Tverskoi is largely owned by Turkish development company Gunal, which holds a 62 percent stake, while the City Hall's property department and a Moscow-based company Professional Business hold 30 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

The project is part of City Hall's ambitious Bolshaya Leningradka project, which aims to create a highway free of traffic lights that would run from the Kremlin all the way to Sheremetyevo Airport. According to the plan, the traffic lights on the intersection of Tverskaya Ulitsa and Tverskoi and Strastnoi bulvars will be removed, making the street free of traffic lights, Visayev said.

"As a result, traffic along the Boulevard Ring will move faster, since the traffic lights on the intersection will not slow it down," he told The Moscow Times.

The transport hub should increase traffic capacity around Pushkin Square to 2,500 vehicles an hour from the current 1,300 vehicles an hour, said Viktor Volynkin, chief engineer at Tverskoi.

But most of the criticism of the project has erupted in connection with the project's commercial designs.

The initial plan for the project included an underground shopping center, which would have been located underneath Pushkin Square, as well as several cafes on Novopushkinsky Skver.

In exchange for its investment in the transportation hub, for which City Hall had no money, Gunal got the right to build a shopping center underneath Pushkin Square.

Protesters lashed out against the original plan, proposed in 2006, demanding that the famous square not be redesigned to make room for a shopping center. The project went back to the drawing board after City Hall refused to approve it and said the proposal should be reworked.

City Hall's state expertise committee is currently considering a new version of the project. The plan still needs approval from a number of bodies, including City Hall's architectural committee and the natural resources and environmental protection committee, Visayev said.

While City Hall officials have insisted that the new version of the project wouldn't include any shopping space, Visayev said the complex would include a convenience store, a second-hand bookshop and entertainment facilities.

Tverskoi's representatives said at least some of the complex would be reserved for commercial space, though commercial facilities would account for no more than 20 percent of the total area. The rest of the construction would be dedicated to the transportation hub and parking facilities, they said.

In September, First Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin said there would be no shopping space underneath the square.

"The project of Pushkin Square is being reworked today. Everyone's remarks have been taken into account — shopping space has been ruled out," he said.

But many are taking a skeptical view of the city's and developer's vow to keep the commercial side of things to a minimum.

"In 100 percent of the cases, Moscow authorities promise public facilities, but only a shopping center appears in the end. Pushkin Square is the best place in Moscow because of its investment attractiveness," said Alexei Navalny, former secretary of the Committee to Protect Muscovites, which contests illegal construction.

The expert advisory council to Moscow chief architect Alexander Kuzmin has repeatedly criticized the project, said council member Alexei Klimenko, who also didn't support the idea of the square's commercial use.

"Pushkin Square is an object of too big historical and cultural value, and it would be a mistake to commercially use it," he said, adding that he was also concerned that the tunnel construction would change the appearance of the square.

Both City Hall and the developer have promised that the surface of the square will remain unchanged.

"Only Novopushkinsky Skver will undergo changes, but they will be insignificant," said Volynkin, of Tverskoi.

In addition, traffic experts are skeptical that the transport hub will be able to deliver on its promise to relieve heavy traffic downtown.

The plans, as they stand now, won't be sufficient for relieving all the new traffic that will be directed along the Boulevard Ring, said Alexander Strelnikov, a scientist with the Central Urban Planning Research Institute.

"Besides, this part of the city suffers a heavy deficit of parking space, but the space of the underground parking will be enough only for serving the trade and entertainment complex," he said.

While many critics are concerned about whether the construction will change the view of the Pushkin Square that they know and love, others are more concerned about possible damage being done underground.

Preservationists say the development could damage historical remains of great archeological value.

The remains of the 17th-century fortress Bely Gorod, Strastnoi Convent and Dmitry Solunsky church underneath the square may be damaged during the construction, said Konstantin Mikhailov, a coordinator with Arkhnadzor, an independent preservationist organization.

The city's chief archeologist, Alexander Veksler, offered his assurances that the whole historic territory of Pushkin Square would be explored to understand the condition of the remains.

"We've already completed the first stage of archeological excavations in Novopushkinsky Skver. We also plan to explore the former territory of Strastnoi Convent, as well as the territory of Tverskoi and Strastnoi bulvars where the wall of Bely Gorod ran," said Veksler, who is also Luzhkov's archeology adviser.

If the plan goes through, this won't be the first time that Pushkin Square has had a facelift.

The statue of Pushkin, erected in 1880, originally faced the Strastnoi Convent and was located at the beginning of Tverskoi Bulvar. It was moved to its current site when the convent was demolished in 1937.

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