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Tower Causes Rare Government Split

Gazprom’s ambitious plan to build a 400-meter skyscraper in St. Petersburg has created a rare split in the government that indicates the project is far from assured.

In a sign of the division, two state-controlled television channels aired competing reports on Sunday night about Okhta Center, which is to serve as the headquarters for Gazprom Neft but has met with fierce public opposition.

In an unusually scathing report, Channel One called the skyscraper “a certain architectural style that is a cross between Venice and Singapore” and featured several international experts who criticized its placement east of St. Petersburg’s historical center. A Channel One reporter was shown walking around the city with a camera and the projected skyscraper rising up from the postcard skyline behind him.

When the skyscraper is built, “people will be spending a lot of time erasing it from their photos,” the reporter said in the 10-minute report.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a longtime supporter of the tower who signed off on its construction earlier this month, told Channel One in the report that “The decision has not been made, and the project has to go through serious government assessment.”

NTV, which is owned by Gazprom-Media, broadcast a report in favor of Okhta Center that same night.

Opponents of the skyscraper smell blood and are growing increasingly confident that it will not materialize.

“The authorities have understood that the project is dangerous not just for Matviyenko but for the entire system,” Maxim Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the liberal Yabloko party, said Monday.

The Channel One critique is the strongest in a series of punches directed at the tower, and it signifies a lack of consensus between the federal government, state-controlled Gazprom and Matviyenko, analysts said. Neither of St. Petersburg’s most famous sons, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have weighed in on the tower, but the Channel One report indicates the federal government’s displeasure with the development, they said.

A chorus of disapproval has swelled this month. Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev has criticized the tower, and Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov called it “crazy” in a statement read during a protest of 3,000 St. Petersburgers. On Monday, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, withdrew his party’s previous support. “If the majority of the people are against it, the Liberal Democratic Party is with the majority,” he said, Interfax reported.

Just 23 percent of St. Petersburg residents back Okhta Center, compared with 50 percent who oppose it and 20 percent who are undecided, according to a survey conducted by state-run VTsIOM on Oct. 9.

The reputation of Matviyenko, a longtime ally of Putin who has served as governor since 2003, has suffered from the tower, said Alexander Karpov, head of ECOM, a nonprofit organization in St. Petersburg that has monitored the project for several years.

Matviyenko has publicly stated that the tower would not be visible from the historical center, a blatant lie disproved easily by using a computer program to model the city’s landscape together with the tower, he said.

“There are three such programs publicly available, and one was made especially for the St. Petersburg government,” he said.

But “it’s hard to bring legal accusations against the governor because she bases her statements on documents that are given to her,” he said.

St. Petersburg City Hall and Gazprom Neft had no immediate comment on the tower Monday.

But Okhta Center, a company created by Gazprom to oversee the project, conceded that nothing was set in stone yet. “The Okhta project exists only in sketches, and a government assessment is not expected earlier than the winter of 2010,” it said in a statement carried by Interfax. “The height of the tower is subject to a separate discussion.”

The deputy director of Okhta Center, Vladimir Gronsky, sang praises to the skyscraper in the NTV report. “People call it a corncob, but I don’t see anything bad in a corncob,” he said. “The corncob is nature’s ideal creation.”

NTV described Okhta Center as a necessary stage in the city’s development and likened its critics to those who opposed the construction of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which was also controversial in its time.

Okhta Center, which has been in the works since 2005 and is expected to cost 60 billion rubles ($2 billion), has always been more than just a development project, said Yevgenia Vasilyeva, a real estate analyst at Colliers International’s St. Petersburg office.

“Its goals are not just investment goals but image goals,” she said. “It’s a symbol, the highest building in the city.”

While location of the future business center is well-chosen, setting such a tall building between two rivers is a gamble, she said. “There is no experience in St. Petersburg of building skyscrapers, let alone on such unstable ground,” she said.

The tower would stand on the site of a 13th-century fortification and a 17th-century fortress, which were uncovered during archeological excavations in the past three years. The remains are so valuable that they should be preserved, Pyotr Sorokin, head of the archeological expedition, said in a research note published on the web site of the Institute of Material Culture with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In the dark of the night of Oct. 8, construction equipment damaged the remains of the ancient Nienshants fortress, which had been seized by Peter the Great. The destruction was first documented Friday on the LiveJournal blog of art historian Natalia Vvedenskaya and later confirmed by Kirill Mikhailov of the Institute of Material Culture.

“There was an incident when an excavator seemingly accidentally dug up 15 meters of the fort’s fragments, which had been conserved,” Mikhailov told Ekho Moskvy radio.

An Okhta Center representative denied the report to Ekho Moskvy.

But the blog post accumulated more than 1,500 angry comments over the weekend and was the most discussed subject in the Russian blogosphere, according to Yandex Blogs.

The tower has destabilized the political situation in St. Petersburg, said Mikhail Vinogradov, a political analyst with the Petersburg Politics Fund. Referring to the widespread practice of paid-for articles, he said the Channel One report was a “political move” because nobody was likely to pay to have such a news program made. “A TV special in support of Okhta Center would be more likely,” he said.

Vinogradov said the lack of consensus in the government meant that the project could be called off or be redesigned. “The authorities may be realizing that pushing ahead with a project that is not entirely sensible is not worth an increase in public discontent,” he said.

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