Waterfront projects run into critics

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Oslo’s massive and ongoing plans to redevelop its waterfront have been widely praised, but now the high-rise office and apartment buildings that are part of the plans are stirring new debate. Critics worry that not only will historic areas from the Middle Ages literally be overshadowed, but so will Oslo’s new landmark Opera House.

Some Oslo city politicians were calling on Wednesday for a re-evaluation of the entire waterfront redevelopment plan approved six years ago.

Ola Elvestuen of the centrist party Venstre, who leads the city council’s development committee, went on national radio to express his concerns about the high-rise commercial structures meant to help pay for the redevelopment at Bjørvika, the portion of the waterfront east of the Akershus Fortress.

“There is no doubt that the buildings are too high and too massive,” Elvestuen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

He said he fears they will create a “wall” along the waterfront, overshadowing both an historic park with foundations from the Middle Ages and the Opera House.That’s already happened to some degree west of Akershus, where both Aker Brygge and the still-rising Tjuvholmen portions of the waterfront redevelopment already have cut off views to the fjord. More development is planned for the adjacent Filipstad area, where local residents are trying to keep it open with a waterfront park.

Powerful business and harbor interests, though, are most keen on getting as much money out of the waterfront area as possible. The heads of both the harbor commission and state railway NSB, public agencies which still control much of the waterfront area, want top prices for any land they may sell off to private development interests, and in order to profit on their investments, the private developers want to build as densely as they can.That’s what’s led to all the proposals for expensive, high-rise buildings from Bjørvika to Filipstad, but now Norway’s new director general of Riksantikvaren (the national Directorate for Cultural Heritage) is blowing the whistle. In doing so, Jørn Holme has gone from being the secretive head of Norway’s police intelligence unit PST to a vocal proponent of historic preservation.

Holme said in a speech last week that he wants Riksantikvaren to become “an even more clear” and active voice in the community planning process, even though he realizes he can be stepping into a mine field. He went ahead and did so, calling on city officials, the state landowners and not least the harbor administration and NSB to “think twice” before moving forward with current redevelopment plans.At Bjørvika, Holme argued, the plans threaten to block off Oslo’s Middle Ages Park with “a wall of buildings up to 11 stories high.” Instead, the area should be preserved as a “green zone” that will showcase “the historic dimension” extending from the Akershus Fortress to the medieval church ruins at Bjørvika’s eastern border.

Moreover, Holme warned that his Directorate for Cultural Heritage also may formally oppose additional plans to build a new Munch Museum in a glass high-rise adjacent to the Opera House. Its design, by a Spanish architect, also has sparked criticism but was approved recently by redevelopment officials.

Holme thinks scaffolding rising to the 14-story height of the proposed Munch Museum building should be erected on the site as soon as possible, so “everyone” can better envision what a permanent structure would mean to the area. Holme won quick support from Opera officials and now from city politician Elvestuen.

Holme realizes his criticism and concerns are coming late in the waterfront redevelopment process, and that his directorate has limited power. Oslo’s top city official, Stian Berger Røsland, told newspaper Aftenposten he “completely disagrees” with Holme’s criticism.

Holme notes, though, that final building permits and rezoning permission still haven’t been issued, and there’s opportunity to exert influence and halt some of the most offensive structures.

“Our job is to try to take care of the historical aspects here,” Holme said. If current plans are realized, he thinks future generations will condemn the lack of consideration for cultural preservation.