Bjørvika battle put on ice, for now

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Oslo’s new city government wants to rezone the last remaining waterfront property at Bjørvika known as Sukkerbiten, to spare it from more building and keep it open to the public as a park. It marks a major, if conditional, victory for activists who strongly oppose plans to erect yet another “landmark” building in the area that already features the Opera House, the new Munch Museum and the new city library still under construction.

Debate has been flying over this last undeveloped waterfront lot called Sukkerbiten (sugar cube) at Bjørvika, right in front of Oslo’s new Munch Museum that’s risen in the background and due to open next June. The tent-like structure in the foreground was used to exhibit various proposals from architects for a new photography center at the diputed site. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“There’s a clear ambition in the new government platform to secure all of Sukkerbiten as open area,” Sunniva Eidsvoll of the Socialist Party (SV) told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. “We will examine the legal and economic consequences of that.”

The city owns the harbour authority (Oslo Havn) that in turn owns its real estate division, HAV Eiendom. It’s thus prepared to put its building project on ice until further notice. The city government’s new political position is a result of a shift in the balance of power after the Greens are widely viewed to have won last month’s local elections. The Labour Party, which supported construction at Sukkerbiten, still leads Oslo’s power but was forced to make many concessions in the new platform.

“This is a victory for everyone who thinks there’s enough asphalt and concrete in Bjørvika now,” declared Sverre Jervell, leader of the group known as Sukkerbitens Venner (Friends of Sukkerbiten) that has been actively opposing plans to build a new photography center at the site. Called Fotografihuset, the project has been compared to the waterfront Fotografiska in Stockholm. Opponents have nothing against creating a photography center in Oslo, just not at the prime waterfront site in front of the Opera and Munch Museum that’s due to open next year.

The jury that decided on the construction of the Munch Museum had recommended years ago that the Sukkerbiten area must not be built up but remain open to the sea instead, so as not to distract from the museum building or the landmark Opera House. HAV Eiendom, however, has been keen to earn as much money as possible on its waterfront property in Oslo that has been under redevelopment for 20 years.

This grafitti on the old pier at the disputed site reads “Save Sukkerbiten.” Now it may be spared more construction and turned into a waterfront park. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Jervell’s group has been far from alone in the opposition to more building at Sukkerbiten, which most recently has been used for outdoor concerts and events even amidst massive construction activity going on around it. “The whole purpose of the ‘Fjord City Oslo’ project was to give folks free access to the fjord,” Labour Party veteran Sissel Rønbeck told newspaper Dagsavisen last summer when the battle over Sukkerbiten (which means sugar cube) grew sour indeed. “If you go to Bjørvika now, there’s just building, building, building. There is no lack of cultural institutions, asphalt and concrete there. What we need is an open, green area that folks can enjoy.”

Rønbeck, a former city- and government minister, has received much of the credit for transforming industrial areas along the city’s Aker River into a long park-like trail from the hills to the sea. She joined the fight to turn Sukkerbiten into a park as well: “It’s not enough with a small beach surrounded by office buildings and expensive housing. Even the Opera House is getting closed in.”

This is the design that won first place in an architectural competition for a new photography center at Sukkerbiten, called Fotografihuset. At right, the new Munch Museum and Barcode buildings, at at left in the background, the Opera House. ILLUSTRATION: AtelierOslo

Proponents of the proposed photography center have stressed how it could also become a waterfront attraction that would draw visitors also in the winter. Its leader Erling Johansen has claimed it will contribute to Oslo’s new “cultural neighbourhood” at Bjørvika, and a design for a low-rise structure surrounded by open public area was chosen after an extensive architectual competition just last month. HAV Eiendom has also stressed that it would be surrounded by “a large green area for recreation and swimming” in the fjord. HAV Eiendom’s own chief executive Kjell Kalland led the jury, and claims the winning design combines the needs for access to the waterfront all year round.

Critics including another architect, Tor Austigard, claim the winning design is more suited for a restaurant than a photography center, given all its glass, and that there’s no need for “a new restaurant building.” Others point to several empty cultural buildings around Oslo that have been vacated during the building boom of the last 20 years. Among them are the old National Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo’s old Deichman Library, its old Munch Museum and even Oslo’s old city prison (Botsen). Their proponents argue it would be best to recycle them for a new photography center, and more environmentally friendly than building new.

Here’s what the organization keen on blocking more construction at Bjørvika envisions for the Sukkerbiten site. ILLUSTRATION: Fjordpark/Link Arkitiktur

Kalland told Aftenposten on Wednesday that he and his colleagues “aren’t bitter” over the city government’s decision to step on the brakes. “We don’t have to build anything, we just relate to the zoning that’s already been granted (which allows construction),” Kalland said. “But as long as the city’s re-examination lasts, Sukkerbiten will remain as it is today, a shabby pier in a soon-to-be-completed Bjørvika.” He also called for an alternative site for the photography center. Mayor Marianne Borgen has proposed putting it in abandoned grain silos located just across the water at Vippetangen that could be remodelled.

If Sukkerbiten is to be turned into a park, the city would technically need to “buy it back” from HAV Eiendom and the harbour authority (Oslo Havn), even though the harbour authority is already owned by the city. The pricetag has been set at NOK 230 million or even more, and then it would need to be rezoned, landscaped and developed for park use at additional cost.

Meanwhile, some wooden boat activists floated what they call “a completely different idea” in newspaper Klassekampen last week. They want to develop a wooden boatyard of sorts at Sukkerbiten, where the Norwegian tradition of building and repairing wooden boats could carry on. “It could be a place where Oslo folks could collectively own and repair wooden boats all year long,” proposed Kim Brantenberg of the coastal organization Kystlaget Viken, Ilker Dursun of the Aker River’s Wooden Boat Association (Akerselva Trebåtforening) and Thomas Bjønnes of the Norwegian motor vessel club (Motorskøyteklubb). They described the project as “esthetic, traditional and practical.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund