It was in 2005 that ÓVÁS! first warned UNESCO of Budapest’s world heritage sites and their buffer zones being endangered by significant changes taking place in the historic Jewish district, describing the demolition of buildings and the construction of new, entirely out of place ones.
Since then we have informed UNESCO several times about the situation in the Jewish district and in the buffer zones. The last time we did so was when we handed over our observations to the UNESCO-ICOMOS mission in Budapest in 2013. Since then the situation has not improved, in fact it has deteriorated significantly. Important measures have been introduced which make heritage conservation in the country difficult. Despite recommendations and warnings from UNESCO for many years, the steps required for an effective protection of our cultural heritage (the creation of conservation management plans, the regulations in force in the buffer zones allowing too much height for buildings and too low a proportion of green areas, a lack of financial support/benefit schemes for those restoring historic buildings) have net been taken until today.
The biggest blow to the cause of heritage conservation since the sudden dissolution of the Hungarian National Office of Cultural Heritage in 2012 was the total defragmentation of the heritage conservation system in Hungary (the details of which are described in the open letter attached).
Instead of the introduction of a support scheme (through tax benefits, etc.) for the restoration of old, historic buildings, the building of new houses, flats is supported (when renovating and older building the VAT to be paid is 27%, for the construction of new buildings it is only s 5%, plus there is a very favourable home purchase subsidy scheme for families buying newly built homes). As a result of the lack of a conservation management plan many old buildings get added floors on top, because this is in accordance with local building regulations, and because the residents would not be able to afford a renovation of their building otherwise. For example, almost all of the 6th district (Terézváros) is a buffer zone of the world heritage site, yet half of the buildings here have had their atticks built in or floors added. By now this trend has reached the very centre of the listed heritage site, the palaces of Andrassy út and the section on the river front, and this process will presumably carry on without hindrance. Also, these extensions are often accompanied by demolitions, even in areas protected by UNESCO. In the case of Dorottya utca 8. and Molnar utca 7, both in the 5th district this has been done already, while at 52 Paulay Ede utca, a street in the 6th district, next to Andrassy út in a row of houses so far intact, the issuing of a demolition permit is underway.
In recent years large scale construction projects have been launched by the state in Budapest, among other places in the Castle district too, which is a World Heritage Site, and also in Városliget, a part of the buffer zone. Both projects are considered by the government as “investments of special importance” (Act LIII of 2006 on Speeding up and Simplifying the Realization of Investment Projects with National Importance). This means that the project can be carried out without restraints even if it goes against building regulations in force. In order to keep the appearance of acting lawful: new regulations are passed and adapted to the new projects (this was done in the case of Városliget, too: a new law was passed to match the needs of the project).
THE CASTLE CASE
The Castle District Várhegy, and as part of this, the formal Royal Palace and the residential quarter, which – so far – has been a place for culture and academic research as well as a tourist destination is now becoming a governmental quarter. The National Gallery’s artistic events, exhibitions, their paintings and sculptures will be replaced by interiors evoking Admiral Horthy’s years. This is happening in close connection with the planned Museum Quarter project in Városliget. If all goes according to plans the new National Gallery will be erected in the very middle of this public park. The emptied buildings in the residential quarter which used to hold various research institutions of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, will be used by ministries’ offices. These offices need a lot more space than what is offered by these buildings, so extensions will be needed (new floors added, the covering of internal courtyards for office space, etc.). Beyond all this, road traffic will increase and more parking space will be needed. As a “project of special importance”, all opinions coming from monument protection professionals may be ignored and new as well as old-new buildings are being erected in the Castle district. One of these buildings is the new “visitor reception building” next to the former Carmelite Monastery (Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office-to-be), which also has an impact on the river front view of the Castle hill, just like the newly added large balcony to the former Carmelite monastery, despite being both a part of the World Heritage Site and a protected monument on its own right.
THE CITY PARK CASE
According to the current plans, four new museums, a theatre, and underground parking lots will be built, and two existing, protected buildings (museums) are scheduled to be renovated and extended. This “Museum Quarter” project will obviously be harmful and simply too much for this park, and will go against the reconstruction of this landscape garden (finished in 1839), against its protected status as a public park, and against its cultural historical values. As a result of this project, the park, the landscape and the cityscape will be modified, it will increase car traffic in the area and will bring the destruction of many trees.
In order to be able to establish a museum quarter, a special regulation was created allowing that 7% of the park can become a built-in area (instead of the otherwise allowed 7% in public parks, and a 25 m maximum height for buildings was introduced instead of the usual 7 meters, and in one case a height of over 60 meters was allowed, and instead of a minimum of 70% of green surfaces, a minimum limit of only 65% was accepted. All relevant professionals from the field of monument protection, urbanists, architects, landscape architects, NGOs and over 75% of the residents in Budapest are against such a large-scale building-in of Városliget public park. This was summed up and published in the book containing the materials from the 2014 and 2015 conferences of Magyar Urbanisztikai Társaság (Hungarian Society for Urban Planning) under the title Mindent a maga helyén, Városliget, Város, Vár (Everything in its place: City Park, City, Castle). (Further details on this are provided in the letter sent to UNESCO and ICOMOS in February 2017.)
Although work on this project has started, so far only buildings without value, and concrete surfaces have been demolished, and – unfortunately – a number of trees were cut out. This is a special moment now: without any significant costs, the real rehabilitation of this public park could be started. This opportunity must not be missed, a significant part of this historic park could be structurally reconstructed now. According to opinion polls, the vast majority of people living in Budapest would prefer this solution to the government’s plans.
THE HIGHRISER CASE
According to information at our disposal, at the moment there are 4 projects planned in Budapest aiming at the construction of high-rise buildings. A 120 meters tall skyscraper is planned in the 11th district, at Kopaszi gát, while in the 13th district at Arpad bridge close to the river, altogether 7 new buildings (60–90 meter in height) are planned at three different locations (Agora Budapest, City Tower Budapest, Kreatív City).
Though their location is outside the area protected as a World Heritage Site, yet their view may have an impact on the Danube panorama which is part of the actual listed site. Looking down from the Castle these planned high-rise buildings in the 13th district would change the silhouette the building of Parliament. The councils of both the 11th and the 13th district modified the local regulations so as to adapt them to the needs of investors wanting to build high-rise buildings.
THE JEWISH QUARTER CASE
The problems which ÓVÁS! highlighted in 2013 are still present, the situation has in fact worsened. The changes happening in the district are unique in several respects.
The situation of the so called “ruin buildings” has not been solved since 2013. In the case of most of these buildings – the majority of them being protected monuments – the side wings were demolished in 2008 despite their special status. Since then their facades have been covered with sheets of foil, (e.g. Síp utca 8 and 10), while some of these monuments have become ruins, because they had been standing empty for over a decade. Next to the synagogue, at 10 Dohány Street, there is a listed monument building – vacated in 2002 – which today looks like if the Second World War had just ended.
Although the large-scale demolitions have temporarily stopped in this area, and because some of the empty buildings have been made use of as “ruin pubs”, this district has become one of the most popular parts of the city. Yet, only very few houses have been reconstructed, the streets look rather neglected and there is not any rehabilitation programme scheduled or executed. Many buildings are empty, and even when they are used as “ruin pubs“ or youth hostels, they are in decay.
We are concerned about the state of these valuable buildings soon becoming so bad that they cannot be saved, and local residents’ life has become pretty difficult due to the lack of regulations for the night time operation of pubs and restaurants in the area.
Pictures (unless stated otherwise) by Martin Fejer / EST&OST, estost.net
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