NEW PLANS FOR OLD NEIGHBORHOODS
In February, the Tbilisi government unveiled a new vision for one of the city's most historic neighborhoods, Aghmashenebeli Avenue - from the metro to Saarbrucken Square (near the Dry Bridge). The plan has inspired cautious optimism that Tbilisi can reclaim green space for pedestrians, although some urban planners and conservationists warn that the devil is in the details - and the implementation.
Nino Bakradze and Lika Jorjoliani
An artist's rendition of a reconstructed residential yard along Aghmashenebeli Avenue
In three years, if all goes according to plan, the hustle and bustle on a portion of Aghmashenebeli Avenue will fade to the sound of footsteps and bicycle wheels.
Currently, the avenue is a major route for traffic moving on the right side of the Mtkvari River. But the city's new plan calls for turning the avenue from the Central Post Office at 46 Aghmashenebeli to Saarbrucken Square (near the Dry Bridge flea market) into a closed street for pedestrians.
"Tourists, as a rule, express their interest in pedestrian streets and historic buildings. I think that the D. Aghmashenebeli Avenue, being in an old district of the city, will enjoy popularity among tourists. Today, the most visited places are the Sololaki district and Rustaveli Avenue. However, many guests of the capital find accommodations along D. Aghmashenebeli Avenue," First Deputy Head of Administration of the Tourism Department of Georgia, Rusudan Mamatsashvili, told Investor.ge.
She noted there are also plans to open a tourism information center in the neighborhood and to "include the new route in the tourist maps of Tbilisi, which will cover the territory restored under the auspices the 'New Tiflisi' program of the capital's government."
In addition, the city wants to recreate historic green spaces in the neighborhood, and is undertaking an effort to restore at least some of the 100 hectares of gardens that existed in the area in the 19th century.
"Returning all of the green areas is impossible in the 21st century. However, our concept considers the maximal restoration of these gardens. Dozens of hectares that are possible to revive will become a green environment. A natural environment in the city may be created in the center of the capital. In addition, the plans for 'Eco-paths' have been developed to connect these gardens," Giorgi Baidarashvili, Director of the Development Fund of Tbilisi, said.
Irakli Zhvania, architect and co-author of project's concept, says if the construction company chosen to implement the work remains true to the project's vision, "New Tiflisi" will be "good and useful for the city."
"The renovation of gardens and a green zone is necessary to help solve Tbilisi's ecological problems. As we know, the area surrounding Aghmashenebeli Avenue is the most polluted location in Tbilisi and is the location of the city's highest temperatures in the summer. To have several hectares of green zone in the mid-city would help our environmental problems. On the other hand, renovation of those gardens means renovation of our city's history," he said.
Another important part of the project is public and private transport, Zhvania noted, saying transportation routes "should be well planned."
"Organizers should think on that very well. Our streets are full with cars, and pedestrians have no space to walk. But this project includes the idea of having streets only for pedestrians, where cars will be prohibited. It will help the development of social spaces without transport noise and air pollution. That is one more benefit to the local inhabitants, too," he said.
More than just Facades
Artist's rendition of renovated neighborhood
Some urban planners have doubts about how beneficial the project will actually be.
Zurab Bakradze, an urban planner, complained the city could not have planned such a major project in just 10 weeks. He also claimed no one "outside the organizer companies has seen the plan. I doubt there is any such document at all. It is not serious if they have done research and a study process in 10 weeks."
"I think this project will not make this district healthier. I guess we will get the same result as we got from the renovation of Aghmashenebeli Avenue's first part. They painted facades and nothing more," he said.
Baidarashvili stressed, however, that the project is not just about renovating building facades.
"We will restore not only facades, but yards as well. We will completely renovate the engineering and communicative infrastructure," he said.
"First of all, we will fortify these buildings, then we will restore their facades. The state of all buildings located along the avenue has been studied in detail and their restoration and rehabilitation will be conducted according to the guidelines for restoration of historic monuments."
Baidarashvili added that several vestibules "that haven't lost their authenticity" will also be restored.
"There are some historic doors and entrance halls requiring reconstruction. Entrance halls of many houses that are situated on Aghmashenebeli Avenue are incredibly beautiful and have unique architectural appearances," he said.
For example, he noted that a house at 96 Aghmashenebeli Avenue, designed by a famous sculptor of Italian origin from St. Petersburg, Anjelo Andreoletti, will be renovated.
Baidarashvili said a separate project is slated to restore ancient balconies. "Open balconies and galleries, including beautiful carvings, were obligatory parts of houses, and recently these sites have really attracted interest tourist interest," he said.
In total, 47 buildings on Aghmashenebeli Avenue, many of which are cultural sites, will be renovated based on the project. The project is expected to cost 21 million lari, and it will be implemented by InSi and Dagi construction companies, both of which were involved in the 2010 renovation of the Aghmashenebeli Avenue from Tamara Mepe Street to Marjanishvili Metro Station.
The construction is supposed to take three to four months.
Calls for More Information, Monitoring
Conservation specialists have questioned what the city can realistically accomplish in just three or four months, however. They have also expressed concern that more communication and public discussion are necessary to make the project a success.
Tsira Elisashvili, an expert of cultural heritage affiliated with Tiflis Hamkari (a union of Tbilisi caretakers) said the fund needs to study "the first part" of the renovation of Aghmashenebeli Avenue, implemented under the previous government, to make sure they do not "repeat the same mistakes."
Elisashvili said Tiflis Hamkari will monitor the project's implementation.
She also expressed frustration that she has not been able to see any documents about the project plans and called for better implementation of the laws that determine what can be built where.
Bakradze also called for stronger legislation to guarantee proper planning.
"Every land plot is regulated by different orders, laws and amendments; we do not have general strong rules. We should change our attitude toward the city," he said.
The government has stressed that all necessary measures have been taken to preserve the neighborhood's historic heritage: 200 specialists have been included in the development of the concept of the "New Tiflisi" project according to the development fund.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili stressed that the government has prioritized the preservation and conservation of the city's historic heritage in his remarks at the project's launch on February 5.
"Tbilisi is an absolutely unique city, with its special location, architecture and residents. It is our duty to renovate the legacy of our ancestors - this unique city - and develop tourism and the economy to make the capital promising for its residents, interesting for tourists and to create new workplaces," he said.
"We have to give new impetus for development to the country, and this process starts today at Aghmashenebeli Avenue," he said.
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