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New City Forum, removal of flyover, greenery. How to fix downtown Gdansk?

27 of March '24

We can think about partially reducing the cross-section of the street, eliminating the flyover at the European Union intersection, but also think about the superstructure of buildings at the Jagiellonian Embankment, opposite the New City Hall. According to our calculations, 600 to 700 trees can be planted in the area of the Western Front of the City Center, says Piotr Lorens, Architect of the City of Gdansk.

Ewa Karendys: After the publication of Pawel Mrozek's film showing the pre-war downtown of Gdansk, there is no shortage of voices saying that we have destroyed this space.

Prof. Piotr Lorens*: We are not the ones who destroyed it. First of all, the space was very badly devastated as a result of the war effort: many buildings were annihilated in 1945 or demolished - due to damage that made reconstruction impossible - in the immediate post-war period. Secondly, it was designed at a time when the passenger car did not exist. At the moment, cars are plentiful, and the main transportation system of a much larger Gdansk than in the late 19th century is linked to the north-south axis: Grunwald Avenue, Zwycięstwa Avenue and, further on, precisely the Western Front of the City Center. This layout was expanded - perhaps excessively - in the 1960s and 1970s, in accordance with the prevailing trends of the time. Today, however, we are aware that this space should not only perform communication functions, but become an important public space of Gdansk - and thus to some extent regain its representative character.

Ewa Karendys
: Could some of the mistakes have been avoided?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: It is difficult to talk about mistakes. What we have is a certain consequence of the tendency to transform the city in the 20th century. And we are not alone in this. In Leipzig they are struggling with exactly the same problems, they too are figuring out how to transform the monstrous ring around the Old Town. Similarly, in Cologne, the layout of the ring foundation around the inner city - which is a kind of model for shaping such solutions - also deteriorated in the postwar period. The history of our cities was such that no one valued this type of assumptions in the postwar period. In Gdansk, issues related to the liquidation of architectural elements that at least somewhat resembled the Prussian tradition of the city from the 19th and early 20th centuries added their part. Of course, today we can think of science fiction type solutions: we are building a tunnel under the entire Western Front of downtown Gdansk, but....

Ewa Karendys: This is science fiction?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: Such a solution is most likely to cost about $10 billion, and the annual budget of Gdansk is about PLN 5 billion. Such amounts for investment are therefore beyond our current reach. Yes, some cities are opting for such changes. In Düsseldorf, a wide street - actually a city highway - located on the banks of the Rhine River was put underground, and it cost about that much money. In Boston, in the United States, exactly the same thing was done. The undertaking cost about $7 billion - and that was more than 20 years ago. We, unfortunately, do not have such money.

Ewa Karendys
: So how do we fix this space?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: We can think about partially reducing the cross-section of the street, eliminating the flyover at the European Union junction. We even have preliminary studies showing what this could look like. We can think about the superstructure of buildings on the Jagiellonian Embankment, opposite the New City Hall and in the area of the PZU building. The existing tenements - compared to the pre-war ones - are today beveled from above and lack pre-war architectural details. However, it should be remembered that when the establishment of the Western Front of the City Center was planned and built, they were not particularly concerned about the exposure of the Main City skyline from the Błędnik or New Gardens area - and at the moment it is one of the greatest values. When we take a bus, car, streetcar, or walk along the Blędnik, from the Main City side we can see the towers of churches and the Main City Hall very nicely exposed.

Po lewej symulacja powrotu do przedwojennych kubatur przy ul. Wały Jagiellońskie

On the left, a simulation of a return to pre-war volumes on Waly Jagiellońskie Street

© A2P2 architecture&planning

Ewa Karendys
: So it's either the pre-war cubatures or the view?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: Yes, if we raise the height in place of the existing buildings, going back to the pre-war cubatures, we will partially obstruct the view. Of course, this can be done, only that it will be at the expense of the landscape. We can also discuss the redevelopment of City Forum - that is, the shopping complex located opposite the train station complex. Should the existing buildings - a relic of the early 1990s - remain, or are we ready to discuss replacing them? This also raises the question of whether the model of space shaping adopted in the early 1990s still meets contemporary expectations. If not, then the next question is: what would this space look like? The solution presented in the film - due to the post-war implementation of the transportation system (even if we make an assumption about its certain narrowing) - is unfortunately impossible to recreate. It should be remembered that the historical frontage of the buildings in front of the station ran more or less in the place where the streetcar track is now located.

Ewa Karendys
: And what about greenery? Pre-war Gdansk had more of it.

Prof. Piotr Lorens: We are conducting studies that indicate that re-greening is possible. It's just that this, too, comes at a great cost. According to our calculations, 600 to 700 trees can be planted in the area of the Western Front of the City Center, but only 30 of them without the cost of translating underground infrastructure. All this can be done, it's just that translating every pipe or cable is also a considerable expense. If we were to decide to do it already, it would probably be on the occasion of a larger reconstruction of the entire urban layout of the area.

Ewa Karendys
: Why did the Office of the City Architect decide to address this area just now? Why did it commission a film that shows the pre-war downtown of Gdansk?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: It all started with a discussion of the future of the aforementioned City Forum, or more precisely, the square lined from end to end with concrete cubes right next to the bus stops. The councilmen's clubs and the mayor's college decided to conduct analyses of what could be done with this area, how to make the space more attractive, green. We began our work by analyzing the history of the transformation of this place and, in a way, rediscovered the pre-war solutions. We were, of course, aware of the history of the area - I myself had the opportunity to deal with this topic much earlier, back in the 1990s, when I wrote an article on the transformation of the downtown area during the partitions. So we asked Dr. Lukasz Bugalski, who deals with the history of urban planning, to prepare a book on the history of the urban transformation of the Western Front of downtown Gdansk. We also asked Prof. Katarzyna Rozmarynowska to prepare a historical study on greenery. We then began work on an analysis of the possibilities of transforming the area. A study was produced, which we are still refining at the moment. But when it turned out that the space was very coherent before the war, we decided that it was worth showing it in the form of a 3D model. And once we had the model, we decided to present it in the most attractive way possible and commissioned the preparation of an animation.

Ewa Karendys
: The architectural uprising movement, which defends classical architecture while contesting modern architecture, is growing in strength in Europe today. Aren't you worried that this film will rile up Gdansk lovers of historic restoration, who will start demanding historicizing forms?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: But this discussion has been going on in Gdansk for more than 100 years. Already Martin Kiessling and Otto Kloeppel in the 1920s led the argument whether Danzig should be modern or historicizing. And although we have been having this dispute for 100 years, it is far from over. The important point is that this discussion is, in my opinion, necessary. For it is not clearly stated what should be done with the historic tenements, or how to develop the area where the LOT building currently stands. In my opinion, the solution that won in the recent competition held by the investor is not attractive, and it would be better not to implement it in the proposed form. In addition, further questions arise: is the LOT building, the former commercial pavilion, to be restored? Or are we to rebuild the so-called Danziger Hof, i.e. the hotel that stood in this place before the war? And if so, should it be in a modern or historic form? Or maybe instead, according to one of the post-war projects, realize a green space there? And we already have at least five different options!

Ewa Karendys
: The previous conservator was unable to resolve the fate of the LOT building for several years.

Prof. Piotr Lorens: This is unfortunately a very difficult task. The building is very transformed, it has actually lost its original character. On the other hand, it is a kind of witness to the post-war transformation of the area. So I think discussions will continue for a long time before decisions are made.

Ewa Karendys
: What changes can we expect in this space most soon?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: Certain things are already happening, the City is striving to calm traffic and give priority to pedestrians. Preparations for the construction of a pedestrian crossing near the train station, at the level of Elizabeth Street, have longbeen underway. I think this crossing will restore the street to pedestrians and allow at least to some extent to return to pre-war solutions. Because if we look at the plan of Gdansk from the interwar period, we can see that two main thoroughfares were located in the area of the station square. One was the so-called Kashubian Market, or today's Gnilna Street, which was extended right up to the station. Today this street is closed off by the Scandic Hotel building and a tenement on the side of Rajska Street.

Ewa Karendys: And the other one?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: This is precisely Elisabeth Street, which in turn leads us from the train station to the area of the Wood Market and further - the Main Town. And it is the latter route that can be reconstructed today. At the same time, it should be remembered that the street physically exists, only that it is poorly used by pedestrians, because there is not much to lead to. When a pedestrian crossing appears at its end then, I am deeply convinced of this, Gancarska and Elizabethan streets will gain new life and become one of the main routes leading pedestrians all the way to the Main City. This is all the more likely due to the fact that this passage is connected to the entrance to the extended streetcar platforms. Experience from the analysis of implemented pedestrian crossings along Zwycięstwa Avenue, Podwale Przedmiejskie or in front of the Wyżynna Gate leaves no doubt in this regard.

Ewa Karendys
: What else?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: As I mentioned, we will try to introduce greenery - low and high - wherever possible. In turn, the future of City Forum depends on cooperation with a private partner, the current owner of the building. The elimination of the current blocks and the construction of a new establishment with a representative character is at stake. But this would probably require a new architectural competition. In the meantime, the ownership situation of City Forum is somewhat complicated, as we are dealing with a company in bankruptcy. On the other hand, we are back to talks regarding the greening of the aforementioned square - but this, too, requires seeking a compromise with the landowner.

Wizualizacja przedwojenna i stan obecny przestrzeni w Śródmieściu Gdańska - Podwale Grodzkie widok sprzed dworca

Pre-war visualization and current state of the space in downtown Gdansk - Podwale Grodzkie view from before the station

© Paweł Mrozek

Ewa Karendys
: But this is probably a melody of the future, as redevelopment may require a change in the plan?

Prof. Piotr Lorens: Akurat is one of the few areas in the downtown that is not covered by a local plan. New development can be carried out on the basis of a zoning decision, but this would require an agreement on the concept with the investor and - above all - with the conservator of monuments. As for the limitation of the roadway cross-section I mentioned earlier - we are mainly talking about the section from Hucisko to the Piast Junction. There are, by the way, more actions we can take.

Ewa Karendys
: Maybe now, when we are impressed by pre-war Gdańsk with its cohesive spaces, it will be easier to convince the authorities to make changes....

Prof. Piotr Lorens: The authorities do not need to be convinced of anything. After all, the work on the Western Front of the Downtown was initiated precisely by the city authorities. In turn, the film was intended to show a wider audience what the area once looked like. However, until now - except for lovers of historic Gdansk who studied the albums co-authored by Donald Tusk in the series "Był sobie Gdańsk" - hardly anyone was aware of this. Today also visitors to our city are surprised that on the one hand we have beautiful, monumental edifices - the Main Railway Station or the National Bank of Poland - and on the other hand buildings that do not necessarily fit the place. Hence our efforts to change the area.

Wizualizacja przedwojenna i stan obecny przestrzeni w Śródmieściu Gdańska - ul. Wały Jagiellońskie, widok w stronę Huciska

Pre-war visualization and current state of space in downtown Gdansk - Waly Jagiellońskie Street, view towards Hucisko

© Paweł Mrozek

*Prof. Piotr Lorens - Architect of the City of Gdansk, head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the Gdansk University of Technology. His main research activity is the restoration of degraded parts of cities. In 2001, he defended his doctoral dissertation on the revitalization of water fronts of port cities. After receiving his doctoral degree, he became head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the PG Department of Architecture. In 2016, he was awarded the academic title of professor. He served as president of the Board of Directors of the Society of Polish Urban Planners.

Ewa Karendys

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