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article imageMoscow's $2 billion makeover leaves some residents cold

By Maria Antonova (AFP)     Aug 5, 2016 in Travel

An ambitious project to make central Moscow more pedestrian friendly has drawn mixed reactions from the city's residents: some love the upgrade, others worry the soul is being ripped out of historic neighbourhoods.

Bulldozers and drills are humming away around the centre as more than 50 roads are being torn up, a quarter of the total number chosen for a revamp under the "My Street" scheme.

City authorities say the three-year project -- which will cost a total 126 billion rubles ($1.96 billion) -- is the largest redevelopment in the history of modern Moscow.

In many streets, piles of paving stones, mountains of sand and fenced-off construction sites make awkward obstacle courses for Muscovites -- who spend half the year blanketed in snow and are keen to make the most of the summer with a stroll.

"It does hinder traffic quite significantly but maybe it's actually good because afterwards it will flow faster," said 19-year-old Muscovite Vladimir Molchanov.

"The city is transforming itself, becoming more and more beautiful," he said.

"I think that the construction is a good thing because the streets that are already finished look amazing," said 28-year-old computer programmer Maxim Lagvinenko.

Under theĀ "My Street" scheme  sections of Moscow's roads are being torn up and made ...
Under theĀ "My Street" scheme, sections of Moscow's roads are being torn up and made more pedestrian friendly
Vasily Maximov, AFP

"Even as a car owner, I understand that the city centre should be for pedestrians and cyclists," he said.

According to Alexei Muratov, a partner at KB Strelka, an architecture and urban design consultancy which is playing a key role in the project, "There hasn't been any urban redevelopment since the Moscow Olympics in 1980."

"There is a lot to be done," he said.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin won a second term in office in 2013 vowing to raise the quality of life in the wealthy but notoriously congested, polluted and often uninviting metropolis, home to 15 million people.

Since then he has pushed through massive investment in the road network and improved public transport, building a 50-kilometre (30-mile) circular railway line due to open in the autumn.

- Critical voices -

The mayor's critics, including Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader and runner-up in the 2013 mayoral race, allege that the massive construction projects are rife with corruption.

Some Muscovites complain that the largest redevelopment in the history of modern Moscow is creating ...
Some Muscovites complain that the largest redevelopment in the history of modern Moscow is creating awkward obstacle courses both for traffic and pedestrians
Vasily Maximov, AFP

There are also complaints that the rich and diverse cultural life on some of the newly pedestrianised streets has been replaced by bland government-sponsored events and tacky decorations.

"They built all these new pedestrian streets (but) the streets are empty and there are sad people walking along them," said Sergei Sadov, a veteran busker.

Speaking to AFP on Arbat, one of the central Moscow streets under redevelopment, Sadov said police detained him last year as he was playing his guitar and charged him with organising the "mass presence or movement of people leading to public disturbance".

Since then, most of the street musicians have been charged with similar offences, he said.

Undeterred, Sadov, who heads an association of street musicians, continues to busk here as he has done for the last 30 years.

Lately police have started confiscating musicians' instruments, he said.

"The prefecture's offices are stuffed with musical instruments and portraits" confiscated from musicians and artists, he said.

While he approves the recent creation of designated busking spots on Moscow's metro, he lamented that only five had been designated for the thousands of musicians who had applied to play on the network.

- 'This is our street' -

Street artist Yakov Pulnov said it had taken months of negotiation by 130 artists to persuade officials to allocate 15 spots for them along the kilometre-long Arbat.

"Why should we leave? This is our street," said Vladimir Dotsoyev, who has sketched portraits on Arbat for 30 years. He accused new city bureaucrats of excessive zeal and extortion.

"They say 'Don't set up here' or 'set up there.' They find fault with our parasols and they think we're millionaires," he fumed.

Artists said that all street entertainment now has to fall under the umbrella of city-organised events, such as the recent "Moscow Jam" and "Moscow Ice Cream" festivals.

During such events the city's streets and squares fill up with identical music stages and stalls all selling the same range of goods, while dubious street decorations include giant plastic topiary and replica prehistoric skulls.

Meanwhile, independent events struggle to find venues.

Two annual alternative music festivals were cancelled this month just hours before they were due to begin. Police barricaded the venues while city trucks sprayed water at the arriving public.

- Kiosks demolished -

Some critics deride the expensive project as a cosmetic makeover.

"It's replacing genuine public life with extraneous attributes," renowned architect Eugene Asse said in a recent interview on Open Russia website.

The overall concept for My Street includes the dismantling of illegally-built structures, such as stalls selling everything from bread to ice cream.

Architect Muratov said it was unfair to criticise him for this aspect since it fell outside his firm's remit.

"The destruction of the kiosks was a strange decision, since a public space cannot be active without street retail," Muratov said.

Muratov said polls indicate that 70 to 75 percent of Muscovites support the redevelopment as a whole.

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