The uncertain future of Belgrade’s creative district

Savamala, a flourishing creative hub popular among young people, might have to leave for the Belgrade Waterfront project: a multibillion dollar state agreement with a foreign investor to develop a big part of the waterfront, the area parallel of the Sava River, into a Dubai-like business hub and modern living area.

By Jiri Haanen and Tomas van der Heijden

Belgrade, Serbia – On the right bank of the river lies the Savamala district, once the most neglected part of downtown Belgrade. Paint was peeling from the walls, buildings were vacant and impoverished. In contrast with the past, Savamala’s walls are colourful now, and covered in graffiti art and wall drawings. It still has something gritty to it, referring to how overlooked the neighbourhood once was, but from the inside buildings have been changed to prominent bars and cafes.

Savamala attracts young people like no other district in Belgrade. In the weekends groups of teenagers and adolescents frolic on the streets filled with the bliss of youth. They drink and laugh, entering one of the many bars and clubs filled with live music, comedy or an inviting atmosphere. And it’s not just the young that visit Savamala: they also work in the creative district, which is unique in Belgrade, where the bartenders generally are much older.

More to the south, the Sava waterfront is not much of a special area. Following the water, there’s a muddy river-bed, where a lot of trash has been dumped. Fishermen are throwing their rod in the brownish water, seemingly without any success. Apart from a few shops, some houses and a bike-rental, the waterfront looks like an underdeveloped area that only attracts visitors because of its long bike path; the only one in Belgrade.

Fishing in the brown water of the Sava river didn't prove to be very successful. Photo by Tomas van der Heijden
Fishing in the brown water of the Sava river didn’t prove to be very successful. Photo by Tomas van der Heijden

Dubai style
“Projects like the Belgrade Waterfront are often seen in Dubai, where expensive apartment blocks are built around one fancy tower and a big shopping mall”, says Zoran Dimitrovic, an architect who has worked in Dubai for several years with big development countries. Not very surprisingly, the Belgrade Waterfront will be built by Eagle Hills, a United Arab Emirates development company.

Plans to change the area have been in existence for decades. In 2012, Aleksandar Vucic, nowadays Serbia’s prime minister, ran for mayor of Belgrade and campaigned with the promise of changing it. People in Savamala complain about the lack of transparency and insufficient communication.

The Serbian government now prompts the parliament to take up a so-called lex specialis, a legislative doctrine that overrules general legislative procedures, to speed up the developing process. The law would grant the government powers of compulsory purchase of premises, if accepted by the other political parties.

The renderings of the project as shown on the website of Eagle Hills.
The renderings of the project as shown on the website of Eagle Hills, with the Kula Tower as the most important part of the project.

“Don’t drown Belgrade”
About a year ago, the plan took the form in which it is now promoted on big billboards throughout the city by Eagle Hills, which has been appointed by the Serbian government to build the new waterfront, allegedly leaving no space for fair competition. With over $20 billion UAE money invested in Serbia over the last few years, the country is making itself present.

In the visualization on the company’s website the project shows eight hotels, 5700 luxury apartments, office blocks, a shopping mall, and the 200 meters tall Kula Tower, putting Savamala under the threat of being torn down. “The tower is the eye-catcher, the way to sell this project to the rich,” says Dimitrovic. “Without a tall tower, this all wouldn’t look that spectacular. The same business strategy has been applied in Dubai for years now.”

Mohamed Alabbar, UAE investor and CEO of Eagle Hills, in 2014 said to invest $3.6 billion in the construction, almost fully financing the project. Why is unclear. Dimitrovic: “Probably it’s not true. No one has ever seen a contract confirming this sum of investment. The project will most likely be financed by pre-selling apartments.”

The International Network for Urban Research and Action has called it “clichéd and exclusionary,” pointing out the huge financial risk of awarding a project this big to a single developer.

Eagle Hills however says “Belgrade’s young and dynamic population is eager to put this thriving city on the international map. Belgrade Waterfront is Belgrade’s opportunity to unveil its playful side again on a worldwide stage.”

The underdeveloped part of the waterfront, enjoyed by people walking parellel to the Sava.
The underdeveloped part of the waterfront, enjoyed by people walking parellel to the Sava. Photo by Tomas van der Heijden

Strangely enough, information about the plan is scarcely available for locals. A recipe for protest.

Activist group Neda(vi)mo Beograd, formed in 2012, fulfils this role.

“There have been plans to develop the waterfront since the 1930s, so a lot of people thought it was just another empty rendering,” says Dobrica Veselinović, one of the leaders of the activist group, which name means “Don’t drown Belgrade”.

“But then the government gradually started to change the legal framework in favour of the project. Firstly, they changed the general urban plan of Belgrade on a city level. After that, they promoted the project as something of national importance. In this way they overruled a couple of laws, such as the prohibition of the formation of monopolies.”

Most of the people Euroviews spoke to feel confused if the whole plan will actually be realized. “Vučić is using this mantra of modernizing everything,” says Veselinović. I think his plan is to build one shopping mall and one office tower, but you can’t sell the changing of the city with that.”

Scarce communication
Rain is pouring down on the roof of Café Backyard in Savamala. Outside, near the Sava river, flags of the Belgrade Waterfront project are slowly blowing in the wind. During a summer night, almost a year ago, the government put hundreds of flagpoles with the text “Belgrade Waterfront” on the road, firmly fixed in concrete blocks. They are everywhere in Savamala, also following the biking route parallel to the Sava, making the district look like conquered territory. For the owners of the bars and small shops, the flags are representing a bad omen.

The flags make Savamala look like an area in possession of United Arab Emirates company Eagle Hills. Photo by Tomas van der Heijden
The flags make Savamala look like an area in possession of Eagle Hills. Photo by Tomas van der Heijden

If Savamala will continue to exist remains a question citizens and business owners are scratching their heads about.

“Since we are located in front of Eagle Hills’ local headquarters, we are destined to be in the grey area of information,” says Maja Lalic, creative director of Mikser House, Savamala’s biggest cultural centre. “This might come closer to the reality than the official statements about the project, as the strong local community keeps each other updated.”

The Eagle Hills local headquarters are situated ten footsteps away from Mikser House, in a classical building decorated with ornaments, green cupolas and thick walls. Behind the car entrance, locked with a big automatic gate, there’s a security guy. It’s not a regular sight in Belgrade, where private security seems almost non-existent.

Eagle Hills' headquarters, in the middle of the Savamala district.
Eagle Hills’ headquarters, in the middle of the Savamala district. Photo by Tomas van der Heijden

Lalic is an architect herself. When Eagle Hills arrived, the local architects and urban planners got a chance to express their first impression of the Belgrade Waterfront project. They emphasized the importance of strong communication and the embedment of the plan into a local context. “The success of the project should be measured by the level of acceptance from the citizens of Belgrade and should serve the public as well,” says Lalic.

“For me the biggest disadvantage is the top-down system and the lack of communication on every level,” concludes Lalic.

“With normal urban planning there is a certain amount of public opinion and influence, and an appliance with urban studies and institutions,” says Dimitrovic. “So far, there has been none. This time the investor has the upper hand.”

For activist Veselinović, his drive for protesting stems from wanting to prevent similar future projects. “If we can stop future projects that lack decent communication and are this untransparent, I have done a good job.”





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