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Letter From Moscow: Eminent Domain, Russian Style

As I write this from my wife's apartment, from a fifth floor bedroom window in Moscow's Ismailovo district, north east of central Moscow, a crane is dropping slabs of concrete in what used to be the building's back yard. It was a wooded patch with a pigeon coop, a playground and a nursery school that my 25-year-old stepdaughter, Sasha, attended when she was 4. That's all gone now. In their place are rows of corroded pipes that will be used in the construction of what's to be a 17-story luxury condo complex. This will entomb my wife's apartment in darkness. Keep in mind, she owns her apartment. She bought it from the city during perestroika. It's an investment, or is supposed to be.

Her building is one of three long five-story structures, colloquially known as pyatietashki, pro forma buildings that the Soviets threw up in haste during the post-WWII housing crisis.

For all their rush, the Commies did plan for public backyard green space – the lack of which L.A.'s city planners say they're now trying to address in the density that's now built into L.A.'s evolving General Plan. Chicago and New York thought about green space decades ago, as did Moscow. What comparatively little green space we have came from the benevolence of wealthy stakeholders such as Griffith J. Griffith.

My wife's building is one of three that run perpendicular to each other across between two parallel streets. The typical Soviet formation allows for an inner courtyard, which used to be the playground/nursery/woods, and is now the construction site. Each building houses 150 families. The ones affected by the new high-rise face the courtyard – so it will cast close to 225 units in permanent shadow.

Can one protest in Russia? Of course. Have the neighbors here raised a ruckus? You bet. Town hall meetings, public protests, some of them tinged with violence – one very pregnant woman was alleged to have thrown rocks at the police. But the condo is rising anyway, as they are in wooded backyards and playgrounds across Moscow, in flagrant violation of zoning laws that – never mind height limitations for new buildings – make tearing down a nursery school illegal.

Moscow's Committee for Architecture and Planning has countered that Sasha's former nursery school was dilapidated – despite being remodeled every three years for the past two decades. The old stone structure was, in fact, so well built, the building contractors couldn't dismantle it by hand. They had to dynamite it.

There's a a reason that's even larger than the high-rise why city authorities don't care about casting so many units of the pyatietashki in darkness. Mayor Yuri Lushkhov has declared war on all pyatietashki across the city, saying they're, yes, “dilapidated” (here we go again) and will all be torn down by 2020, city wide.

That demolition derby has already started. Though residents were promised new housing within their neighborhoods, it hasn't always worked out that way. It depends on the residents, their income, and their influence. Even if they can stay in their neighborhoods, they receive kopecks on the ruble for the value of their apartments. People in two-bedroom apartments get reassigned to one-bedroom quarters a block or two away. The government giveth, and the government taketh away.

It's a curious feeling to come from L.A. -- remaking itself with high rise luxury condos and a war against backyards – to Moscow, remaking itself with high rise luxury condos, and a war against backyards. The complaints here that hard working Muscovites will be unable to afford the new buildings is part of a global echo chamber. Same complaint in L.A. However, Moscow (the most expensive city in the world) has given no thought – let alone a plan – to affordable housing, as real estate values continue to soar, while wages don't. (L.A. has had plans for affordable housing ranging from ineffectual to fraudulent.)

Meanwhile in Moscow, contrary to reports in the business-friendly American expat newspaper The Moscow Times, there's little evidence of credit lines for mortgages being given at anything less than exorbitant rates, starting at 10 percent.

In this frenzied market, there are four construction companies that dominate. Moscow's bravest expat newspaper, The eXile, reported that smaller companies face the usual obstacles of zoning laws and safety committees. (The muckraking The eXile shut down operations the week before I arrived here, after a “friendly” visit from federal authorities, investigating unspecified charges. After this visit, the nervous Russian publisher pulled his financing. The paper's excellent work may continue online.)

Moscow's four big construction companies appear to be immune from the city laws and public protests. These are: SU-155, Inteko, DSK-1 and PIK.

Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin owns 25 percent of DSK-1; the owner of SU-155, Mikhail Balakin, ran the city's planning department until last year. Mayor Lushkov's wife, Elena Baturina, owns Inteko; You get the picture.

Sasha has now moved out, and lives with her boyfriend's family in one of the new high rise. She says she so misses looking out her window at the sight of trees. In Moscow, that sight is going fast.


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