A Flashy, Mysterious Plan for Belgrade's Waterfront

Investors from the United Arab Emirates appear set to give Serbia's capital a Dubai-style makeover. But tons of questions remain unanswered.

Image Eagle Hills
A rendering of the promenade planned for the Belgrade Waterfront project. (Eagle Hills)

Could Belgrade be on the verge of becoming the “Dubai of the Balkans”? A vast new development plan in the Serbian capital certainly has the swagger to match that ambition.

Built along the Sava River’s quayside, the planned Belgrade Waterfront development should be one of the biggest building projects the Balkan Peninsula has ever seen. It will cover 6.5 million square feet and house 17,000 people in luxury apartments, for which off-plan sales started this Monday. Hotels and malls will flank a sliver of park centered on another Balkan first—the peninsula’s tallest skyscraper to date.

None of this will come cheap. A cool $3.6 billion from the United Arab Emirates will be sunk into construction, which is slated to begin this summer. That investment is expected to be matched by a major cash injection from the city (possibly up to $1 billion) to provide the necessary infrastructure. The plan will undoubtedly mean new jobs for Belgrade, so it might come as a surprise that many in high-unemployment Serbia hate the project. In fact, when it comes to some reactions, hate is a weak word.

Let’s go through them. To the Serbian Academy of Architecture, the master plan is “unsightly, fabricated, professionally absolutely unacceptable and unfixable.” 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. As for the commissioning process itself, NGO Transparency Serbia put it this way:

Other accusations include that the project is being waived through on the promise of a scale model alone, and that citizens have been consistently kept in the dark. There's concern the housing will be unaffordable, and also that the plan (which includes underground garages) doesn’t account for flooding or high groundwater. The legality of the plan has even been brought in to question—prompting the Serbian parliament to take up a special law this week granting powers of compulsory purchase that will grease the project's wheels. Many online commenters say they don’t even know who designed the thing in the first place.

There may in fact be some truth to all of these concerns. No competitive design process appears to have taken place—a striking omission given the scale of the project. And while there are names attached to some building designs, the names of the actual master plan’s designers do not appear in Abu Dhabi-based developer Eagle Hills’ public documentation. Over email, a spokesperson for Eagle Hills told CityLab that the plan was created by the international design firm RTKL, but the project is not listed on RTKL’s website, and that firm would neither confirm nor deny their involvement to CityLab, citing a policy of only talking to media with client permission. Maybe this isn't concealment, but you could hardly call it transparency.

As lively, architecturally interesting cities are a finite resource, this matters. Belgrade is all those things—it could arguably be called the greatest of Europe’s almost great cities. A grungy, charming place, Belgrade’s appealingly mixed-up streets are a delight, where historic buildings dripping with ornament jostle between jaw dropping Brutalist monoliths and humble, cottagey houses. Its 1.7 million citizens and ample cheap space means it’s more than big and interesting enough to host excellent arts and nightlife scenes, but you can still look out from its downtown and see snaking rivers and dense forest.

What makes the insertion of the Belgrade Waterfront plan into this environment so tantalizing is that having some new development along the quays is surely a good idea. Old Belgrade stands on a hill at the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers, but the dense inner city sort of peters out as its reaches their banks, leaving plenty of underused ex-industrial dockland. It makes perfect sense to build something on the goods yards behind the main station (itself slated for relocation before the project began), boosting the city’s economy and opening up the riverside for strollers. What Belgraders risk getting, however, is a vainglorious monument to 21st century fugliness, a bubble in the making that turns its back on the city’s real needs and even blights the green shoots already sprouting on the waterfront.

Belgrade's waterfront as it appears today. (Dennis Jarvis / Flickr)

You see, many Belgraders are hanging out near the quayside already. The Savamala neighborhood near the river is contemporary Belgrade’s current big success story. A rundown but charismatic area of art nouveau tenements and shambling warehouses, it’s been getting all sorts of international coverage as Europe’s liveliest new creative district. If Belgrade has a modern face, this is it—and the fear is that the Belgrade Waterfront project, planned for its southern edge, might put Savamala under threat of being torn down. Belgrade’s Culture Secretary says that won't happen, but renderings on Eagle Hills’ own website show new construction stretching up to Branko’s Bridge, which could mean rebuilding up to a third of the neighborhood, including key venues such as KC Grad and Mikser House. These fears could well prove to be unfounded—but with no concrete plans yet made public, a few glossy renderings and snapshots of a scale model exhibited in faraway Cannes are still the best anyone has to go on.

It’s possible that Belgrade may end up getting a sparkling, successful new waterfront district that sucks in tourists from the world’s four corners. But right now, there’s so much wood in the way that no one can see the forest.

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