Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is considering a big new project around the old Tempelhof Airport, now an enormous stretch of parkland.
For Berlin, it seems the only way is up. Faced with rocketing rents, the city is hoping to build a new neighborhood of 4,700 apartments – but rather than spreading out, the city is building high. The new development will be barely two miles south of the Brandenburg Gate, and its apartment buildings will reach up to 11 floors.
This would hardly make them skyscrapers, but they would be considerably higher than existing buildings nearby, which are mainly early 20th century tenements about five floors in height. While this apparent throwback to Berlin's postwar mega projects won't please the anti high-rise brigade, the plan is an opportunity most city mayors could only dream of. The ability to create a big chunk of new, high density housing in a central area already blessed with good transport links seems too good to be true.
And in a way, it is. In a city, there's never really such thing as an empty space. Saying hello to a fresh crop of apartments would mean saying goodbye to a slab of (scarcely less new) parkland. The neighborhood's proposed site is the remarkably central former Tempelhof Airport, where flights finally petered out in 2008 due to the short runway and closeness of residential buildings. The airfield has since become a huge park commonly called the Tempelhofer Feld, one many Berliners are so keen on that a city referendum on the building plans is scheduled for May. A potential 2.5 million Berliners will be able to vote directly on the plan, thanks to city laws stating that a referendum must be held if a 173,000 signature threshold is reached on a petition demanding one The Tempelhofer Feld petition reached over 185,000 signatures.
But despite the strong feelings involved, the building work is likely to happen in some form. A recent survey in the Berliner Zeitung shows a narrow majority in favor of development, while parties critical of the plans – namely the Green and Left parties – are demanding changes rather than a blanket ban.
It's easy to see why many people love the Tempelhofer Feld as it is. At 878 acres, it's larger than New York’s Central Park, a wide prairie whose largely treeless expanse has a sweeping openness extremely rare in the heart of a big city. There's an informal, improvised feel to the place. Kitesurfers now career down the old runway, while fenceless vegetable plots planted by locals create a checkerboard across its lawns. The park is busy all year round, partly because its openness makes it a good place to enjoy Berlin’s limited hours of winter sun.
The city doesn't really want it gone either. Their plan is for what Germans call Randbebauung, or "round-building." It involves placing a curve of apartments around its edges, as well as commercial space and a new central library, leaving around 66 percent of the space untouched. The new crescent of buildings may shorten views and shadow some parts, but the park's central steppe will survive. The decision to construct at double the height of surrounding buildings suggests the course Berlin planning may be taking in the future. By European standards, it's long been a fairly high city, with 1970s apartment blocks big as ocean liners flanking central streets in East Berlin. A hiatus came after the Wall fell, when Berliners spread out into the Brandenburg region, often to single family houses. Now however, tall is back, and the city is planning a Frank Gehry designed skyscraper, its tallest yet, in the heart of East Berlin. A future Berlin shaped by projects like this may well be yet taller and spikier, but at least it should be more dense than sprawling.