COBE and Luxigon

The city's five-year period of encouraging "creative" businesses helped Paper Island thrive, but what happens now?

In 2012, the city of Copenhagen received a plan to redevelop a chunk of its most valuable real estate. The site was called Paper Island, also known as Christiansholm, a warehouse-covered islet in the city’s inner harbor that had only just been vacated by the printing industry.

Divided from the city center by the harbor’s waters, the 29,000-square-meter (312,000-square-foot) island was perfectly located just across from Copenhagen’s main theater, the Danish royal family’s winter palace, and the photogenic, tourist-filled quayside at Nyhavn. With splendid waterfront views, the site could hardly be more tempting or profitable as a place to build new homes or offices. But when new owners By & Havn—itself co-owned by the municipality and the Danish national government—suggested redevelopment, the city’s response was interesting.

They didn’t say yes, they didn’t say no. They said: wait five years.

Copenhagen, the municipality decided, needed some freer, more creative spaces to keep the city interesting—even if the arrangement was only temporary. So Paper Island was granted a five-year interim period during which its warehouses could be let out affordably to “creative” businesses. This would give the island a feeling of freedom and a buzz, complementing the nearby autonomous community of Freetown Christiania.

In 2017, this five-year-period comes to a close and Copenhagen’s pop-up creative neighborhood must effectively come to an end. Construction will begin the following year along lines detailed in a plan from COBE architects, whose proposal was announced as the successful bidder last week. So how has the five-year plan functioned as a scheme for managing development of the inner city?

So far, so good

It’s actually been a great success. Paper Island has become a very lively place. The tenants who moved in aren’t exactly fringe organizations, but they do read like a mini-roll call of Copenhagen creativity. Current occupants include a hangar filled with street-food stalls, an experimental science and technology museum, the offices of design company and international cycling gurus Copenhagenize, and Denmark’s hottest fashion designer, Henrik Vibskov, who also runs a small café on the island. Even COBE, the designers of the new Paper Island redevelopment, have their offices in the warehouses.

Crowds on Paper Island’s waterfront. (Roman Boed / Flickr)

Relative affordability aside, the attraction of the island is obvious. It’s scrappy but instantly appealing, its plain concrete buildings flanked by palatial historic warehouses and offering gorgeous views across the water. It’s also right in the city center. Copenhagen’s new opera house is just to the north, while the world famous restaurant Noma is just south. But until a bridge currently under construction to the island next door is completed, it still feels slightly sheltered, accessible via ferry or a slightly long detour via another bridge. Backed by more partly redeveloped docklands, the area feels pleasantly unmanaged for somewhere in the heart of a major Western city.

So far, so good. Whether the next phase of development will be as successful is another matter. A few aspects of the current regime will continue. Some tenants may stay (the street food hangar, for one, appears in COBE renderings), enhanced by a public plaza flanked by a new swimming pool and large event halls grouped around a new green courtyard. On top of these facilities will be piled housing—lots of it. Grouped in glass-walled hulks whose funnel-shaped gables recall historic Hanseatic warehouse designs, these new apartments could be spectacular for those who can afford them.

But is this what Copenhagen needs at its heart? Some key voices say no.

A “millionaire’s ghetto”

Morten Kabell, the city’s transport and environment mayor (effectively a city commissioner), has harshly criticized the plans via his Copenhagen City Hall website. He alleges that it will prioritize luxury development over social use, destroy Copenhagen’s industrial history, and encourage more motor traffic by including an underground car garage in an area that’s now mainly car-free. Instead, Kabell wants to preserve some of the original buildings and ensure that at least 25 percent of the new housing is affordable:

“Copenhagen must not become too mundane and polished. Therefore I will push on with the fight to preserve one of the paper island's old industrial halls as a living example of the area's history. … The area's unique location creates a risk that Paper Island could become a millionaire’s ghetto because of sky-high prices for apartments.”

That such official condemnation is possible without jeopardizing the project is due to Copenhagen’s coalition politics. Kabell and the city’s official mayor, Frank Jensen, come from different parties, so the former’s disapproval doesn’t automatically stymie, or even necessarily alter, the plan. Kabell’s concerns over affordability nonetheless make sense when you realize that what’s happening at Paper Island reflects the transformation of Copenhagen as a whole. All around Copenhagen’s huge waterfront—one of the city’s few undeveloped spaces—luxury development is being prized over affordable housing.

“After we decommissioned the harbor and moved all the heavy shipping out, we discovered that we had 42 kilometers [26 miles] of waterfront to develop,” Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO at Copenhagenize, tells CityLab. “What have they done with it? They’ve built luxury apartment after luxury apartment. There are a few cooler developments further south in the harbor that are slightly more affordable, but like so many others, the buildings on Paper Island will be for the elite. I'm left feeling very pessimistic.”

A rendering of the plan for Paper Island, showing the opera house in the background. (COBE and Luxigon)

Great urbanist expectations

At least Copenhagen has managed this process better than most. The value of Paper Island’s land is so great that few cities could resist the temptation to squeeze maximum profit from it. And while other cities would have allowed redevelopment immediately, Copenhagen should be applauded for encouraging some less obviously profitable uses, even if just for a brief window of time. This elegant balancing between different needs is an approach many cities would do well to emulate.

The project should still ring alarm bells over Copenhagen’s ongoing role as an urban role model. Denmark’s capital has been a beacon on many issues for decades—reducing car use, creating bike infrastructure that is the world’s envy, managing environmental challenges gracefully, and cleaning its harbor waters until they sparkle. But when it comes to arguably the key issue facing most Western cities today—creating and preserving affordable housing—the city has so far drawn a blank. It does better than many other cities in Europe, but the sense of leadership it has shown in other areas is lacking.

The redevelopment of Paper Island will deliver the world a not-bad example of something it’s already familiar with—a luxury waterfront development with a few token public amenities. It’s arguably a tribute to Copenhagen’s great urbanist successes that many people hoped for something better.

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