Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Homes for the rich, urban space for the rest

OSLO/RECLAIMING THE SEA. When Norwegians look for words to describe their sentiments they often turn to their own cultural icon, 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Therefore I’m not surprised to find a wooden sign with a quotation from Ibsen welcoming me as I enter the elegant new waterfront development Tjuvholmen in Oslo.
“Night and day, winter and summer, it weighs upon me – this irresistible longing for the sea”, says Ibsen’s words from “The Lady from the Sea”.
The Norwegian capital is now reclaiming its seafront in a huge project called Fjord City, where urban life will replace derelict port facilities and noisy highways in the next decade or two.
As I wrote in my first report from Oslo, this is perhaps the biggest ongoing facelift of any major European city.
Oslo residents are getting a first taste of what the future might look like at Tjuvholmen (Thief’s Inlet in English), a tiny city district consisting of three small islands separated by narrow canals. The Tjuvholmen development, which has come more than halfway towards its completion in 2013/2014, will consist of some 900 apartments, offices, a hotel, shops and restaurants.
The main attraction will be a new art museum and park designed by world famous Italian architect Renzo Piano (read more about that here).
I walk around on Tjuvholmen on a rather gloomy winter morning, trying to imagine what the place will look like on a bright sunny summer day a few years from now. Renzo Piano predicts that it will be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I’m sure many will argue with that, but Tjuvholmen will definitely do its part in improving life in the Norwegian capital.
It is also an interesting model for modern urban development.
Tjuvholmen represents a new way of securing the economy for a project like this. A private investor bought the whole area from the city-owned Port Authority. The money from the sale is used to build a new cargo terminal further east in the Oslo Fjord, and the sales contract clearly stipulates how Tjuvholmen will be developed.
“There are a number of things the developer is committed to do, like streets, bridges, squares, parks, a waterfront promenade and the new art museum”, explains Stein Kolstø, the City of Oslo’s project manager for the Fjord City.
The same method will, basically, be used as work on the Fjord City now continues in the area around Oslo’s new Opera House at Bjørvika. Money from the developers will continue to finance the new port facility.
The history of the sale of Tjuvholmen, and the tough competition for choosing the master plan for the area, is a drama in itself involving the giants of real estate and architecture in Norway.
In December 2002 a master plan designed by veteran Norwegian architect Niels Torp, famous for his British Airways headquarters at Heathrow among other things, was picked as the winner by the City Council. The decision followed a bitter fight between Torp and his backers and a proposal by Snøhetta, another giant of Norwegian architecture and designers of the Oslo Opera House.
In the spring of 2003, a grouping called Tjuvholmen KS, buys the area and begins planning the development according to Torp’s master plan. The price tag was set at nearly 900 million Norwegian crowns (145 million US dollars, 108 million Euros).
Almost half the money is set to be used for developing urban spaces, and the art museum, for the public.
The first homes on Tjuvholmen where completed in 2007. These are no ordinary Oslo homes. Prices for apartments are almost twice as high as in other central Oslo locations.
Buyers get ultra-modern apartments, most with a view of the sea, in what is set to become the city’s most prestigious neighbourhood. The area will be more or less free of motor vehicles, as cars will be driven straight into underwater garages.
As I walk into the developer’s sales office, I get a taste of what’s on offer. For close to 8 million Norwegian crowns I could buy a 3-room apartment on the third floor of a rounded apartment building right on the waterfront.
Like in other cities with modern waterfront developments like this, there has been a debate in Oslo about these “enclaves for the rich”.
The same debate followed the development of Aker Brygge, right next to Tjuvholmen, in the 80’s and early 90’s. Aker Brygge, once home to a shipyard, is now a popular meeting place for Oslo residents.
“I think you can say that some are a bit provoked by the prices in these developments. These homes are not for the general public”, says Stein Kolstø, the project manager for the Fjord City.
“Homes in Aker Brygge were considered very expensive when it was built. I’m 52 years old and I have never been inside an apartment in Aker Brygge. But I have spent a lot of time on Aker Brygge, enjoying the waterfront, going to restaurants, having a beer or going to a movie. I have used Aker Brygge a lot, but I don’t miss living there”, says Kolstø.
Now the same debate is brewing again as construction gets under way at Bjørvika, which will be the main part of the Fjord City.
“People are angry and ask me who will live in Bjørvika. I tell them that it will be the people who buy apartments there. It’s as simple as that. The Fjord City project will benefit everybody in Oslo, but those who will live there are those who buy homes there”, says Kolstø.
Norway has no system of subsidized housing and waterfront developments are expensive. When the market sets its prices, apartments will cost more than most can afford. The City still has an ambition that ten percent of the homes in Bjørvika shall be reasonably priced.
But compared to what? That is pretty much up to the developers.
Those who can’t afford to live by the Fjord will at least get a completely new waterfront full of public spaces. When their longing for the sea, in the words of Ibsen, gets to strong they will be able to walk right down to the water and dip their toes in it.

This is the third and final report in a series on the transformation of Oslo.

Copyright: Tjuvholmen KS
Under construction; a model of a residential building on Tjuvholmen.

Copyright: Knut Ramstad for Tjuvholmen Utvikling
A model of the outer part of Tjuvholmen, with the art museum in the foreground.

Work is under way on the new art museum designed by Renzo Piano.

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