"Arrogant" builders flouting city rules

BRATISLAVA city officials say they are fed up with developers and construction firms that erect buildings without permission and flout city guidelines.

BRATISLAVA city officials say they are fed up with developers and construction firms that erect buildings without permission and flout city guidelines.

It's a complaint that has often been heard in the Slovak capital, where a toothless building code and the absence of a master plan has led to sometimes chaotic results. But this time the city is doing more than talking tough - it has formed a commission to inspect building sites, and is pushing for a force of "construction police" to be anchored in a new Construction Act.

"Many builders grossly break the law, and their behaviour in some cases verges on arrogance," Bratislava Old Town spokesman Stanislav Jurikovič told The Slovak Spectator. "The latest such case is the Austrian investment on Fazuľová Street."

The Slovak media reported in early March that the Austrian Sasanka firm had started construction on an illegal 12-storey building on Fazuľová before it was granted permission.

"I call it uncultured behaviour and arrogance from the builders, and incompetence by the bureaucrats. I can't tolerate this absolute anarchy, where builders do what they want because they know nothing will happen to them," said Štefan Šlachta, who is to take up the post of the capital's main architect after he finishes teaching this semester.

Sasanka, which was forced to halt work and faces a fine of Sk3 million (€80,000), has requested a retroactive permit for its project. The building office was to decide the matter by mid-March. If the firm submits all the necessary documents, a statement that the building conforms to the town's land use plan, and proves it is not in conflict with the public interest, the office must legalize it.

It is situations like this that have town authorities and architects criticizing the current law, which enables investors to get building permits after work has already started, and limits fines to a fraction of what such buildings are really worth.

Other illegal constructions in Bratislava include the two-storey addition to a building on Hviezdoslav Square, again by an Austrian firm, and the skyscraper on Šancová Street, where investors received a permit for an 8-storey building and instead began erecting a 34-storey tower. The builder has since reduced the number of floors to 22 and is awaiting approval from the Regional Construction Bureau in Bratislava.

Part of the problem is that so many different offices and levels of government are involved. The Šancová building, for example, was thrown a lifeline by Culture Minister František Tóth, who actually moved the borders of the conservation zone in downtown Bratislava to exclude the building on Šancová Street and give it a much better chance of being approved.

On the other hand, Bratislava City Hall approved the building sites at Fazuľová and Šancová, but the Bratislava Old Town district did not issue building permits.

According to City Hall spokesman Milan Vajda, the opposite has also happened, with City Hall rejecting a project even though the building office in the local district issued a permit. The best known such case is the Aupark Tower in the Petržalka suburb on the south side of the Danube River, which is being built beside the Aupark shopping centre. Petržalka is in favour; City Hall is resisting and the works continue.

"This all points to loopholes in the legislation," Šlachta said.

But the town is fighting back against arrogant developers and scofflaw builders. On March 1, the Bratislava Old Town district launched a commission including building officials, legal experts and police officers to walk the streets, monitor construction sites and check documents.

"The commission is studying the situation, putting together an audit plan, and will start work shortly," Jurikovič said.

According to Old Town Mayor Peter Čiernik, the commission will also lobby the Slovak parliament to increase the town's powers against those who break the Construction Act. A new and stricter act should take effect in 2008.

Čiernik wants parliament to create a force of "construction police" in the law, and to empower them to confiscate building permits and machinery, as well as to increase fines for illegal buildings. "They should be at least doubled," he said.

Currently, builders who ignore the law can be fined up to Sk5 million (€133,000). Investors often prefer to pay the fine rather than secure the necessary permits, as they simply factor it into their budgets, and then get retroactive permits. Others throw various legal obstacles in the town's way to hold up the process. Šlachta said that foreign investors are particularly ruthless: "Nothing stands in their way."

"Last year the [Bratislava Old Town] Building Office cited around 80 projects that had not followed the construction permits that had been issued. It imposed fines of up to Sk1.5 million [€40,000], but only half of these were paid. Currently, the office is working on over 20 such projects," Jurikovič said.

Šlachta called the existing fines "a joke", and said that despite the hundreds of illegal buildings in Bratislava over the years, the only illegal construction to have ever been pulled down in the city was a garage. Even when the city wins its case against an illegal project, the building stays in place.

"[We must make sure that] the owner pulls down the illegal building at his own expense, and not look for ways to make such buildings legal," he said.

As reported by the public channel Slovak Television, illegal buildings in Western Europe face strict sanctions. In Belgium, for example, if an unauthorized building is erected in a prohibited area, the owner has to pull it down and restore the area to its original state. To ensure quick action, each day of delay costs the owner €150 to €500 in fines. Over the last five years, the number of illegal constructions in Belgium has fallen by two-thirds.

Although other Slovak towns are not facing such flagrant disregard for the rules as the Bratislava Old Town, they are likely taking note of Mayor Čiernik's initiative.

"This should serve as an example for other mayors. But first we need to see the results in practice," Šlachta said.

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