City planners and developers have big dreams for Bratislava's main shopping district, and complain that resident pubs are lowering the tone.
photo: Dimiter Lazhov
Squeezed between state-of-the-art reconstructed multifunctional buildings that offer retail, office and dining space are crumbling structures that house inexpensive Asian textile shops or cheap wine bars. The face of the street has changed radically since 1998, when foreign developers bought up large chunks of real estate and began renovating buildings, which then attracted well-known retailers to the street. Developers, city planners and architects say they now dream of the day when Obchodná ulica (which literally means 'Shopping Street' in Slovak) rivals the ritziest business strips to be found in Vienna or Barcelona.
But the presence of shabby wine bars and restaurants is keeping the street from realising its dreams, according to developers and city planners, adding that further investments are planned in the next two to five years that could see a tunnel built to take the busy tram traffic under the street as well as improve street lighting and sidewalks. The owners of the offending dives, meanwhile, insist that their existence preserves the 'Slovak' character of the street.
New foreign capital, which has been invested into the reconstruction of old buildings on Obchodna over the past two years, guaranteed the immediate interest of well known brands like the clothing stores Zoe and Kenvelo, athletic shoe makers Nike and Fila, the Drogery Markt western-style drugstore, and electrical appliance outlets like Panasonic.
The German firm MTK was one of the first companies to invest on Obchodná ulica back in 1998, when they opened a bookstore and multifunctional building with restaurants, boutiques and office space called City Centre. The City Centre is located beside the McDonald's restaurant at the east end of the street.
Since 1998, MTK has invested into the reconstruction of eight other buildings, has opened another multifunctional building opposite the City Centre, and has become the biggest property owner on the street, controlling about 15% of Obchodná real estate. Other sections are owned by Austrian investor Roger, for example the large building at the west end of the street near SNP square where the Generali insurance company and the Zoe store are quartered. Opposite is a newly reconstructed building owned by the British-backed real estate company Spiller Farmer.
"In 1997, we (MTK) did some research which showed that about 4,000 people passed through the street per hour," said Eugen Klimo, legal representative with MTK. "Based on this research, we came to the conclusion that it was worth investing into reconstruction of the street." According to Klimo, the number of passers-by has increased since then. "We trusted and still trust this street because we believe that it can become a real magnet for customers," he said.
MTK has invested about 1.5 billion Slovak crowns ($34.8 million) on Obchodná ulica so far. To secure the site for the coveted City Centre, the firm had to pay 9.5 million crowns ($920,000) to relocate the original owners of the 10 flats which used to be where the luxury restaurant and shops now lie.
The heavy cost of investment for reconstruction of the street was reflected in the rental rates MTK set for tenants. MTK asks between 10,000 and 20,000 crowns ($232 - $464) per square metre per year, depending on the location of the office or shop in the reconstructed building. If a shop has a window or entrance right on the street, then a tenant must pay the 20,000 crown fee, while offices with no entrance of Obchodná are charged 10,000 crowns. The average space which a shop usually rents from MTK was about 400 square meters according to Klimo, meaning that an average retailer has to pay 8 million crowns ($186,000) per year for rent.
"We know that our rent is one of the most expensive in town," said Klimo. "But we provide our clients with high standards and we think that the aim of this street is to be the street of high standards."
Rents charged by the Austrian Roger firm, on the other hand, average around 8,500 crowns per square metre per year.
Not all the tenants on Obchodná can come close to affording these kinds of rents, but the fact that they have been there for decades has made uprooting them a tough task. Wine producer Družstvo Rača, which has used its restaurant and pub at the east end off Obchodna to promote its cheap, bitter wine since 1956, believed that its spot on the street was secure because it made Obchodná a typical Slovak thoroughfare. "We believe that our place gives Obchodná a spark," said pub manager Antón Drobný.
Despite the fact that many of the pub's clientele are visibly down on their luck, Družstvo still attracts some high profile customers according to Drobný. He said that his pub had become a favourite haunt of Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner and former Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák. "Regardless of the pressures on us to move, I bet that we will survive and stay here," Drobný said.
However, the future of pubs like Družstvo Rača may lie elsewhere than Obchodná. According to Klimo, MTK had recently bought into the building that housed Vinotéka, another cheap wine joint. After the reconstruction of the building, he said, there would no longer be a place for Vinotéka. "These places must be replaced as soon as possible because they spoil the image of the street," Klimo said.
The current efforts of developers to improve the look of the street were welcomed by Milan Vajda, spokesperson for Bratislava Old Town Mayor Andrej Ďurkovský. Vajda said that Bratislava lacked shops which could cater to the modern hobby of window shopping. "Bratislava still needs a vital centre for city tourism which would give the Old Town a new pulse," he said. According to Vajda, the reconstruction going on in Staré Mesto and Obchodná showed that the centre was becoming ever more attractive for foreign investors, businesses and citizens.
Obchodná ulica could be even more attractive according to Vajda if a proposal by city hall to move tram lines under the street by building a tunnel from the top of SNP square to near the Technical University well past the street was put into effect. "This is certainly something which would help Obchodná become a traditional shopping street without the disturbing presence of trams, and would give a totally new feel to the street," Vajda said. To realise this plan, the cash-short Bratislava transit authority would need one billion crowns ($23.2 million).
According to the architectural firm Bogár, Králik and Urban, which designed the reconstruction of the newly opened Royko Passage at the end of Obchodná near Vysoká ulica, Obchodná was still in the middle of its reconstruction process, but was heading in the right direction. "If the objective for Obchodná ulica is to one day resemble Fifth Avenue in New York, then it can be said that today it looks like Fourth Avenue," said Ľubomír Králik, an architect with the design studio.