It’s hard to visualize exactly what five hectares of land positioned in the dead center of the city but cut off from the built environment surrounding it might look like until you visit. That’s why Klaus Fudickar has brought me here; so I can see it for myself.
“It’s an incredibly unique form of city development,” he tells me as we walk through the site, past a single-story strip-like building that hosts a patchwork of auto repair shops. It’s late on a Friday afternoon and most of the doors are sealed shut, their owners having gone home for the long weekend. But a few garage doors gape open, with car hoods and tail ends peeking out.
The backside of the colossal, fortress-like Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg revenue services office is on our left, shielding us from the noise of traffic and construction on Mehringdamm, one of two main drags bordering the site. Behind us, the parking lot of the LPG BioMarkt, an organic co-op–style grocery store, is bustling with cars, bikes, and pedestrians. But here, just meters away, I hear almost nothing.
“You see there, waaaaay down at the end, that wall. And here, where that balcony is,” Fudickar says, pointing far enough away that I need to squint to see what he’s gesturing to, “you can see, the city really just grew right up against it. It’s really like an island.”
And not only that: it’s an island that’s up for sale by the federal government (the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben, to be exact), set to be sold to the highest bidder. That is, unless Fudickar and his pals get their way.
Fudickar is the chairman of Upstall Kreuzberg, an “association for social and sustainable city development.” Upstall is a volunteer-run organization officially founded in 2011 with the goal of convincing the government not to sell off this piece of land to the highest bidder, but rather to use it to explore a different form of city development; one that is more in the public, rather than private, interest.
The team of eight is made up of four architects, an urban planner, an artist, an asset-management specialist, and a physicist, who practice their various professions during the day and at night bring their knowledge and skills to the Upstall table to develop and push for an alternative plan for the site.
Upstall is an old-fashioned word that describes a sort of public common, which is exactly how this piece of land they are fighting for was used until 1767. At that point, the land became a military training site for soldiers and horses, which explains the bizarre form of the buildings on it, which sit in three gigantic U-shapes.
Originally located outside the city limits, this land was surrounded by development as Berlin grew. And as the years passed, it slowly fell out of military use, so early in the 20th century the government began leasing it out.
Today that lease—held by a single lessee, who then rents out the various buildings on the land—is running out and will not be renewed, in preparation for the property’s sale. That likely explains the several “We’ve moved” signs we see sporadically posted on shuttered garage doors, Fudickar points out.
But in Upstall’s vision of what could happen here if given the chance, those businesses could stay. “These businesses are here for a reason, and this is important to keep. And it’s important to ask them what they want to see here,” he says.
Upstall has its own ideas of how the development would look, of course. Its guiding principles are social mix and mixed use, sustainable living and working, and thoughtful, careful vitalization (“keep, complete, and densify”)—as well as achieving all of this while maintaining affordability both for those who live there and for those who work there. (“Affordable commercial space is as important as affordable living space,” Fudickar emphasizes.) The group envisions the lot being divided, much like it is now, into more or less three sections, with some flexible mixture: light industrial/handworking spaces in the north, blending into cultural uses (a community hall, small shops, artist studios, and so on) in the middle, and housing at the southern end (the quietest section of the lot), including flexible, DIY-style live-work spaces.
But none of those ideas are set in stone, Fudickar emphasizes, and Upstall would hope for an open and inclusive design process.
“Anything is imaginable,” he says.
Fudickar, who works by day in the federal department of civil engineering and urban planning, thinks that if such a massive piece of land were instead sold to a regular single developer, the likelihood is high that it would inevitably become a sprawling single-story supermarket, furniture warehouse, or something similar.
“Such a large piece of land is rare to find in the middle of the city, and so it’s very desired,” he says. “But the idea that we really want to push is one less in personal interest and more to really develop sustainably here. These are not new ideas we have—affordability, mixed use . . . It’s a question of whether this land should simply be sold to the highest bidder, or if we should use it to do something different, and who gets to decide that.”
Upstall is in back-and-forth talks and presentations with the city and federal government and is currently waiting to hear back on its latest request for more time and consideration about what should be done with the land before it is sold.
The group will present its full concept at the Lab on Saturday, June 30, as a part of a marathon session devoted to hearing from people who are working on various types of urban transformation, both in and out of Berlin. Be sure to come check it out.
And tell me . . . what would you like to see done with five hectares (50,000 square meters) of space up for grabs in Berlin?
Photos (top to bottom): courtesy Upstall; courtesy Upstall; by Christine McLaren; by Christine McLaren; courtesy Upstall; courtesy Upstall.