It is early afternoon and police officers are shaking the shoulder of a man sleeping rough under the bridge next to Berlin’s Zoo Station. He is wrapped in a blanket, nestled beneath scaffolding in this murky underpass often frequented by drunks and junkies. A few feet away two young men in designer T-shirts and sunglasses sip coffee outside a new corner café.
The juxtaposition reveals how much the area is changing around the iconic station, formerly the main transport hub of the old West Berlin. While it had fallen into decline after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is now undergoing something of a rebirth.
Ambitious new construction projects are transforming the urban landscape here. Entrepreneurs are building luxury hotels, concept malls, office space and residential blocks, making it one of Berlin’s newest real estate hotspots.
Zoo Station has an iconic place in Berlin history. It is named after the oldest zoo in Germany, next to which it first opened in 1882. During the Cold War it was the first point of arrival for many entering the cut-off Western enclave. One of the first things they would see is the bombed out steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a reminder of the brutal war the Nazis thrust on Europe. On the other side of the square the Kufürstendamm, the prime shopping boulevard, was the showcase of capitalism in the divided city.
“Investment had moved to the eastern part of the city and public funds were also concentrated there.”
Yet after the Berlin Wall fell and particularly once the station was disconnected from long-distant routes in favor of the gleaming new Central Station in 2006, it became a shadow of its former self. Run-down and grubby, it was surrounded by sex shops, a discount super market and fast-food joints.
In general the focus of the city had shifted from the surrounding district, known as City West, to East Berlin, with its vast empty post-industrial spaces. In particular the area around Friedrichstrasse just off the city’s main eastern boulevard, Unter den Linden, became the preferred location for luxury shops, department stores and commercial and office space.
“The west of the city was boring, dusty, uninteresting,” Dirk Spender, head of City West Regional Management, a state-funded body which promotes economic development in the area, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
“Investment had moved to the eastern part of the city and public funds were also concentrated there. It led to a bleeding away of money in general from City West,” he said. There was a high rate of vacancy in shops and offices. By 2006 around 300 businesses were shutting down a year.
But the pendulum is now swinging back.
International and German real estate developers are rediscovering the west and transforming its skyline.
The first to get in on the act was the Waldorf Astoria, which opened in January 2013 in an impressive skyscraper, right opposite the station. When the news first emerged, many wondered at the choice of the down-at-heel West, instead of the more hip East.
Now, the project is regarded as being ahead of the curve.
“Many other investors saw this and thought, OK, if they are doing that, there must be something to the area,” said Spender.
One of the most ambitious is the Upper West project by real estate developers Strabag on Breitscheidplatz, which will encompass two 118-meter sky scrapers, and will house retail and offices, a hotel and roof-top bar. Construction began this summer and the €250 million ($321 million) project is scheduled for completion by mid-2016.
Meanwhile, this summer the U.S. investment group Hines, headquartered in Houston, Texas, announced that it was planning to replace an ugly row of concrete buildings, which currently house a sex museum and a Burger King, right next to the station with a new project. They have yet to announce details of the building’s design.
“The development of the area around Zoo Station is really the rebirth of West Berlin.”
The station itself is going to get a facelift next year. The legendary Zoo Terrace restaurant will be reopened, and there will be new space for more upmarket retail outlets.
“The development of the area around Zoo Station is really the rebirth of West Berlin,” said Emanuele Boni, a Switzerland-based real estate developer who has been active in Berlin for over a decade. “People have gone back to look at what the West has to offer.”
The area has also benefited hugely from the city’s tourist boom. With around 27 million overnight stays in 2013 the city is Europe’s third biggest tourist destination. And around a third of those visitors are staying in the many hotels in City West.
Those who opt to stay in the area tend to be older, more affluent and often German. The grittier hipster areas of Kreuzberg and Neukölln still attract the younger international crowd.
Yet, a couple of new projects may bring a cool factor back to the West.
The Bikini Berlin concept mall, which opened in April of this year in a listed 1950s concrete building, was redeveloped along with the adjoining Zoo Palast cinema. The mall houses permanent tenants, mostly well-known brands or Berlin fashion labels, and also has pop up stores for short-term rental. The high-rise 25Hours hotel, with its roof-top Monkey bar overlooking the zoo is also part of the project.
“Bikini Berlin is perhaps a trendsetter in that we bring a something a bit cool and hip, some design and avant-garde to City West,” said Kai-Uwe Ludwig, managing director of Bayerischer Hausbau, the company which owns the mall.
Another sign of how the wind is changing is the relocation of a prestigious art institution that had strong links to East Berlin.
In March 2013 the C/O Berlin photography museum was forced to leave the former post office depot, a crumbling red brick building that had contributed much to the gallery’s shabby charm. When the museum failed to find a new location in the Mitte district, it turned its search westwards.
The gallery is now planning to reopen on October 30 in Amerika Haus, the former U.S. cultural center in Cold War Berlin.
The move west is something of a gamble for the gallery, admits Mirko Nowak, the gallery’s head of communications.
“C/O Berlin’s brand consisted of two big elements. One was the building and the other was our program,” Mr. Nowak told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “And we are now exchanging 50 percent of that brand, so it is naturally a risk.”
He thinks the area around the station will always retain some of its grubby down-at-heel charm. “It will never be that nice,” he said. “You have to have a mix of consumer shopping, real life, students and culture. It’s an urban place, otherwise, if it becomes just one thing then it is boring.”
“Zoo Station is an urban space,” agrees Mr. Ludwig of Bikini Berlin. “Just like you find the Döner kebab stall next to Cartier on the Ku’damm. It all adds to the grittiness that makes Berlin.”
The author is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. She has reported for the international media on developments in Berlin for the past decade. Contact her: email@example.com.