Tourist trap

Fears a deal will turn Checkpoint Charlie into a Disney-style attraction

Shots from Berlin
Make-believe soldiers and real-estate intrigue. Source: Mauritius

Anyone who has ever visited Berlin’s iconic Checkpoint Charlie knows how busy it gets. Tourists gaze at a mural showing photos of the former city boundary, guides ferry customers back and forth, kids pose for pictures with costumed US soldiers at the guard point, hawkers sell sausages and pickpockets ruin other people’s holidays.

The best-known border between east and west, a symbol of the Cold War era where Soviet and US tanks faced off in 1961, is crowded, noisy and — if you’re standing in the bicycle lane — even dangerous.

Now, to make things even more complicated, Berlin’s municipal authorities and seven different architecture firms, are also getting stuck in. Near to Checkpoint Charlie, there is prime real estate on either side of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. Elsewhere in Berlin, the empty strip that once split the city in half has been turned into parks, apartment buildings and government offices. But here, a local developer, Trockland Group, secured three pieces of the land by paying off a previous owner’s debt in 2015.

One piece of land is already under development as an apartment complex called Checkpoint Living. Trockland is also responsible for a controversial hotel at the East Side Gallery. That stretch of the Berlin Wall is another Cold War remnant, featuring colorful graffiti.

The fate of the other two sites, by the famous checkpoint, has yet to be determined, though arguments are already heating up.

Seven leading architecture firms, including David Chipperfield Architects, Sauerbruch Hutton and Graft, were asked to submit proposals for the sites. And because of the area’s historic significance, ordinary Berliners have also been invited to have their say.

Panzer am Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin 1961
A Cold War flashpoint in 1961. Source: DPA

The process of public consultation began in June and ends next week. In July, the architecture firms outlined their ideas at a public meeting. And on August 2, they will present their proposals so locals can have their final say.

There isn’t much left of the original Checkpoint Charlie — the guardhouse where tourists pose for pictures is a replica — but historians say even the empty spaces are worth preserving. Jörg Haspel, the city’s head of conservation, argued nothing should be built on the site.

But the July meeting displayed a wealth of ideas, according to Manfred Kühne, a senior official with the city’s urban development division. Unlike many of the projects he has worked on, the public wasn’t wholly against to the idea. “A minor sensation,” he commented.

The 200 members of the public who attended the meetings mostly complained of the lack of local amenities nearby — some wanted more pubs and cafés — and complained about the traffic chaos. But city council members are gearing up for a fiercer fight.

During the consultation, it emerged that the city’s administration had signed a “letter of intent” with the Trockland Group back in 2016. That meant the meeting was a farce, critics say, as everything was decided already. They charged that the council deliberately scheduled the meeting during summer vacation, so the deal would be done when everyone was back in town.

The Charlie experience

The Trockland Group said beyond apartments, it wanted to build a Hard Rock Hotel, as well as offices and shops. Its website says the group wants to create a “Charlie Experience… a contemporary presence at this emblematic location.” The boss of Trockland, Heskel Nathaniel, sees the project as more a “transformation” than property development.

The city council asked for a Cold War Museum to be included in the plans and this has been approved. Councillors were apparently pleased to get the museum space at a lower rent. But the behind-the-scenes bargain led to a warning about commercializing the area by some senior council members — including the senator for city development and the senator for culture, both Left party members.

This raises the question who should be responsible for changing this important part of the city? The councilors  also asked why the city itself had not bought the land, given its importance. They noted that the site does not yet officially belong to the developer.

Another surprise came early in July, during the public debate but before Trockland even had a building permit. The two parcels of land had been freshly designated as ‘protected’ due to their historical significance. This move, by the city’s ministry of culture, restricted the development options for the sites. This came as a shock, according to a spokesperson for the company organizing the public consultation. The Trockland Group informed the architects of the change so they could adjust their ideas. And experts said the fresh designation couldn’t stop anyone from building on the site.

And the architects’ proposals were creative: David Chipperfield’s team proposed an apartment block on stilts which left the ground clear. Caramel Architects, of Vienna, suggested a 120-meter apartment block that would only be 20 meters wide, so that it wouldn’t take up so much space.

More Berlin, less Disneyland

But Berliners grumbled. “Will Checkpoint Charlie be degraded to become just a real estate project with a historicized USP (unique selling point)? Or will it have a future as both a historical site and a place for everyday use, one that is there for Berlin’s citizens?” asked local architect and urban planner Theresa Keilhacker in an editorial for a local newspaper.

Ms. Keilhacker, who as a member of Berlin’s city council was involved in the project, argued Berlin should buy the land, not abandon it to a commercial developer. She would like to see schools, kindergartens and affordable housing on the historic site and said that can only be provided by the city. “Then we would get another piece of Berlin here, not just more Disneyland,” she argued.

For the moment, Checkpoint Charlie’s future hangs in the balance. Mr. Heskell, the boss of Trockland, hopes to break ground by October 2019. And despite the ongoing rancor, the city and the developers agreed to proceed with the current plans. A final decision is planned after the public responds to the proposals that are to be released this week. Only then will Berliners learn whether they get to keep their familiar, messy Checkpoint Charlie or if it will be upgraded into “the Charlie Experience.”

This story was adapted for Handelsblatt Global, using several articles published in Tagesspiegel, a sister publication. 

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