Construction cranes already crowd Berlin’s skyline as developers profit from a housing boom. Thomas Niklasch wants to keep them out of his favorite park.
On Sunday, the 45-year-old bank teller will be among an estimated 1 million Berliners voting on whether the government should build homes and schools on Tempelhofer Feld, the former airfield where Allied bombers once delivered food to a city besieged by the Soviet Army. It’s now a recreational lawn that’s almost as big as of New York’s Central Park.
“There are enough empty spaces in Berlin to build on,” Niklasch said on a break from shooting baskets in the park as other visitors grilled or rode bikes down runways nearby. “There’s no need at all to use this historic field.”
Berlin’s officials are struggling to create more homes amid an unexpected population increase without alienating voters who complain that the city is putting financial interests before their own. Berlin’s history of war and occupation means there are plenty of central areas to develop as well as a population that’s skeptical about the intentions of politicians and developers.
Poll results make the vote hard to predict. About 54 percent of Berliners opposed any construction on the Tempelhof site and 39 percent supported the city’s development plans in a survey by Berlin-based polling firm Infratest Dimap, published on May 15. By contrast, Forsa Marktforschung, also based in the capital, found 57 percent in favor of development and 40 percent against in a May 5 study.
“Neither the government nor the other side have made a good enough case,” said Philipp Wenzlau, a 33-year-old high school geography teacher sitting under a tree while his students read in the sun. “This time I’m going to vote against the development, and maybe in four or five years the choices will be better.”
Housing is a hot-button issue in a city where disposable income and employment lag behind the national average. Since 2005, the number of people living in Berlin has risen 3 percent to 3.4 million, according to data compiled by the city government, which expects 7 percent more residents by 2030.
Rents have increased by 23 percent in the past three years, according to Bulwiengesa, with some areas showing gains of more than 40 percent.
That’s not enough to silence the foes of development. Activists opposed to the Tempelhof project collected almost 200,000 signatures to force the referendum.
“We’re optimistic that we’ll win,” said Michael Schneidewind, a board member at 100% Tempelhofer Feld, the grassroots organization that led the signature collections. “The government underestimated us, but now we’re on an equal footing.”
Tempelhof Airport was built in 1936 by Hermann Goering’s Reich Air Ministry. Used during the Cold War for an Allied Forces’ airlift to save Berlin from starvation, it was closed in 2008 after a referendum to keep it open failed because of a low turnout. Once it was shuttered, local residents staged demonstrations, demanding the airfield be opened to the public, which happened in 2010.
This time, the referendum coincides with a European Parliament vote, which may boost the turnout.
The ballot measure would block all development at the airfield. To pass, most participants in the referendum must vote “Yes” and their total number must be equal to at least quarter of all those entitled to take part. Berlin has about 2.5 million voters.
The plan for Tempelhof includes 4,700 homes. At least half of the 1,700 planned for the first phase will be subsidized by the city to make them more affordable.
All of the development would be on the edges of the former airfield, leaving the rest of the site as a public space that would still be bigger than Berlin’s Tiergarten, a park on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate.
The government says its plan will allow for a large enough park. Berlin needs to build 10,000 to 12,000 housing units every year to keep up with its growing population, according to a government estimate.
“We’re developing Tempelhofer Feld in the interests of the whole city,” Gerhard Steindorf, head of Tempelhof Projekt GmbH, the government agency that manages the property, said by e-mail. “Tempelhofer Feld is big enough to allow for different kinds of uses.”
In the meantime, Niklasch and his fellow Berliners will continue to use the site for grilling, biking and inline skating.
“In what other metropolis do you have such a big open space?” he said. “It would be great to keep it.”
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