The builders have arrived in one of the oldest parts of town and people are nervous. Workers dressed in yellow vests and helmets are busy hammering the walls inside a blue building in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.
A crowd gathers in the square, named for one of the country’s best-known artists, Lado Gudiashvili. There have been protests here demanding the preservation of the 1830s mansion, where Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov once stayed. A Facebook page protesting its demolition has been liked by more than 1,300 people. Was it all in vain?
The developers insist that the plan is to restore the area rather than demolish anything. Still, the conflict shows the sensitivity of conservation versus construction in the Black Sea nation that wants to modernize as well as attract tourists.
“It’s a disaster,” says conservationist Nato Tsintsabadze. “This beautiful building and its neighborhood is on the verge of destruction. The public protests are absolutely necessary as cultural tourism is destroyed by poor planning.”
As the builders hammer away, an old poster dangles across the street, saying “Save and Secure Gudiashvili!” During the protest, more than 1,000 people gathered, sometimes in freezing winter days. Some danced and read poetry in events organized by Tiflis Hamkari, a non-profit, non-governmental group.
Before the builders start work, Tsintsabadze takes me to a wooden balcony area. Here, archaeologists found the remains of Roman Baths. In her opinion, they have been badly renovated. The stone-columned house is one of the earliest attempts to merge Tbilisi architecture with Russian Classicism. Until recently it housed offices of the Literaturuli Sakartvelo newspaper.
“We are taking down the valuable ornaments,” says Natia Qarqashadze, a project coordinator at Paul Shuler and Irao Group. “We are saving what we can and will reuse them. We will restore other elements and plan underground parking not under the actual building, rather in its yard.”
Tbilisi Development Fund, founded in 2010, also dismisses the accusations.
“We spend as much as $3 million annually,” the fund’s chief Giorgi Sabanadze says in an interview. “Some buildings haven’t been touched in 80 years and their crumbling condition is alarming. No major changes are planned around the square, and the balcony building will be restored to its original look.”
Tourism is an important part of Georgia’s revitalization, which began in 2003, when President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution.
The nation of 4.5 million people on the Silk Road has also been trying to restore its economy after a five-day war in 2008 over the region of South Ossetia. Georgia’s $14.4 billion economy grew 7 percent in 2011, according to March preliminary estimates.
Georgia was ranked the world’s third-fastest growing tourist destination last year, with a 39 percent increase in arrivals, the World Tourism Barometer said in March. There was a threefold increase in Russian arrivals in the first quarter and more than 3 million visitors are forecast to arrive this year.
The National Tourist Agency says that about half visit Tbilisi. Tourism may contribute 11 percent to economic output over the next few years, up from 7 percent, according to Vera Koala, economy and sustainable development minister.
While the municipality has power to stop the aggressive reconstruction that started about 2007, it lacks the expertise, says Tsintsabadze, who is Secretary General of ICOMOS Georgia, International Council of Monuments and Sites.
Some archeological findings are now completely lost after the municipality reworked the area of old district of Abanotubani, she says. Soon there will be only “entertainment tourism” like Las Vegas and no history to see.
“Builders came with bulldozers and simply wiped out that old heritage, just like that,” she says. “They recklessly demolish or construct fake buildings that may look old, but have nothing to do with that.”
“I don’t believe that they won’t change the image,” says Tiflis Hamkari’s head Aleko Elisashvili. “They’ve already violated the rules of how real reconstruction should be done.” After the first protest, a plan for a glass construction and modern shopping mall was dropped, he says.
Since 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization hasn’t added to Georgia’s list of three cultural heritage sites. One of those, Bagrati-Gelati’s restoration, was temporarily on hold as demanded by UNESCO, but now is being reconstructed in full under UNESCO supervision and advice, says Nika Rurua, Georgia’s Minister of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia.
“I don’t agree that the renovations of old areas of Tbilisi is damaging, he says, pointing to buildings on one of the oldest streets, Aghmashenebeli Avenue. “They were not just in terrible condition but also dangerous.”
Not everyone is so sure.
“We do have valuable cultural heritage monuments but no knowledge of their management,” Tsintsabadze says. “I worry that our children will be left with nothing to be proud of.”
Muse highlights include: Mark Beech on rock music and Ryan Sutton on New York dining.