Building and Preserving
15 June, 2012

One of the many big policy issues being discussed particularly around Tbilisi now is the preservation of historical architecture. This is quite a complex problem for several reasons. The first is that if an old building is destroyed by somebody or by the government of the day, you can't bring it back. This is different than other policies where you can change them later if they don't work. The second reason is that people own these build

ings and often live in them. There are memories associated with them, it is often personal even for the people who don't live there, and finally it involves a large collection of different groups of people who have very different view
points on the matter.
In Tbilisi and a few other cities in Georgia, there are many beautiful old buildings, many of them are empty, some are falling apart, and often the ownership of those buildings has changed frequently in recent years and who is the real current owner may not be very clear.
All this is happening at a time when more and more tourists are coming to Tbilisi. And they love these old falling-apart buildings. I have never seen a tourist take a picture of a newly refurbished building but I constantly see them taking pictures particularly of old doors, and crumbling plaster. The fact that tourists love them is no reason to keep building in poor repair but it is worth noting what they enjoy since they are and will become even more, such an important part of Georgia's economy.
The complexities of this issue are not unique to Georgia. Any country that is fortunate enough to have old cities struggles with it, and it is a struggle that never ends. I have often heard those from Central Europe, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, mention that Tbilisi is in the same situation in this regard that they were in the mid nineties in deciding what do with its buildings. Those cities kept theirs and are reaping the rewards now. Even very new cities, there are still struggles to preserve what relatively historical architecture they have.
There is a spectrum of how these issues can be handled and how people think they should be handled. On one side of the spectrum is the Shevardnadze era solution in which nothing happened. Little was torn down or repaired. This had the advantage of preserving the buildings but not many other advantages. On the other side of the spectrum is just tearing it down, as happened to the so called Soboro church or the buildings on the Rikhe in the seventies, this certainly creates jobs for whatever the new building is, although the parliament was built largely by German prisoners of war so I guess that doesn't count. But any way you get the idea. There are several possibilities in the middle, closer to the first end of the spectrum are public private partnerships that keep the old buildings in tact but repair them to what they once were. The advantage of this is it keeps the city as it was and gathers the most international respect and tourists, but it costs a great deal. Closer to the other side of the spectrum is to mostly tear down the buildings, but maybe leave the facade and change them very much using mainly new materials so that to the untrained eye they look similar. This is called Disneylandization. It is cheap and easy, creates jobs, but doesn't get much support from in international community or those who care about historical preservation. Reasonable people disagree on which of these methods to use when.
The fights are fierce and the groups that are concerned about this are the same everywhere. First of all are property developers. They want to find ways to make money out of property investment while at the same time employing people, often revitalising old neighbourhoods and making necessary repairs. But in the end they generally want to make money; they often ended up in debt in order to own the property. The second group is those who believe that all buildings should be
restored to how they originally where and they believe the state has the responsibility for these buildings as it has the responsibility to protect the environment or borders. They usually don't know much about finance, and often are more clear about what they don't want to have happen than what they do want to have happen. There is a significant international community that cares about historical preservation. Those cities that do it well can get significant funds and respect for
doing it right. But these international entities don't generally have much influence.  And finally there are the residents, they are the most diverse group, they often want a new place to live, but some times they simply want to prevent change. And finally there is the state. In Georgia at least they are the most powerful and largely decide what will happen. In other places they act as the moderator to the discussion.
In Georgia in recent years there has not been good communication among these groups. There isn't many compelling reasons for the groups to talk to each other. Many of those who care about historical preservation, most famously the Gudiashvili Square group are very angry. The municipal authorities are not overly concerned about them because they feel there are no votes to gain there anyway. And the style of discourse is fairly aggressive. That aggressive posture is understandable considering how difficult it is to get information about what plans are and who makes decisions. The state simply wants things to happen, to be cleaned up in one way or anther and frankly if
they find an investor who is willing to invest, they so far haven't worried too much about the details. The protesters are all about the details but don't feel like it is their problem if the buildings just sit there forever decaying with no financeable plan for the future. And the residents rarely agree.
In the grand scheme of problems facing Georgia however this one is not that difficult. It requires three solutions. The first is transparency, there needs to be a greater habit of openness about
plans and ownership by the state mainly. It is too difficult to get documents and to find out what is being planned and where are the entry points to discuss these plans. Too many foreign companies with unclear ownership structures. The state tends to view transparency as dangerous. That is wrong; it is safe in the long run. The same is true for developers, they need to be more transparent.
The second thing is communication. The state and many developers have this tendency to think they should be left alone and then when everybody sees how great a job they do, they will be happy. This never works. It is much better to clearly show and discuss the plan every step of the way, as well as the logic behind the plan. Then more people and more groups will understand the outcome and agree with it. People request meetings that they don't get. Again, too often the view
is that communication is dangerous. It isn't.
And finally, focus the conversations forward; on alternatives. What is the proposal? Particularly those who care about historical preservation don't have financially viable proposals for these
buildings. If they want to have an opinion they need to have a proposal. Certainly to have a proposal they need to have access to information, so transparency is a prerequisite to some degree, but focus the conversation on next steps rather than condemnation.

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