The city of Plzeň is perhaps best known for its iconic beer – the famous gates at the entrance to the brewery are the city’s best-known landmark. But less than a kilometre away work has begun on another, rather more controversial building. Developers want to build a gigantic shopping centre in the city centre, and opponents are campaigning for a local referendum to stop it.
Americká, Plzeň's main boulevard, is so named for the liberation by American troops in May 1945. It’s not the prettiest of streets, but it is a vital pedestrian and vehicle artery – one kilometre long - running through this bustling industrial town. And all along one side of it is a massive pit – the site of what will be one of the biggest shopping centres in the country. But not if a group of campaigners get their way.
Petr Vaněk is a 34-year-old Plzeň native. He’s part of a seven-member preparatory committee campaigning for a referendum to stop the gigantic retail and office complex – called Corso Americká – from going ahead:
“I’m not somebody who’d be against any kind of shopping, against any kind of commercial centre. I think Plzeň has got enough of them, but that’s not the main reason why we decided to run this campaign. What is more important is that this place in downtown Plzeň is very valuable. It’s a big space in downtown Plzeň and it could be used to do a lot of good.”
Corso Americká's developers want to build a 35,000 square metre retail and office complex, with bars, restaurants and underground parking. Petr and his colleagues say that will attract even more cars to an already congested city, and will suck the life out of local business. So what do the people of Plzeň want?
“There’s a Tesco’s just round the corner. So we’ve already got a shopping centre here. And anyway they’re everywhere in Plzeň. I think they should turn it into a green space instead. So I’m in favour of a referendum.”
“I’m against. I don’t like it. There are dozens of shopping centres here already. So I’m definitely going to take part in the referendum. And I’m definitely going to vote against it.”
“I’m a city guy. I want them to build a shopping centre here. And I’ll tell you why: I don’t want to drive to the edge of town to do my shopping. I want to do my shopping in the city centre; just like you do in London or Paris. So I’m in favour.”
Views are mixed, though that last respondent appeared to be in the minority. Petr and his colleagues say it’s such a big and controversial project it should be decided by the citizenry. They’ve gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition; enough, they say, for the city authorities to call a binding referendum. But the city’s dragging its feet, and so the matter’s gone to court. Plzeň mayor Martin Baxa says his colleagues are treating the issue like any other:
“For the City of Plzeň what’s important is that all construction projects carried out by private investors fulfil the conditions laid down by the City. I’ve always insisted that this project should be overseen in exactly the same way – it must fulfil the conditions laid down by the City of Plzeň.”
The court will decide by early November whether the referendum can ask citizens not only if the City should do everything in its power to stop the project but also whether the land –which is not city-owned – can be permanently rezoned as urban greenfield, meaning no major construction can take place there. If the referendum goes ahead and if the answer is Yes, it would be an unprecedented development in Czech local politics – the first time ever a major city would have held a successful plebiscite. And not to mention a major headache for the investor, who will have bought a huge plot of land on which it’s not allowed to build.
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