Hands Off Our Park!

Maza Arkadijas - when they still bothered to cut the grass

I’ve already chronicled the razing of the Tornakalns allotments, which may or may not prove ultimately to be a good thing. But the latest development project being proposed for my neck of the woods is a more clear-cut case of what is technically known as a VERY BAD IDEA.

According to Diena plans have been submitted to Riga city council to construct several blocks of yuppie flats and offices on a small park known as Maza Arkadijas Parks (Little Arkadia Park), a little plot of green just across the road from the more famous Arkadijas Parks, where newlyweds pose on the little bridges throughout the summer months and where local kids sledge in winter.

In truth, Maza Arkadija is a bit run down. But at least now I understand why it is a bit run down.

I have had occasion to walk through the park a lot, and have always been struck by the thought that a little maintenance was all that is required to create a very pleasant public space. In contrast to the larger park’s ‘English-style’ attempt at natural landscaping by the use of (artificial) waterfalls and rambling pathways, the little park has a formal, ‘French-style’ regularity with straight lines of benches and paths surrounding a central mound with a sort of folly on top of it.

The park has formerly been a popular place for young mothers to push their prams (the busy Tornakalns health clinic is on one edge), and forms part of a green belt linking Uzvaras Park, the main Arkadijas Parks and the Maras Dikis pond. Given the blocks of flats that crowd around it already, it would be a perfect place for a children’s playground.

It is also the site of one of the few pieces of pleasant-looking statuary created during the Soviet period, an abstract, rounded female figure with raised arms that is rather uplifting.

Just last month I climbed the mound with my son and we slid down the icy slopes on our backsides.

I’ve even toyed with the idea of taking my strimmer down to the park with a couple of bin bags. If it wasn’t for fear that whoever was supposed to be doing the job would challenge me or that I was running some sort of public liability risk, I probably would have done so. Perhaps something like that is needed now.

But the park has been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair with beer bottles and needles littering the ground, the grass uncut and benches unrepaired. Which of course discourages use by children and old folks, which accelerates the spiral of decay. Odd, as the little hut at which the Arkadijas Park groundsmen meet every morning is within sight of the park, 50 metres away at most.

Or not so odd, as it turns out the park has somehow found its way into private hands. It is a familiar story – a speculator acquires a plot of land or building, fails to maintain or secure it (some might argue that in doing so they are effectively encouraging its degeneration) then submits a half-arsed development plan in the knowledge that local residents will probably be pleased to see anything that isn’t a bunch of vandals, drug addicts and drunks outside their windows.

Incidentally, the former method of achieving the same end more quickly was to burn the place down and blame the blaze on the aforementioned drunks, but the rapid development of the Latvian insurance industry has largely put a stop to it.

Typically, the proposals of course feature all manner of fine words, environmental impact assurances and promises of local jobs. Then the whole lot will be put up on the cheap by teams of bussed-in Lithuanians and the resultant eyesore will be a sad parody of the original plan. Riga will lose one of its parks but gain more office space it doesn’t need and flats no-one can afford.

What makes the proposal doubly ridiculous is that a similar and vast project has alread been completed right next to it. The first stage of the Aurora development was completed a couple of years ago, just as the property market went ‘pop’ but still stands half-full at most, if the number of lights on in the evening is anything to go by. Plans for subsequent stages appear to be going nowhere and the land earmarked for them remains derelict.

Similarly the Textiliana housing scheme – another project to build executive condos, a 5-minute walk away – also seems to be going nowhere fast and has resulted only in the replacement of a former factory with a large hole in the ground.

There is no lack of available land in Pardaugava for development. It would be particularly nice to see some of the fine old brick industrial buildings converted for residential use, as has already happened in the Spikeri and VEF districts. But to destroy one of the parks which are precisely what give Tornakalns and Agenskalns their unique character – and makes them in my opinion the most pleasant part of Riga in which to live – is ludicrous.

And surely it isn’t just me who finds it deeply ironic that the destruction of this green oasis is being proposed by Reinis Raznacs, a businessman who in 2009 ran as a candidate of the Green Party?

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