A battle over the fate of one of Europe’s oldest city centers has pitted preservationists and urban planners against a powerful oligarch.
If you were looking to cast the villain in an urban development battle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Worth about $5 billion, or a third of Georgia’s gross domestic product, he’s the country’s wealthiest person by a long shot. A former prime minister and the founder of the ruling party, he’s also Georgia’s most powerful figure, infamous for pulling government strings from behind the scenes since leaving politics in late 2013. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, a cache of leaked tax documents revealing how the world’s richest people exploit tax havens. He’s eccentric enough to dig up and ship a lone 650-ton tulip tree across the Black Sea, and his Tbilisi home is tailor-made for an evil mastermind: a 108,000-square-foot steel and glass palace, poised on a hill overlooking the city and complete with helipad and shark tank.
No surprise, then, that not only is Ivanishvili behind the largest real estate development in Georgia’s history — a controversial project known as Panorama Tbilisi — until recently he owned some of the land slated for development. If all goes as planned, Panorama would bring three new hotels, two cable cars, 1,800 underground parking spaces, luxury residences and a convention center to the Georgian capital. The project has become a lightning rod amid a nationwide boom that has attracted international developers, including one Donald Trump — who until January had planned to back construction of the country’s two tallest towers.
As rapid construction has taken hold in the capital, Tbilisians have watched green space shrink in the city center and the horizon crowd with towers. The number of cars in this city of 1.5 million people has doubled in the past seven years. Meanwhile, Georgia’s per-capita rate of air pollution-related deaths ranked number one among the world’s nations in a 2012 report from from the International Energy Agency.
As construction begins on Panorama, locals fearing more congestion, deadlier pollution and the loss of their beloved Old City have rallied to the cause. Some want to kill the project, but most would be happy to move it to a different location, or shrink it to better fit to its surroundings. “Look at Amsterdam, Paris, you don’t have great skyscrapers in the main heritage areas in those cities,” said Tbilisi urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania.
The municipal government, meanwhile, finds itself squeezed between modernization and preservation, between an oligarch who controls the purse strings and power and an electorate increasingly concerned about the impact of unfettered development. “The result is that city officials don’t want to upset the public, or Ivanishvili, and are always looking to find a balance,” Erekle Urushadze, program manager for the anti-corruption program at Transparency International Georgia, said in a recent interview in a Tbilisi cafe.
That balance is rarely found. As a result, Georgians are learning the extent to which committed citizens can participate in development, if at all, in the face of an all-powerful developer-oligarch. And whether Ivanishvili is indeed a villain.