YEREVAN — Can you imagine an anonymous private developer receiving a permit to build a neon-lit cafe adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC or 20 feet from the wall of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City? Can you imagine the facade of the Smithsonian Institute or Metropolitan Museum hidden by two-story high billboards advertising cigarettes, alcohol, apparel and candy? Can you imagine the green space of Central Park in New York City suddenly overrun with a hundred cafes of indiscriminate design and size?
At first glance, one is impressed by a bustling, colorful Yerevan: new restaurants, hotels, shops, apartment and office buildings are flourishing throughout the city, a far cry from the hungry days and dark nights of 10 years ago.
But the joy of seeing the first outdoor cafe, Western-style advertising, stores filled with previously banned goods, gas stations instead of rusted trucks hosing car fuel into buckets for waiting drivers is quickly turning into serious concern as commercial interests destroy historic sites and the environment.
Yerevantsi's have always honored their city: a city that was designed by revered architect-planner Alexander Tamanian in the first third of the 20th century. The older generation has always remembered with pride that the Opera House on the corner of two prominent streets with an adjoining plaza was constructed when the population was starving, proving that in the worst of times Armenian culture still remained a priority.
So what has changed?
Is it possible that two national elections in the past year caused payoffs for political support to a small but influential segment of the population? Could it be that the 21st century ruling generation has forgotten the pride and priorities of their parents? Or is it just poor taste?
After some inquiries, like most cities it seems that the mayor's office is responsible. Its chief architect and an appointed architectural committee grant licenses to all new design and construction within the city limits.
Trees have been cut down, park benches removed, a royal blue and white Roman Empire style cafe with Roman statues and fountains has recently arisen in a major green park, casinos line the highway from the airport to Yerevan instead of being placed a few lots back, a three-story restaurant now stands on a corner in front of a 50-year-old apartment house blocking the view of dozens of tenants, the view from the American University of Armenia Business Center is now a wall of cafes instead of a park, kiosks are placed directly in front of institutions and billboards reign supreme on all major thoroughfares of Central Yerevan. Newspapers have reported that there are more gas stations in Yerevan than in Moscow — city of 10 million. These are only a handful of examples. Ask anyone and they'll give you dozens more.
One local businessman who has many successful commercial interests related another incident. While driving on a major thoroughfare that leads from Republic Square to the new St. Gregory Church he noticed workmen digging large holes in the street 10 feet from the sidewalk. He stopped the car and asked the workmen what they were doing. "Building a new store" was the answer. "In the street!" he exclaimed, immediately placing calls to a number of officials — the work was halted. Of course not everyone has that clout.
Considering the usual time span between obtaining permits and completing construction would be at least one to two years, it is possible two mayors who have held the post since 2000 are guilty not only in their sell-out of Yerevan but also in succumbing to the pressures of influential citizens and officials. The electorate has no vote since mayors in Yerevan, unlike other cities in Armenia, are appointed by the President.
Who knows what's next?
by Louise Manoogian Simone
Central Board chairman of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, AGBU
25 Feb 2004