Facelift or folly, Belgrade braces for Dubai-style makeover

Tue Mar 31, 2015 10:57am EDT
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By Matt Robinson

BELGRADE (Reuters) - The vista of rusting boats and drab wasteland that greets visitors passing over the river Sava into Belgrade is set to be transformed into a futuristic forest of skyscrapers under ambitious redevelopment plans that have left Serbs deeply split.

Construction for the Belgrade Waterfront project is due to kick off this summer, bankrolled by Gulf Arabs, and will forever change the appearance, and critics say also the character, of Serbia's capital city, home to around 1.3 million people.

The project crowns an unlikely but fruitful alliance between Serbia, an aspiring European Union member, and the United Arab Emirates that spans defense, agriculture and cheap financing.

A UAE property developer plans to spend at least three billion euros ($3.26 billion) building 5,700 apartments, 2,200 hotel rooms, offices for 12,700 people, a curvaceous 200-metre tower and a sprawling shopping mall on the 1.8 million square meters of prime riverside land.

The project marks the first foray into central and eastern Europe by Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills and board member Mohamed Alabbar, the UAE real estate tycoon behind the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa.

Supporters say the development will create thousands of jobs, address a severe shortage of office and retail space in downtown Belgrade and put the city firmly on the investment map of eastern Europe.

However, detractors say it is folly - a Xanadu conjured up without public tender or consultation, soulless, elitist and jarring with the look of the existing, centuries-old city. A contract has yet to be signed even as land is cleared apace, fuelling complaints about transparency.

"It's still unreal to me," said Dejan Ubovic, founder of KC Grad, a cultural center in the graffiti-riddled Savamala district that has become a mecca for tourists and artists and stands on the perimeter of the proposed Waterfront site.   Continued...

A man walks on the site where the Belgrade Waterfront project will be built in Belgrade March 27, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica