Housing policy in potsdam: a ruin as a symbol

Potsdam is growing, rents are rising. This is fueling the dispute over urban development. Should the city continue to sell its own land at a high price?

Currently being demolished: the former technical college, one of the last public GDR sites in Potsdam Photo: dpa

At first glance, the subject of debate seems unremarkable: the Minsk Terrace Restaurant on Potsdam’s Brauhausberg has stood empty and dilapidated for years. An application for demolition is now causing discussion in the city: Although the decision was postponed until June. But everyone involved knows: This is about more than an old house that might be worthy of preservation. It is about the direction of Potsdam’s land and building policy.

While Berlin is already buying back land, Potsdam continues to privatize municipal land. It is true that a housing policy concept has been in place since 2015, which is intended to promote long-term affordability and project-based allocation of land, among other things. But "no one feels committed to this," explains Holger Zschoge.

Zschoge is known in Potsdam for his civic engagement: Last year, together with the citizens’ initiative "Stadtmitte fur Alle" (City Center for All), he worked out a purchase offer for the University of Applied Sciences at the Alter Markt in order to preserve the east-modern building as a "house of urban society". After the city council had rejected a citizens’ petition against the privatization of the property as "legally inadmissible," this offer was a last attempt to stand up for a "right to the city" in the center of Potsdam. It failed: the technical college is to be gone by the fall.

Nevertheless, a large proportion of the apartments in the new buildings now planned will be priced below the local rent index; half of the neighborhood will be built by cooperatives. The initiative considers this a partial success. However, the sale of the land could not be stopped. In view of the ownership and management models being developed here, the question remains: Will the apartments remain affordable in the long term?

Holger Zschoge also advises house groups interested in self-organization along the lines of the Mietshausersyndikat. However, the history of the "Mieteschon" association on Brauhausberg shows how difficult such initiatives have it in Potsdam: The houses there are owned by ProPotsdam, a city-owned group of companies that has also held the housing stocks of the formerly non-profit housing and construction company Gewoba since 2006. Despite an almost three-year dialog process, the refurbishment and installation of expensive balconies were pushed through against the will of the tenants and negotiations with the Mietshausersyndikat were rejected.

For Zschoge, it is clear that ProPotsdam wants to upgrade its real estate portfolio and is already factoring in future development at the current Minsk site: The new buildings there would significantly raise the rent level on Brauhausberg if the city sells the space to the highest bidder, as planned.

While there was still relative unanimity in the city council on the subject of the technical college, the mood in the Minsk case is divided. Thanks to its location on the Brauhausberg, its preservation does not conflict with the uncompromisingly implemented baroque urban reconstruction. Even the Mitteschon citizens’ initiative recognizes the architectural qualities of the Minsk. The Greens, who still showed little sympathy for the commitment against the privatization of the land of the University of Applied Sciences, are now demanding at least a mandatory limit of rents to a maximum of 12 euros per square meter for the Brauhausberg.

Berlin began long ago to buy again properties instead of selling

Lutz Boede of the voters’ initiative "Die Andere" (The Other) also wants to take a fresh look at the allocation procedure: It must be based on the needs of urban society, and high-priced housing must not displace social infrastructure, he says.

What does that mean? Potsdam’s diverse urban society needs diverse places that promote dialogue between rich and poor, young and old, former East and West; that are accessible to all, not only spatially but also culturally. Even though most of the public buildings from GDR times have already disappeared, many Potsdammers perceive the Minsk as an identity-forming building: designed in the 1970s by architects around Karl-Heinz Birkholz and individually furnished by artists from Minsk, Belarus, the terrace restaurant has fallen into disrepair after being vacant for a long time.

Excavators like the people of Potsdam, it seems Photo: dpa

Matthias Finken, parliamentary group leader of the CDU, writes on Facebook, "How are the Potsdamers in rural areas" supposed to "understand" the demand for the preservation of the Minsk? His argumentation: while urgent investments are needed in schools and daycare centers, the city is threatening to forego revenues of up to 27 million euros by selling the land on Brauhausberg. Conversely, he had supported the city’s plan to buy the private Mercure Hotel in order to be able to demolish the GDR building in favor of a "meadow of the people. Two years ago, the offer to set up a daycare center in the Minsk was also rejected, allegedly due to "lack of need."

Investors are supposed to fix it

The CDU and also the SPD, which provides the mayor, seem to be convinced that "rural" Potsdammers still believe that selling urban land to the highest bidders will solve the problems of the growing city, while affordable housing and social infrastructure are in short supply.

Potsdam is growing Hardly any other city in Germany is growing as rapidly as the capital of Brandenburg: In 1990, the population was around 140,000; by 2000, it had dropped to around 130,000. By the end of last year, 175,000 people were already living in the city. And the trend is rising sharply.

What does this mean? The term "right to the city" refers to society’s claim to access and participation in urban developments and qualities. Current debates about affordable housing refer to the concept developed in 1968 by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre. In Potsdam, in view of dwindling urban diversity, the "right to difference, which stands for a city as a place where people meet, recognize and acknowledge each other, and engage in debate," is being discussed as a partial aspect.

Two bidders want to preserve the Minsk. But their concepts are not alternatives because they cannot propose a public use of the Minsk due to the specifications of the tender. In addition to an investor, the initiative "(re)vive Minsk" has also submitted a bid to point out the importance of the Minsk as a public place.

At Brauhausberg, the question of preserving a GDR building is again linked to the question of the right to the city: With a public use of the Minsk, social infrastructure could be created and at the same time architectural-cultural diversity could be preserved. A public welfare-oriented redesign of the tender could replace the previous privatization policy, so that preservation could be combined with the creation of long-term affordable housing.

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