"Belgrade has confirmed that it is what it has always been – a true Balkan metropolis. It is to the Balkans what London is to Europe and New York to the world. Belgrade is the business and cultural centre of this part of Europe, a place where Serbs return to from abroad and people from outside Serbia take residence in," Deputy Mayor of Belgrade, Goran Vesić, said.
"In order to ensure that our capital stays what it is and improves, we need ideas, efforts put in, responsible city management, and adding a new 'planned' item to each ticked 'completed' box. That is what you call vision," Vesić added.
Past results provide the best encouragement for believing in new plans. The five sites where this interview was conducted should testify to both. The conversation is divided into five important sections: investments; infrastructural projects; public spaces; green spaces; and cultural heritage.
THE BELGRADE TOWER – On investments
'The Belgrade Waterfront project wouldn't be rejected by either London, Paris, or Berlin.'
"On the topic of Belgrade's development, I think no place is better than the Belgrade Waterfront's Belgrade Tower. When it is completed – by the end of next year – the Belgrade Tower will have 43 stories, making it the tallest building in the Balkans," Vesić said. We were on the 28th floor of the Belgrade Tower, and the view was magnificent.
"Belgrade has always had the tallest buildings in the Balkans. For example, the Albania Palace, erected just before the start of World War II, was the tallest building in the Balkans with its 13 stories. After World War II, the 23-story Belgrade Palace was built and was the tallest in the Balkans at the time. In the meantime, other cities developed as our city stagnated due to the wars. With the Belgrade Tower, we're taking the lead again, and we're back where we rightfully belong – we're the best in the Balkans," Vesić said.
The fact that a mere five years ago this was a run-down area cannot be overlooked.
"This was one of the ugliest areas in the city, with railroad tracks, no sewage, the rats, the old railroad cars, and people living in very poor conditions. Today, a completely new city is being born here. At the moment, 1,850 workers are employed on the Belgrade Waterfront project. Moreover, 878 apartments have been completed and have tenants now; a 300,000-square meter shopping mall has also been now completed; and an additional 2,300 apartments and 260 hotel rooms are being built.
"This marks a profound change in the investment climate in Serbia, as this is the biggest European project in the area of apartment building. The sort of project that wouldn't be rejected by either London, Paris, or Berlin. That's why Belgrade is a city where people from Arab countries, Turkey, Russia, and all the countries of the former Yugoslavia buy apartments," Vesić said. He then added that construction permits were issued for over a million square meters for four years running. In 2011, the figure stood at 197,000 square meters, in 2012 it was 242,000, and in 2014 app. 276,000.
THE BELGRADE BYPASS
On infrastructural projects
Alleviating traffic congestion: 'The highway through Belgrade will turn into a city boulevard.'
The Belgrade Bypass is our second-biggest infrastructural project, following the Belgrade Subway. It is 69 kilometres long in total, of which 47 kilometres are under construction at the moment, to be followed by the remaining section from Bubanj Potok to Pančevo. "Believe it or not, this bypass has been 27 years in the making, and over 60 percent has been completed in the past couple of years. Currently, sections 4, 5, and 6 are being constructed. Section 4 runs from the Ostružnica Bridge to the Orlovača Interchange and is 7.7 kilometres long; then we have the section from the Orlovača interchange to Straževica, 3.1 kilometres in length; and the last section runs from the Straževica Tunnel to Bubanj Potok and is 9.6 kilometres long," Vesić said.
The section between the Ostružnica Bridge and Bubanj Potok has 79 bridges and is about 3.1 kilometres in length. Four tunnels are also being constructed – the Železnik, Straževica, Lipik, and Beli Potok tunnels.
"When the bypass is completed, we will remove all highway traffic from the city centre, so there will be no freight vehicle traffic and the highway will become a city boulevard. As a result, there will be less pollution too. This year work is commencing on the 40.5-kilometre subway with 43 stops, as well as in the Makiš Field. By 2028, we will finish two subway lines, which will cross at the Sava Square. We'll also be building two bridges: one will replace the old tram bridge on the Sava and will have four travel lanes and a bicycle lane; we'll invite tenders for the construction of the Ada Huja bridge, which should be placed on the inner ring road."
THE SAVA SQUARE – On public spaces
The Sava Square to be opened on 27 January
A mere two years ago, old newsstands, the taxi rank, and the bus terminus dominated the Sava Square. With the trees cut, it was one of the least sought-after locations in Belgrade. Today, the Sava Square awaits 27 January and the symbolic, Saint Sava's Day opening ceremony, to take place after the reconstruction.
"It will be the biggest pedestrian plaza, with a surface area of 32,000 square metres, of which 20,000 makes the pedestrian zone, with 250 trees, a renovated Railway Station building – to be converted into the Historical Museum of Serbia – and the monument to honour Stefan Nemanja, which will dominate the square. Those who live in this area – as well as everyone else – know what the square looked like two years ago. We will push ahead with further landscaping following the opening ceremony," Vesić announced.
First, the façade of the pre-Second World War Post Office building will be repaired. This will be followed by the reconstruction of Karađorđeva Street in its entirety, up to Branko's Bridge, where all the facades will be repaired.
"Works are being carried out on the Bristol Hotel, as well as on Milovana Milovanovića Street with its small urban square. We'll also be working on Kraljevića Marka Street. We are aiming to make this city a sought-after place of residence, and Belgrade's urban development indicates how much the city is changing now that there is enough money for designing public spaces that hadn't been landscaped for decades," Vesić said. He went on to add that this year Belgrade would get a monument to honour Despot Stefan Lazarević, Miloš Crnjanski, Vasko Popa, Jovan Jovanović Zmaj, Meša Selimović, Dijana Budisavljević, Branko Pešić, Miloš Savčić, and Aleksandar Deroko:
"These are people who have changed this city and who we should honour by cultivating cultural memory – if we don't preserve our past, I'm not sure what we can expect in the future. These people have been deserving of a monument for a long time. In addition to them, a memorial will be made to honour Milan Mladenović, and monuments will be erected for Mira Trailović, Jovan Ćirilov, and others who have made contributions to our city and society in different historical periods. That is how the history of our city is preserved."
THE SAHAT GATE: The cultural heritage
'The Belgrade Fortress is being renovated more than ever before.'
The Kalemegdan Fortress's Sahat Gate was in a state of disrepair until recently. After the reconstruction, it has a visitor centre and its own forecourt offering a lovely view.
"This bulwark and gate best illustrate the history of the Belgrade Fortress. The Sahat Gate is a passageway that the Turks built after retreating from Vienna in 1683, when the Belgrade Fortress regained its importance. The second section has the remains of Despot Stefan Lazarević's bulwark, and there at the far end is a concrete structure – a German bunker from World War II. When the Austrians took over the Fortress, they made their own gate, so we have here the Baroque Gate as well, which is walled off," Vesić recounted. When the Turks returned, they opened their own gate and closed the Austrian one. Towards the end of their rule in Belgrade, they erected the Sahat Gate.
"There are early Byzantine remains here, and the entire history of the Belgrade Fortress is contained in a single spot. No other place reveals more clearly what the Belgrade Fortress has weathered. Last year we reconstructed this gate and built a visitor centre, which can be used for literary evenings and concerts. The forecourt too can be used for various purposes. Last year we also renovated three bridges – the ones in front of Despot's Gate, the Zindan Gate, and the Gate of Charles VI," Vesić said.
Last year saw a two million-euro investment in the Belgrade Fortress: a support wall was built in the promenade; all footpaths were landscaped, as well as Damat Ali Pasha's Türbe, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha's Fountain, the forecourt around the Victor, Jelisaveta Načić's Small Stairwell, and the Big Stairwell; the Victor was reconstructed, as was the Monument of Gratitude to France; and all the bulwarks have been illuminated.
"The Belgrade Fortress is being renovated more than ever before in its history. Never has more been invested in the fortress itself than in recent years. This year we will have two major interventions on the fortress: We'll be restoring the Zindan Gate, for which a million euros will be set aside, and hopefully also additional funds from the Ministry of Culture; we also need to restore the Gate of Charles VI as the very last true remnant of the Austrian rule in Belgrade. All this shows how much has gone into culture in Belgrade," Vesić said, adding that the reconstruction of the Belgrade City Museum, the Kosančićev Venac gallery, the Bojan Stupica Theatre, the Dadov Theatre building, and the Boško Buha Theatre was also in the works.
"In this way, we are showing how committed we are to the city's culture and how much we care about cultivating the spirit of Belgrade. We aim to keep Belgrade a cultural capital of Europe, which it most certainly is."
THE LINEAR PARK – On green spaces
A green oasis that will transform the capital.
A nearly five-kilometre-long park, stretching from the Beton Hala (The Concrete Hall) to the Pančevo Bridge, will certainly transform this area of Belgrade. The linear park will be located where the railroad tracks were for decades, separating Belgrade from the rivers.
"When we moved the old Railway Station to Prokop during the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront, there was no point having the railroad there anymore. Then the question arose as to what to do with the tracks running along the river for eight or nine kilometres. And so we made the decision to create a park modelled after the tourist attraction constructed in New York – the High Line, a one-time subway built on posts.
"Our Linear Park will have ten different sections. The project design was developed by 55 young architects from Serbia and their lecturers, and they did a fantastic job. I am especially proud of this, as they brought in the local know-how. Here's hoping that maybe some day someone copies the park, and looks at Belgrade the way we look at New York and Moscow," Vesić said.
The park will have five kilometres of bicycle lanes, app. 100,000 square meters of new pedestrian areas, 200,000 square meters of green spaces, about 5,000 trees, 500 new benches, and 1,000 new underground parking spaces.
"Not only will the Linear Park be a great attraction, but it will also mark Belgrade's transformation, changing Belgraders' appreciation of their rivers. The park will also feature the new Nikola Tesla Museum, which will be located in the old Snaga i Svetlost (Power and Light) power station. Several art academies will be located in the general area of Dubrovačka Street," Vesić said.
He added that Belgrade needs new green spaces and that there is an ambitious plan to plant a million trees in the next ten years:
On the most joyous Christmas festival
'The best Christmas ever was at the site of Christ's birth.'
"I look forward to Christmas, perhaps more than to New Year's," Vesić said. "Primarily because my memories of Christmas go as far back as my childhood, when I used to visit my grandparents. I remember all the Christmas customs from then. The best Christmas that I have ever had was a few years ago, when I was in Bethlehem, Israel. That is the right place for celebrating Christmas. Incidentally, I've visited the Holy Land four times, and I can even have hajji added to my name, but I don't do it for practical reasons. When you're in Bethlehem, in the Church of the Nativity, no matter if you're a believer or not, you get a special feeling being at Jesus Christ's place of birth. For Christmas I wish for everyone to try and be good to one another, to show solidarity, and keep what we have learnt in the epidemic – helping each other – if possible. Also, to be more humane and take care of each other more."
"The plan is to have 25 percent of green spaces. This is difficult to achieve, but having no high goals means no opportunity to achieve them. This year we launched a drive to replace damaged avenue trees, and we replaced over 700 trees. We strive to make the city as green as possible. Soon we won't have any spaces to green, so together we must work to ensure more areas are available for planting trees."