Chaos "Guarantees" the Destruction of Old Buildings in Sofia

Novinite Insider » OPINIONS | November 8, 2018, Thursday // 14:51
Bulgaria: Chaos "Guarantees" the Destruction of Old Buildings in Sofia

The fire at the Royal's Stables in Sofia seemed like a déjà vu after the fire that burned down the tobacco stores in Plovdiv. Flames destroy old houses every year in Varna. In Veliko Tarnovo, the beams of Renaissance architecture can not withstand time and lack of care. Mediapool tells about the scale of the disaster that came upon the immovable cultural heritage in five of the biggest Bulgarian cities - Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Ruse and Veliko Tarnovo.

If there is a city in Bulgaria that has all the opportunities to revive old buildings relatively quickly, this is Sofia. The capital has everything it needs to be a beautiful European city - money, people and cultural heritage. Investigation by Mediapool through the Access to Public Information Act shows that one of the main obstacles for Sofia to take advantage of is its historical landscape is the painful administrative chaos.

The Chaos

The royal stables, around which there was a public outcry after the burning of one of the buildings in July, are the embodiment of this chaos. The complex has many owners: state institutions, the Academy of Arts and private companies. The land under complex is now largely private. Two years ago, businessman Yanko Ivanov bought a large part of the plot for the ridiculous amount of 650 000 leva, after that the former governor Veselin Penev was investigated by the prosecutor's office.

After the fire, the institutions needed a lot of time to find out who owned the part of the building whose roof was burned. It turned out to be the Ministry of Interior, which had not been a good owner until that time. Measures against the Interior Ministry have never been taken, although the law requires it.

The fire in the stables triggered outrage and search of responsibility from Sofia Municipality and the Ministry of Culture, which responded with questionable concern to the fate of the historic building.

Mediapool's questions to the responsible institutions were aimed at clarifying whether any of them had real intentions to solve the problem and what it had done.

By law, responsibility for the preservation of the cultural heritage in Sofia is shared by the Municipality of Sofia and the National Institute for Real Estate Cultural Heritage at the Ministry of Culture. These institutions must act in full synchronization if they want to preserve precious old buildings and force unscrupulous owners take care of them. Instead, the municipality and NIRECH have developed relations bordering the absurdity.

We do not even know what we know

Mediapool has asked Sofia Municipality and NIRECH to send a list of buildings categorized as cultural heritage. The municipality replied that it did not have such a list and forwarded the question to NIRECH. It turned out that the City Hall did not know that it had the data in question, they even had  a detailed map on their website. In addition, cultural monuments for residential purposes are exempted from a building tax, which is collected by the municipality. It should at least know how many owners and for which properties they do not owe tax.

If Sofia Municipality really does not know, it can at least be told from this publication that there are an impressive number of remarkable buildings on its territory - 1403 single cultural monuments and 70 group monuments. This is many times more than any other city in Bulgaria. Just the monuments of national importance in the city are 152. These old buildings are the hope that Sofia will become if not a world-wide, at least a European tourist destination. NIRECH refused to send a full name list, although by law the information is public, at least they informed about their number.

It is not known which properties are in poor condition

Chaos is such an integral part of Sofia Municipality that it has no centralized data on protected properties in poor condition. You can not try to take action if you do not know where to go. It is convenient for the clerk not to know, because it relieves him or her of responsibility. It turns out that the municipality does not have a complete database for the restored monuments of culture. Even for those that have been restored on its initiative. But that's not the whole problem. There is no database in NIRECH. Or, rather, there are paper folders that can hardly be systematized. This means that in practice no one in the state has any generalized and easily accessible information about the monuments that that state should ensure that they do not disappear.

Mediapool's questions on protected buildings were sent to Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, who them handed over to Chief Architect Zdravko Zdravkov, and he send them to all 24 regional mayors who were expected to provide a proper response. Some gave partial answers, others explained that they did not know. And some did not bother to answer at all and forwarded them to NIRECH, who also replied that they do not have an answer.

The most troubling were the answers of Lozenets region and Oborishte region. It turned out that the administration in Lozenets could not find anything about the protected buildings in its documentation. The archives of the district mayoralty are organized so that it does not distinguish between a house and a monument of culture. If something burns or falls, it will only be known later that it was a value.

The Oborishte region, where you could find huge number of protected sites, did not even bother to answer, but directly referred the questions to NIRECH. The institute, in turn, replied that it did not collect information on the protected properties that were restored.

Against the background of this disaster, a good example is the Vazrazhdane region (around the Women's Market). Unlike Lozenets, the administration obviously maintains an organized archive and is able to answer simple questions. In the area, 47 monuments of culture have been restored and only six are in poor condition.

The results are striking

The overall picture of the Sofia Municipality database is of serious concern. Of nearly 1,500 real monuments of culture, the municipality has information about exactly 19 protected buildings that are in poor condition. This is the result of the responses of all district mayoralties who have been urged to respond to Mediapool's queries.

Without being a specialist, it is clear that the database is so inadequate that it is simply absurd. In this situation, no normal policy can be expected, but ruins, excavators and frequent fires to become the norm.

The municipality was not particularly active in imposing fines for poor maintenance of cultural monuments. Penalties were imposed on the owners of only eight properties, and a large number of them are not collected. Interestingly, the municipality penalizes only private individuals, and the state institutions seem to not exist. An emblematic example is the beginning of the disintegration of the facade of the St. Cyril and Methodius National Library. The problem is from almost a year and is solved with a simple strip designed to protect passers-by from falling debris.

The three most severe fines were imposed on the owners of the Sugar Factory (a total of BGN 300,000), of which remain only ruins. However, they have been appealed by owners who have changed over the years. There is no result of attempts by the local authorities to sanction the owners. And the last 10% of the complex that can somehow be useful for something continues to be in very poor condition.

The law provides opportunities for Sofia Municipality to be active and to exert considerable pressure on the owners. Prescriptions and fines are a serious tool, but if they do not work, the City Hall has the right to mortgage a building that is a monument of culture and use the money to repair it. Then the mortgage is paid by the owners. However, this measure has never been applied. Neither in Sofia, nor anywhere else in the country, shows the Mediapool study. According to the Deputy Mayor of Culture in the capital, Todor Chobanov, the reason is that there should first be three effective sanctions for the owner before a mortgage is imposed. In the last few weeks, chief architect Zdravko Zdravkov promised several times that the legal possibility of mortgaging abandoned cultural monuments would finally be used.

Practice has so far shown that the administration is trying to solve a problem private case with talks with the owners. For example, Zdravkov explained earlier that this was the way for the possible future restoration of the house of Arch. Georgi Fingov's house at Shipka Str.

If we have to be honest ...

The problem is not only in Sofia Municipality. In May 2017, excavators demolished the Double House of Mitovi in ​​Sofia, which was built 110 years ago by architect Georgi Todorov. The last owner of the house is businessman Kiril Kirov - Kiro the Japanese, who sends the excavators. This is possible after the cancellation of the status of the house, signed by the then Minister of Culture and current chairman of the parliamentary committee on culture and media Vezhdi Rashidov (GERB).

"If I have to be honest, I did not mind demolishing the Double House because it's not a monument," Kiro the Japanese told bTV several days after the demolition.

Apparently no clerk minded as well. In response to Mediapool, NIRECH  says it is impossible to provide information about old houses whose protected status has been cancelled over the last 15 years. Not that this information is not stored, but there is no way it can be provided. It's not clear why. The probable explanation that it stays scattered in many folders and discovery and collection requires a lot of searching. The lack of information makes it impossible for the ministry to exercise public control and condemns most of these beautiful buildings to destruction.

The result of the "effort"

Over the last four years, Sofia Municipality has asked for seven old buildings to be declared cultural monuments and to be protected. In most cases, the municipality acted after citizens' alerts. The process itself is quite slow and takes years. Minister of Culture Boil Banov explains the slow work of NIRECH is due to the bad legacy of previous years. It included about 30,000 cultural monuments that were only declared but not reviewed and analyzed. For some of them, there is no reason to be protected at present, such as houses of Bulgarian partisans.

Work on these buildings hindered the operation of the National Institute for Cultural Heritage, which otherwise "works every month at full steam".

And while the work of full steam goes on, two of the buildings in Sofia for which there were requests to receive status have already been destroyed - the Double House of the Mites and the House with the Tower in Lozenets. For the House with the Tower Citizens conducted an entire campaign, but that did not help.

This list also included the Royal Stables, which were given the status of a monument of culture of local significance after they suffered a fire. Documents for their national significance are to be collected.

In August this year, citizens also reported a scandalous repair of a beautiful old building to the Women's Market, which also proved to be unprotected. The lack of protection for this building means destruction of the beautiful old ornaments.

The other three buildings are abandoned in anticipation of their fate.

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