From Iceland — Reconstructing a City

Reconstructing a City

Published November 3, 2006

Reconstructing a City

The future of Reykjavík’s city centre has been the subject of heated discussion since witnessing a decline in shopping in the last decade. The lack of clear urban planning policy before and incessant debates in City Council that have led nowhere have been blamed for the decline of the downtown area. Even though the ambience has been changing in recent years and new shops and unique designer stores are opening up in the area, implements to make the centre the city’s main shopping district are far from fully realised.
With a new specific land-use plan for Laugavegur, new plans for the Concert and Conference Centre by the harbour area and the construction of multiple apartments around Hlemmur, Skuggahverfi, and Mýrargata-Slippsvæði, along with planned large-scale zoning proposals to revitalise the city centre and increase the quality of shopping, the cityscape is certain to change.
“Today we have a city centre with every possibility to fully develop as a central service and shopping district,” says Helga Bragadóttir, head of Reykjavík City’s Planning Office. She adds that newly approved planning projects present some great opportunities for the future and that in the master plan for general land use for Reykjavík, dense residential areas in the city centre, redeveloping neglected spots and intermixing new apartment buildings, shops and offices are given special importance. This, she says, will be done with the aim of increasing job opportunities in the city centre and increasing its inhabitants, in harmony with the present environment.
Bragadóttir further explains by pointing to how the city centre declined with suburbanisation: “The downtown area has been growing to the east in recent decades and with changed shopping habits, the centre has been moving to the new suburbs, a boom reaching its peak when Kringlan was constructed in 1987. Smáralind shopping centre also had a great impact and didn’t help managing this process. ”
Five years ago suburbanisation reached a certain climax with a depressing effect on the city centre. Large, well-established companies as well as fashion shops and utility stores closed their doors and moved their businesses to Kringlan, Smáralind or to the suburbs. Banks more or less disappeared in the centre and large spaces stood empty on Laugavegur, resulting in the area being bypassed by many residents altogether as the lack of comprehensive service was more evident than ever.
This situation is far from being resolved. In a conversation with Þórir Sigurbjörnsson, owner of the independent Vísir grocery store that has been located on Laugavegur since 1915, he expressed particular discontent with the Iceland Telecom Company Síminn, which disappeared from the city centre earlier this year. Sigurbjörnsson emphasises the importance of maintaining a variety of shops in the centre. This is an opinion he shares with Einar Örn Stefánsson, managing director of the Downtown Development Society.
“We at the Downtown Development Society have protested this development and even talked to the executives at Síminn about their shocking disappearance and challenged them to reconsider the decision,” Stefánsson said and pointed out that it not only applies to electronic shops but public service companies like banks and travel agencies as well. “Today, Landsbankinn is the only bank with its headquarters in the city centre.”
Stefánsson continues: “It is sad to say that since 1996 the number of shops in the centre has been decreasing and hit rock bottom three years ago with a total of 300 shops. Luckily, the city centre is slowly coming around and the number has been going up again. The large number of tourists who do a lot of shopping in the centre has helped this development. The number of tourists has never been as high as this summer, which resulted in a 22-26% increase in shopping since last year.”
Even though the centre is slowly but surely shifting away from the earlier path and the number of pedestrians in the whole downtown area is increasing, the lack of large and less pricy fashion shops as well as electronic and appliance stores are keeping many Reykjavík residents away from the centre. If the Planning Office’s ideas on strengthening the downtown area become a reality this may all be about to change. As an example, according to the detailed land-use plan, 60,000 square metres can now be used to construct new buildings at Laugavegur. Of that space, 30,000 square metres can be added to the 27,000 used for commercial space today. That won’t be done without making some sacrifices though.
Mixing old with new
Although the current City Council majority has reached an agreement on the important role of constant revision in making a flourish, heated debates rage on about how the process should be executed in Laugavegur. Many fear that with the planned demolition, the street, as well as the heart of the city, will lose its charm. Furthermore, that when replaced with new luxury housing and stylish commercial buildings, the former charm of the old city will suffocate and gradually vanish.
Asked about building preservation and protection of the old streetscape, Bragadóttir points out how important it is to respect and preserve the historical heritage as a window on the time in history during which they were constructed. At the same time, she says, it is important to improve housing conditions and meet modern, international standards.
Bragadóttir continues: “Around 50 houses at Laugavegur are listed, but some old ones may be sacrificed for the sake of development. At Laugavegur, the city’s trading history from 1850 is reflected in its old and new buildings. The houses are diverse and all sorts of architectural styles can be seen when you walk down the street. In my view, old and new buildings can mix quite well together. Just look at the Alþingi patch. We can see how modern buildings adjust to old ones, giving us an opportunity to read Icelandic architectural history right in the city centre.”
Stefánsson adds, in a similar vein, that the Development Society has supported demolition proposals noting that people have to be aware of how difficult it is to reconstruct to everyone’s satisfaction. “Of course no one wants some ugly concrete clumps at Laugavegur. We need to renew as well as honour the history.”
There have been talks on building a small indoor shopping centre at Laugavegur. I ask Stefánsson how that idea could help change the things.
“We have been discussing that possibility for years. Having small indoor shopping malls at both ends of Laugavegur, connecting Hlemmur and Kvosin, would in my view have a very positive impact on the city. The problem facing the downtown area has always been that Laugavegur is in a way anarchic. No one can interfere with what kinds of shops are opened up where. Not like in Kringlan and Smáralind where there’s a certain monarchy and everything is planned beforehand. At the same time that this disorderliness is the centre’s main charm, it is keeping it from developing. With an indoor mini-mall, we could maybe get multiform shops and service companies to open up business again.”
Bragadóttir herself thinks that a mini-mall could be good for the city and help bring as diverse an offering of services as possible back to downtown. “I think it could have a snowball effect and draw shoppers downtown,” she tells the Grapevine.
An area called the Frakkastígur patch has been named in that context and the many potential construction possibilities have caused a stir in the City Council. The Liberal Party has stressed their worries about possible changes in the streetscape at the corner of Laugavegur and Frakkastígur. A possibility the Party members think is “a pending environmental disaster.”
Ólafur F. Magnússon, the Liberal Party’s representative in the Reykjavík City Council tells the Grapevine that he isn’t necessarily opposing plans for a mini-mall or rejecting development plans for Laugavegur, but doesn’t approve of the way things are being planned. He is worried about the democratic pathway, and finds the planned constructions, which in his view are based on far too extensive demolition plans, to be badly introduced to Reykjavík’s residents. He also points out that the plans for increased shopping space can be successful even if the buildings at Laugavegur 41 and 45 remain.
Magnússon has for long fought for the preservation of Laugavegur’s history and preservation of old houses in the city. In a conversation with the Grapevine he said: “The struggle now mostly centres upon the area between Vatnsstígur and Frakkastígur on the one hand and between Skólavörðustígur and Smiðjustígur on the other. A special concern today is the planned demolition of old houses at Laugavegur 4, 6, 41 and 45, where new buildings are intended to replace the old ones.”
He believes these plans to be completely out of touch with the street’s history. “Four-storey buildings don’t belong at the bottom of Laugavegur nor at the corner of Frakkastígur and Laugavegur. In the latter case, the construction of thousands of square metres for new buildings has been allowed and it is completely unnecessary to reject the Laugavegur streetscape itself,” he explains. Magnússon furthermore raises concerns over how almost unconditional servility to building contractors has been characteristic for the work of both present and past majority in the City Council. Magnússon and the Liberal Party would like to see to it that development is “both reasonable and respectful to the city’s cultural history and future generations.”
Multiplied residential areas
Laugavegur isn’t the only thing changing in the urban landscape. New housing and residential areas around Hlemmur, where up to 1,000 new apartments are planned, the build-up at Skuggahverfi and the construction of student apartments and multi-family houses is only a fraction of what yet to come.
“We have found a growing interest among people who want to live in the centre and want to be able to travel without relying on cars. That is why we want to offer people the chance to choose from new apartments or old houses with a history and easy access to daily service. The Development Policy for the Central Area of Reykjavík, which began in 1997, has resulted in a big turnover. After almost ten years of hard work, we can now pride ourselves on new buildings, renovated old houses and last but not least an open and vibrant debate about the future of the city’s centre,” Bragadóttir says.
“I think that with increased housing density, higher quality transport and more parking spaces in the centre we will have good conditions for diverse commerce in the area, which can make the city grow and blossom again,” she adds.
The demolition at Hampiðjan and areas around Brautarholt, Einholt and Þverholt has already begun, where the Student Housing Association is working on a specific land-use plan to build more student apartments. At the Mýrargata-Slippsvæði in the west-end harbour area, multi-storey apartment buildings in addition to shops and businesses are planned.
“With the influx of new apartments in the centre there will be more possibilities for employees to live close to their workplace,” Bragadóttir points out. Mentioning the enlargement of National University Hospital at Hringbraut, the proposals for the University of Iceland, Reykjavík University and in particular, the planned competition on the Vatnsmýri area, where ample opportunities are provided, she is positive that large workplaces like these will have a great impact on the centre.
The biggest development project at the moment is the Reykjavík Concert and Conference Centre at the east harbour. Some think this will be the city’s hallmark while others have expressed concerns about waste of money and rash decisions. Bragadóttir doesn’t share her opponents’ view and thinks the Concert and Conference Centre will transform the city centre in a good way.
“There are 90,000 square metres of land that will be used not only for the Centre building, but also for a hotel, shops, apartments and restaurants. Around 1600 parking spots are planned, which will not only be useful for concert and conference guests but also for the whole downtown area. When the Centre opens up in four years I think it will have an enormous effect,” Bragadóttir says.
Magnússon shares a similar view about the Concert and Conference Centre and is positive as well on the planned construction from the harbour area to Lækjartorg. This, he thinks, is as an example of how compelling build-up ideas in the centre are possible without cultural values being destroyed. He also believes in the plans for increased density in the Hlemmur area, Mýrargata-Slippsvæði and in Skuggahverfi, but adds that more consultation with current residents would have been preferable.
But will all these projects, housing ideas and increased density have the effect needed to improve the city’s shopping habits?
“I think that the growth in population will indeed help and for the most part contribute to a vibrant daily life in the centre. All these new residents must be a boost for shopping and restaurants in the city.” Another proposal from the Development Society is the construction of a docking pier for cruise ships at the east harbour in relation to the Concert and Conference Centre. “It would have a huge effect if we could get all the tourists who arrive with the cruise ships to walk directly off the ship and into the city centre.”
At last, I ask what the Development Society hopes for in the future.
“For the most part, that developments at Laugavegur will be successful and that construction will start soon. We can’t wait much longer. I am rather positive since we have a lot of good ideas regarding the city’s development. The main goal now is to get city authorities to carry them out,” Stefánsson says.
The fact remains that even if the city centre is on the right track again, with help from inventive merchants, hard working and creative individuals, and lively events, it is up to city authorities to make the final move and carry out the project with care. But with the will and the constructive vision of good people, putting life back in the centre is an attainable project.

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