TOL: The Death of Green Spaces

The Death of Green Spaces
by Edik Baghdasaryan

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
May 28 2004

They may have botanical names, but there is no disguising that the
cafes blossoming in Yerevan are destroying parks – and bearing rich
fruits for public officials.

YEREVAN, Armenia – In 1988, the large, leafy public square next to
the Opera House in Yerevan was renamed Freedom Square, in honor of
the movement that eventually led the country to independence from
the Soviet Union in 1991.

With its benches, open spaces, and trees, the square has long been a
popular place for people to come and relax. Grandparents come to take
their grandchildren for a walk, kids to roller-skate, and couples to
romance each other. It has also long served as a gathering point for
the opposition.

All that is changing at alarming speed, however, as the square’s green
spaces are paved over to make room for cafes, restaurants, and dance
clubs. So many of these places have sprung up that in some corners
of the square it is impossible to tell where one establishment stops
and another begins – the outdoor tables and chairs all run together,
and the music from competing loudspeakers merges.

Every time a café is built, another bit of public space is lost.
Here, dozens of trees have been felled, benches have been ripped
up, and grass has been replaced by cement patios. It’s a phenomenon
that can be seen across the city. According to the Social Ecological
Association, more than 700 hectares of trees have been chopped down
over the past decade in Yerevan’s construction boom.

“I don’t bring my grandson [to the park] anymore, because there are
cafes everywhere and no benches,” said Sargis Torosian, a 72-year-old
pensioner. “We used to spend every evening here, but now we have no
place to go.”

“What happened to the Himalayan cedars that are so rare in our city?
Or the grapevines and persimmon trees that used to grow where the
Astral Disco is now?” asks biologist Gohar Oganezova. “Most of
the firs have dried up over time as their roots come up against the
concrete base of the cafes. A plane tree whose branches got entangled
in the fence has withered. Two years ago, it was a wonderful, viable
tree. The fir trees along the path next to the Atlantic Café are
drying up, too. Last season they were almost leafless, their roots
are so damaged.”

By law, it shouldn’t be happening this way. According to government
records, the building permits for most of the cafes violate the city’s
own ecological and planning standards. The rules say that before
construction can begin on a new establishment, an owner must submit a
design that meets the approval of ecologists. According to 2002 data
from the Ecology Ministry, only one of the 12 cafes in Opera Square,
the Astral, followed that procedure.

Yerevan’s chief architect, Narek Sargisian, defends the onslaught
of development as a market response to public demand. “If so many
cafes are being built, it means that there is a demand for them,”
he said. Sargisian admits that the park’s planners didn’t anticipate
the displacement effect that the retail establishments would have on
people who are looking for a public green space to relax in. On the
other hand, he said, “the cafes are always full.”

But they’re not making much money, or so believes Srbuhi Harutiunian,
head of the Social Ecological Association. Harutiunian said his group
had undertaken an unofficial survey of the park’s café and restaurant
owners and came up with surprising results.

“We found that 40 percent of these establishments are unprofitable,”
Harutiunian said. “Among the rest, 40 percent don’t worry about profit
at all [and are more interested in the prestige of their location],
and the remaining 20 percent secure a profit only by not paying
their taxes.”

Yet the building continues. To understand why, it’s necessary to
look at who’s behind the chattering crowds, loud music, and frothy


Ordinary Armenian businesspeople patronize the restaurants and cafes
around Opera Park, but they certainly don’t own them. So far, at least,
it seems that ownership is a privilege reserved for the political
elite – members of parliament, ministers, influential bureaucrats,
and their cronies. The concreting over of Yerevan’s green spaces has
been enabled by a loophole in the city’s law on allocation of land
that has allowed the city to chop up and sell small café-size plots
that it owns. Any plot larger than 20 square meters must be sold
at public auction; anything less can be quietly sold to any buyer,
for any price. Former Mayor Robert Nazarian, a man appointed by the
president, was a champion of the loophole.

Although he is no longer in office, Nazarian’s legacy of political
favoritism continues to deprive the city treasury of public funds
and to line the pockets of government officials who “bought” parcels
of land. A case in point: recently, according to reliable sources,
a café in Freedom Park that was owned by a senior government official
sold for $250,000. The official had spent $15,000 on the land on which
the café has constructed. His final take after including construction
costs? More than $220,000.

Some estimates of the total losses to the state treasury from corrupt
land sales near the Opera, where 15 companies have built cafes,
exceed $1 million.

Typically, the new owner begins to expand his cafe. After the event,
the Mayor’s Office “legalizes” the expansion of the café rather than
taking action against the owners – who are high-level public officials.

Whatever the procedure, the results can be gargantuan. In early 2002,
Nazarian “sold” a 20-square-meter plot of parkland to a company
(inappropriately) named Magnolia. The area of the plot has continued
to expand until today. According to the city’s Architecture and
Planning Department, the Magnolia Café occupies a staggering 2,615
square meters, making it the largest establishment in the park. The
businessman who managed to take over so much land? Grigor “Bellagio
Grish” Margarian, a member of parliament from the Orinats Yerkir Party.

Nazarian has explicitly intervened in some developments. In January
2002, a company named Only Merriment requested permission to buy
a plot of land and build a video arcade next to Freedom Square.
Permission was granted, and approval from the city planning department
awarded. One month later, Only Merriment was allowed to acquire an
additional 312-square-meter plot of land adjacent to the arcade site,
to build an outdoor café.

Then, one month after that, Nazarian abruptly amended both decisions
and issued blanket permission to Only Merriment to build a combined
arcade-café, although this hybrid had never been approved by the
city’s architecture department. Only Merriment was re-registered as
Atlantic Garden and, according to official documents, was authorized
to occupy 332 square meters in a public tender. Today, it’s hard to
tell how much of the park Atlantic Garden occupies – much more than
332 square meters, though, since, during construction the building
was considerably expanded by its owner. The owner? Anush Ghazaryan
(better known as Kamvolny Anush, or Pretty Anush), a man widely thought
to enjoy the protection of National Security Minister Karlos Petrosian.

Levon Khachatrian, a member of parliament, has also benefited from
the generosity of the Mayor’s Office. Just as with Only Merriment
and Magnolia, the major expansion of his café was within the law:
Khachatrian first received a 20-square-meter plot and then permission
to expand the plot. Khachatrian’s café today obscures part of the
Opera House from Sayat-Nova Street.

Asked recently if any establishment in Freedom Square of the area
near the Opera House was built according to city-approved plans,
chief architect Sargisian replied with one word: “No.”


Official corruption in Armenia is a problem recognized by a host of
international organizations. The Office for Security and Cooperation
in Europe has been at the forefront of international efforts to bring
attention to the problem and help the government tackle it, in part
with the help of a joint OSCE-Armenian task force. President Robert
Kocharian has even appointed a special adviser to coordinate the fight.

So why hasn’t anything been done to stop the corrupt practices
that are doing obvious damage to public life in the capital?
“Unfortunately, the people with power in this city are above the
law,” says biologist Oganezova, voicing a common public sentiment.
“But they don’t realize that they, too, lose. We lose our city’s
environment, literally and figuratively.”

He may have final approval over all new construction and land sales
in the capital, but chief architect Sargisian says he can do nothing.
“I try to do everything in my power, but there are too many senior
officials in our government. They build these structures and consider
themselves to be above the law,” he said. But, as someone who has
kept his post through three mayors, Sargisian has become vulnerable
to accusations by some nongovernmental organizations that he allows
the situation to continue.

In November 2003, two months before he was dismissed from office,
Mayor Nazarian admitted to reporters that he had come under pressure
by government authorities to approve the land sales. Ninety-nine
percent of the cafes near the Opera House were illegal structures,
he acknowledged, adding, “We did not approve these designs.” But none
of the structures was torn down. In fact, since he made those remarks,
new ones have gone up.

According to City Deputy Kamo Areyan, current Mayor Yervand Zakharian
has given his staff a “strict order” to examine how building licenses
and land sales are approved.

Armenia’s Association of Investigative Journalists has tried several
times to gain access to mayoral decisions on land allocations during
the period from 1997 to 2003, without success. Zakharian has refused
to provide the group with this public information and has not given
an explanation for his refusal. President Kocharian has refused to
intervene. The matter is now with the courts.

Edik Baghdasaryan is the editor-in-chief of the Armenian daily
***HETQ*** and a member of the Association of Investigative