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Francesco Erbani
Should the lagoon turn into a Club Méditerranée?
6 Luglio 2004
Venice and its Lagoon (english translations)
Hereafter an article by Francesco Erbani from Repubblica 13th April 2003. And some remarks

1) I have started it off, and I have helped on it until its conclusion, but the Urban Regulatory Plan – “PRG” of Venice City Centre was finalised and presented at the City Council by Councillor Stefano Boato, and finally adopted being Councillor to Urban Planning Vittorio Salvagno.

2) The first act that opened the way to the "liberalization" was the Mayor Cacciari City Council revocation of the municipal regulation that, in compliance with a national law (n. 15/1987) allowed the Council to avoid the invasion of fast food and junk shops, even more effectively than the Urban Regulatory Plan.

3) In line with the above-mentioned act, the PRG has been significantly modified in order to allow easier changes in the usage destination (Mayor Cacciari, Councillor D’Agostino).

4) Erbani only mentions another very severe risk that threatens the town: the MoSE project, the underwater gates to be built at the “Bocche di Porto”. But this is another issue which is widely treated in this same directory.

5) Mayor Costa, interviewed by Erbani, connects the problems of Venice with the lack of employment. Yet he knows very well that for each person that leaves Venice to work, ten persons come. From decades, the number of employment vacancies is higher than the available work force, as recalled last 15th of April by Mario Infelise in a letter written to Repubblica (published at the bottom)

A blow with a pick, a small door, an inner staircase, a small opening that becomes a window to better enjoy the Grand Canal view, a bathroom, kitchen facilities, Ikea furniture. If nobody stops them, Venice will take another step, perhaps its final step to turn – from the frail wonderful city that has always been - into a tourist park. A sort of Yellowstone with Palazzo Ducale, the Guggenheim gallery, the Frari and San Zaccaria churches, and very few houses where some stubborn Venetians will resist in confinement. The majority will be hotels and bed and breakfast.

We all knew that every year Venice is besieged by 12 million tourists, who in summer – driven by a sticky south-eastern wind – can even become 100.000 a day, and 120.000 a day for the Carnival. Now is the lagoon city town that changes its essence to end up looking like a Club Méditerranée. They are turning into hotels the 700’s Ruzzini Palace in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, the Barocci Palace, the ancient Palace da Mosto on the Grand Canal (with a I° century porch), Sagredo Palace, Giovannelli Palace and Genovese Palace at the Salute. Sant’Angelo Palace on the Grand Canal has already become a hotel. The luxury Hotel Monaco has incorporated the Ridotto theatre and the San Marco cinema, and, like the Monaco, many other hotels acquire neighbouring buildings and expand. A hotel will be built in the Arsenale, another inside the Molino Stucky and others in the islands of San Clemente, Poveglia and Sacca Sessola.

Nevertheless, not only the highly prestigious buildings are run over by the hotel typhoon (and actually some of them would fall short should they not be financially supported by the tour operators holdings): in addition, hundreds of ordinary flats are restored and fractioned to become holiday apartments to rent out for a week or for a weekend. The phenomenon is concentrated in the last two, three years. Roughly starting with year 2000 Jubilee and the enforcement of a specific plan for the historical city centre that allow easy change of usage destination for a building (also for shops and stores). According to the Provincial Tourist Board, holiday apartments and bed & breakfast are now 455. Three years ago, they were 59. An impressive number, behind which there is an enormous amount of hidden structures that easily double the number of the accommodation available.

Lots of rumours can be heard along the calli. Every Venetian knows one. The story of the butcher of Cannaregio, for instance, who has closed down his shop and has bought three small buildings, has made out 10 small apartments, promoted them on an Internet site and now earns between 1000 and 1200 euro per week for each studio-flat.

Anyway, what’s the problem? One of the problems is pointed out by Mario Piana, professor of restoration at the University of Venice Iuav. Venetian building is not like that in the other towns in the world, says Piana. «In Venice they used to build with wood until the end of the XII century. Starting from that moment masonry appeared, but a firm principle remained: house-building was done seeking the utmost lightness in order to load as little as possible the lagoon soil ». In particular, explains Piana, the walls have always been made very thin, between 25 and 40 centimetres, maximum 60 for house building. The storeys, designed to absorb every kind of deformation, ensured the building stability. The floors, thus called “Venetian floors” were laid on the storeys as a single block, without junctions.

Piana claims: «Altering these structures is extremely dangerous ». What do you mean? «Every hotel room and each studio flat need a bathroom. Do you realise what does it mean to lay new further piping inside such thin walls and inside such structured floors? In the long run, the static balance of the buildings will be seriously affected ». It looks like a real nightmare scenario. Piana concludes: «At least the hotels that extend to the neighbouring buildings work in the daylight, under the vigilance of the “Sopraintendenza” (the Cultural Heritage Superintendence body). Nevertheless, only high quality restorations respect the typical traditional Venetian housing structure, with the central hall that goes from the back to the rear of the flat and opens on all the rooms. But what I wonder is: who controls those home owners that make three studio flats out a single one? »

The transformation of Venice is subtle and does not provoke the polemic discussions that follow the MoSE (works to build the movable, underwater gates at the opening mouths of the Venetian lagoon will start next may) and the underwater subway projects. Everybody in Venice looks at the cranes overwhelming the new bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and the new La Fenice theatre, by Aldo Rossi, while works are just about to start for a new Terminal designed by Frank O. Gehry and new spaces for the GuggenheimMuseum designed by Vittorio Gregotti at the Punta della Dogana. However, in the meantime, the fate of Venice seems to sign in a constellation where the only shining star is tourism.

Residents in the historical centre are now down to 64.000, (the whole Municipality counts 300.000 inhabitants, including mainland) and in ten years time could fall to a mere 55.000. The population drop does not seem to stop in a town that becomes increasingly older (one Venetian on four is more than 65 years old): 700 people less only in 2001, 600 in 2002, 140 between December 2002 and January 2003.

City centre inhabitants used to be 164.000 in 1951. Perhaps they were very many, but now they are too few, and many fear that the drop is so significant that hospitals and schools will be cut too. In order to stay alive (as architects and city planners all over the world prescribe) a city historical centre must have many different functions (residential houses, offices, services, employment, culture and leisure time activities): Venice is losing all of them. Not only the residents leave the town, but also banks, insurance companies and public offices leave the city centre. To find out a food shop, a chemist or a tailor, a Venetian must step aside hundreds of pizzerias, souvenir shops of fake Murano glass, small fans and masks and Taiwan-made lace - all with robbery-like prices. Tourism now represents the mainstream Venice lifestyle: 40% of Venetians already work in bars, restaurants, hotels, tour operators. And now it looks like the town does not longer have the strength to defy, leaving even its own houses to the occasional guests.

Giuliano Zanon is the Director of Coses, the most reliable centre of studies on the Venetian society. His figures, elaborated on a Nomisma research, are impressive. Downtown a house, and not one overlooking the Grand Canal, can cost up to 5.500 euro for square meter. In four years, prices have grown up 40%, the fastest growth rate in Italy. A shop can cost between 10 and 14.000 euro per square meter. «Nowadays tourism-related activities have surmounted residential areas and any other activities in the city centre », says Zanon.

The bed & breakfast wave, Zanon confirms, has come about as soon as the Urban Regulatory Plan has been changed, in 1996. Up to that date, there were very strict limitations. In order to change the destination from residential to other use, a house needed to be at least 200 square mt. for floor. That was the rule of the plan made by Edgarda Feletti and Luigi Scano (Councillor to Urban Planning was Edoardo Salzano). Thus, only few buildings were converted into other activities. In '96 that limit was decreased to 120 sq.mt.: the new Councillor Roberto D’Agostino(Mayor Cacciari), and his consultant Leonardo Benevolo said that the rule was too severe. And this was not enough. They also changed the interpretation criteria: the 120 sq. mt. did not have to refer to each floor but could also be calculated on multiple storeys. The outcome was that all Venice flats could be allowed to become rooms for rent.

Now they are trying to contain this trend. The City Council led by Mayor Paolo Costa has prepared a resolution that is now passing over one desk to another without achieving a final say. The Mayor is convinced that what is happening is worrying but he also says: «Against the inhabitants exodus we cannot do much. And this is not the main problem affecting the historical centre ». And what is it then? «There are not enough employment opportunities that can reduce the people migration».

Some says that Venice could even live of its mere upholding and maintenance... «It’s an activity that we do carry out. You only need to go for a stroll in town. We are digging channels to lower the shoals and to allow the channelling of waters against flooding. At the same time we are rising the flooring level still to fight the high tides. We are restoring the embankments and the sewerage system. But it’s not enough to make Venice survive ». What’s missing then? «We have to convince Italian and foreign companies to come and invest in Venice, immaterial goods producers, such as research and media enterprises. This would be the ideal destination for many of our historical buildings, starting from the Arsenale».

In the meantime, Venice gets ready for the Easter big crowd (average price 1000-1500 euro for five days stay in a 40-59 sq. mt studio-flat). In San Stae everything was ready to open a new kindergarten. There is only one now in the area and is overcrowded. «We had the money, we had found a suitable place and the staff. We had detailed a project and started the works. The Education Councillor was backing us up but the Office for Private Buildings did not allow us to change the usage destination of a 180 sq. mt. flat », claims the promoter, Ms Roberta Lazzari, of Macramè cooperative. «If we had asked a permit to open a bed & breakfast we would have had it without problems ».

Venice crumbles away, left alone with its tourists Mario Infelise

The fire of the Mulino Stucky turned into a huge hotel, dramatically brings back the problem of Venice, which Francesco Erbani has well described in its article last Sunday. The town is abandoned to a pirate-like tourism expansion. The conversion of ordinary residential flats into bed & breakfast and rooms for rent – often moonlighting jobs – has a devastating impact on the urban quality. It is false to say that this is determined by the lack of employment opportunities. Over 20.000 people come to Venice daily to work or study and many of them would be more than happy to move in.

The overhanging danger in Venice is not only the high tides, but also this kind of tourism that expels out of town the inhabitants and all other social activities.

And let’s not have the illusion that this is only a Venetian problem. Is Florence doing better? Only few years of this sort of development have already been enough for a significant damage our urban civilization.

21 Agosto 2005

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