Sofia under repair: ever growing but is it getting any prettier?

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Photo: BTA

An important and much loved part of downtown Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is looking more and more like a big building site. So many things are under repair - signature streets, boulevards, city gardens, tramways. Not to mention several private skyscraper projects.

A large portion of the city centre is, in effect, out of bounds to the public, swamped in dust and rubble, blocked to pedestrians, cars and public transport vehicles. The high metal sheeting around the construction sites blocks from view what is going on inside – whether work is going ahead, or workers and equipment are sitting around idle. There is time enough, Sofia municipality says, the deadlines for the completion of works is in the spring of next year. Fine, but the people living, working or just passing by in the city are inconvenienced enormously. And, what is perhaps more important, media coverage by reporters who have been able to catch a glimpse of what exactly is going on behind the metal enclosures, gives no cause to look on the bright side.

Sofia’s motto is “Ever growing, never old”. But people have now been cracking jokes – if it is ever growing but never getting old, is it getting any prettier, or is it that there is money to be spent, including European funding, in praise of some bigwig from the city’s administration, with the name cropping up, again and again, of the otherwise considered to be charismatic mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova. The lady who has charge of the city incurred the wrath of the people of Sofia to such an extent as to set off protests right under the windows of her office in city hall in the heart of Sofia. On her part, Yordanka Fandakova seems never to tire of saying that the repair work is not finished yet, that it is too early to say whether it is well done, and that for a job badly done the municipality will not be paying the building contractors, and will even be fining them. “We’ll be having an overhaul of the overhaul again,” the disgruntled public is saying, and the word “corruption” is on their lips more and more often. Rare glimpses behind the metal fences, reveal atrocious sights in photographs and media coverage – lack of taste, complete disregard for the specific style of the city, substandard work, substandard material… The chorus of anger of the man in the street was joined by the voice of businesses. There are many stores along the streets under repair, some of which have been losing clients, others have closed shop altogether until the works are over. The people of Sofia do not generally object to the modernization of their city. One such example is the widening, reconstruction and modernization of many streets, boulevards, parts and city gardens in recent years. That too caused people inconvenience, yet the projects were worthwhile and delivered real benefits to citizens. The most vivid example is the construction of the Sofia metro. Two lines have been completed and are operational to the immense satisfaction of the people living in or visiting the city. A third line is currently being built, and the construction of its metro stations is also disrupting the lives of the public, yet there have been no protests. Simply because the metro is modern, clean, pleasing to the eye, convenient and everyone is happy with it.

But the excavations in the heart of the city are a very different kettle of fish. No one is denying that Sofia needs to be modernized, and there is money to be had for that from the enormous, for Bulgarian standards, budget of the city, which exceeds 500 million euro, something so rare in our geographic and economic latitudes.

Everything will sooner or later probably be over, there will be mistakes, work badly done, there will be people who are pleased and people who are not, there will be people who will be penalized and people who will get a pat on the back. The question is that the major works in the heart of the city have not been explained well enough to the public. The various competing projects were put to public debate and quite a few people were able to state their opinion and make their recommendations. Yet the mayor or the municipal council never once addressed the public to honestly tell them what the scale of the project would be, what was to follow or how nice the new city centre would be. Up till now Mayor Yordanka Fandakova was known for her communication skills and openness. Yet in this particular case she failed to win over her fellow townspeople and make the bitter pill more palatable.

English version: Milena Daynova

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