Debate: To Beach or Not to Beach
Admired for its tranquillity, natural landscape and proximity to the medieval town, the area along the Vistula River is a favourite spot to which locals and visitors retreat. However, as with many other regions of Krakow, it has recently been attracting the attention of countless investors, developers and architects, who have presented a wide range of projects that would turn the city towards the river. As a popular European destination, Krakow is constantly working on creating new attractions to maintain the growing number of tourists, while also considering the needs of its residents.
In an attempt to form a development project that would meet the expectations of locals and visitors alike, the City Council carried out a survey to collect feedback regarding the qualities and drawbacks of the riverside. Results revealed a demand for more benches, better lighting, and increased nighttime security in the area. Meanwhile, investors have begun making grand plans for developing the open space into an attractive riverfront that would expand the entertainment and cultural scene of Krakow.
The main investor, SAO Beach Investments, received approval from both the city hall and the protector of historical monuments to construct a recreational centre between the Grundwaldzki Bridge and the Forum Hotel. The complex, which will be realised this summer, consists of a beach, café, restaurant, music club, an open-air cinema, and sports facilities such as a skate park, a rock-climbing wall and basketball courts. Further ideas include antique stalls, barge hotels, and second-hand booksellers, like the “bouquinistes” found in Paris along the Seine.
Jan Janczykowski, conservator of historical monuments, approved the recreational centre on the condition that it is built as a temporary structure, which can be easily taken apart at the end of the summer season. However, officials have already begun discussing additional plans to urbanise the land on either side of the Vistula, specifically the zones surrounding the Zablocie district, the Grzegorzki Fort, Plac na Groblach and the factory and gas company located in Kazimierz.
On the one hand, current guidelines emphasise the preservation of unique, historical features. On the other, Krakow is eager to flourish as a modern city and reach its full potential. However, such developments will not create the intended balance between classic and contemporary. Rather, they would lead to an odd contrast and, as a result, a loss of identity.
Over the last fifteen years, starting with the construction of the Manggha Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, Krakow has witnessed a number of buildings go up along its riverside, such as the Sheraton Hotel, the Galeria Kazimierz shopping centre and Qubus Hotel, as well as a few floating boat restaurants. In the next fifteen years, these are likely to be in the shadows of new luxury apartment blocks, hotels, restaurants, cafés, and museums – not to mention the parking lots that would need to accompany each of these facilities.
Such unchecked development for economic reasons is precisely the sort of thing tourists try to avoid by coming to Krakow, a city valued for its remarkable history, vibrant culture, original architecture, and unique charm. Rather than destroy these traits by copying larger, Western European cities, more sensitive methods should be considered.
Simple alternatives to make the area look more appealing would include cleaning off graffiti from the old stone walls, installing new benches and innovative lighting, displaying temporary exhibits, organising more events such as concerts and fairs along the water and maintaining the surrounding environment. As a result, the Vistula River would attract people for what it is naturally, instead of for its amusement park value.
Admittedly, the outdated Jubilat department store and the empty Forum Hotel are not the most complimentary structures, but going up to the restaurant on the roof above the bright orange Jubilat sign to look out at the view is breathtaking, if it weren?t for all the cranes and construction sites. As for the Forum Hotel, though it is currently being used as a billboard for oversized beer ads, it remains a classic example of architectural design during the communist times.
As it is, the riverside stretching past the Wawel Castle is an essential part of the city because it provides an escape. There is something there for everyone. Families bring their children to feed the ducks, swans and seagulls. Those who are more active go bike riding, rollerblading, running and kayaking. Others just enjoy a calm walk while some prefer to lie on the grass or play a game of chess in the fresh air. Consequently, developing the area along the Vistula in an attempt to ?turn the city towards the river? would not only seriously detract from its leisure appeal, but would also completely ruin the long-established layout of Krakow as a city, with a medieval town surrounded by castle walls at its heart.
People are naturally change resistant. Tinker with the bins on the Rynek and they will grumble, give the Stary Theatre a new paint job and they will complain, redevelop the city?s tired old riverside and there will be an outcry. It?s always been that way. Read up on your Thucydides and you will find that in 447BC, as Pericles laid the founding rock of the Parthenon, a group of goat-herders gathered waving placards that said ?Save our Acropolis? and ?Say no to stone monstrosity!?
Of course the success of any new developments depends on the taste and foresight of those companies and people in charge, but to argue point blank against the restructuring of Krakow?s riverfront seems absurd. Currently attractions on the Wisla are few and far between, and whereas the grass below the Wawel is a lovely place to sit and sunbathe, the other side of the river is criminally underused, with the proposed area for the recreational complex ? the space between Grunwaldzki Bridge and the Hotel Forum ? perhaps the worst offender. The potential for creating a superb attraction for locals and tourists is immense.
I can understand that not everyone is a beach person (not everyone looks as good in a bikini as I do), and skate parks and basketball courts will appeal to a small minority alone, but who could argue against the option of lounging on terraces drinking cocktails or taking in a film at an open air cinema? Altogether the project, as currently proposed, is as wide-ranging and democratic as you could hope it could be, with something to appeal to the vast majority of people. For me that is infinitely better than a patch of grass, even if a couple more benches do spring up.
As for further development and ?turning the city towards the river?, well why not? Aside from the small stretch underneath the Wawel the banks of the Wisla are decorated only with crumbling factories and old Communist buildings. Yes it is already a nice place to walk, jog or rollerblade but with better paths, nicer, more modern surroundings, and maybe one day even a cleaner river, let?s imagine that a change could be for the better. If, as a result of this development, a few people desert the Old Town for the Wisla then maybe I?ll be able to get a chair on the Rynek for once.