Public vs. Private on the Kahlenberg

The Planned Sale of Hotel Suites as Private Apartments Threatens the Public Use of a Beloved Vienna Destination

Dardis McNamee, Konstantin Borolev | May 2007

Every weekend the Kahlenberg attracts crowds of urbanites looking for that little bit of nature situated right on the edges of Vienna; Mountain bikers zip through the paths in the Vienna Woods, people walk their dogs, couples look for a secluded spot for a romantic picnic. The Kahlenberg, as a popular destination for day trips, has a long-standing tradition. One favorite spot is Josefsdorf, with its terrace offering an unrivalled view over Vienna.

However, the planned renovation and expansion of a hotel on the site, launched with little public discussion or oversight, will change the site fundamentally, and many feel for the worse.

The controversy arose when the Austrian Green Party announced opposition to the developer Leopold Wieninger’s plans to dedicate a significant portion of the renovated hotel space to private luxury apartments, contrary to the city’s announced intentions. The plans became known because of advance advertisements for the apartments on the company’s website.

"This is not a hotel in the classic sense; these are service flats," a company spokesperson said at the end of April. "We have already sold 25 of the 52 apartments to private customers – all the bigger ones – and we hope to sell up to seven more. These are very desirable apartments."

However, area residents feel that the square metal glass and rock construction of the restored site has already changed the site for the worse, losing the proud history the tiny village of Josefsdorf enjoyed.

"We want to be preserved as a community, and the construction has changed the face of Josefsdorf completely," said Giuliana Schnitzler, a long time resident and homeowner. The residents are generally unhappy with the layout of the site that dominates Josefsdorf, finding the design too cold, and the location of the few remaining trees inconvenient and charmless.

It doesn’t have to be this way, residents say. Wieninger’s goal to revitalise the area is admirable enough, and there is nothing inherently wrong with creating apartments, a hotel, a modern restaurant and a new tourism university to be integrated into the operations. The Verkehrsbüro, the oldest and largest Austrian tourism corporation, will be responsible for running the hotel, and has already announced the grand re-opening of the Austria Trend Hotel Kahlenberg, scheduled for June 1st of this year. The architect chosen to design the whole compound was Heinz Neumann, known for the prominent Uniqua Tower at Schwedenplatz.

The opening of the Modul University Vienna is planned for October 2007, and should attract a large percentage of foreign students. A graduate university, accommodating up to 540, the focus lies on creating an elite school, with tough selection and a good reputation.

But the back door manner in which the apartments were offered for sale calls into question the entire process of approval.

"Either the decision makers have been intentionally misled, or the Viennese City Planning Office is not to be taken seriously," says Sabine Gretner, a member of the community council and the Green Party’s city planning specialist. "Conflicts of interest between the apartment owners and Kahlenberg visitors are unavoidable."

The department for City Planning, in decree 1826/2004, gave permission for a hotel and private tourism university to be built on the property, with no mention of private apartments. Yet when visiting, the web-presence of a leading Vienna real estate agency, advertisements for the apartments are easy to find.

In addition, there is enormous pressure on the operators to make this project work, in light of the long history of all the previous ventures that have failed in the past.

"Every project on this site has failed so far, and I have the feeling that this one will inevitably fail as well," said Schnitzler. "The Volksbank will want to see profits quickly and might eventually retract the support for the venture."

Kahlenberg has a turbulent past, firmly embedded in European history. In 1628 a Monastery was built in Josefsdorf for the Camaldolese, a silent religious order from Rome. The site was the midway point between Rome and Poland, and served as a stop to gather strength and pray. In 1683, the Ottoman Empire besieged Vienna, destroying the monastery, eventually breaking through the city’s defensive walls.

The Polish prince Sobieski gathered an army to come to Vienna’s support. They decamped at Josefsdorf, a strategically important vantage point, from where the final charge to liberate Vienna was coordinated.

To commemorate this victory, the monastery was rebuilt and dedicated to Polish Catholics, who to this day, come regularly to visit and worship at the site, arriving in large tour busses that park nearby.

The monastery was eventually closed in 1782, and the area privatized. In 1873,  the Vienna World Exposition was held there, and a year later a cog railroad (Zahnradbahn) was built to reach the newly constructed Hotel-Restaurant Kahlenberg. After World War I, a coal shortage brought the era of the Zahnradbahn to an end.

The hotel, however, remained. It was expanded in 1934, turning the previous baroque and Italian renaissance-influenced design, into a Bauhaus-inspired, contemporary hotel, following the building practices of the time. But the heavy block style did not prove popular; the hotel lost its cachet and went into decline. The property was held by a subdivision of the city’s administration until 1980, when it was bought by prominent meat packer Albert Buschek, aka, Blunzn Bertl.

However Buschek too fell on hard times, going bankrupt in the mid 1980s following a scandal involving the passing off of African pork as Austrian. Augustin Feut, another entrepreneur, bought the complex and started planning with a certain councilman Michael Häupl (the present mayor of Vienna) to build an upmarket medical centre.

Somehow permission from the city council was not obtained, and Feut closed the hotel down in 1998 after failing to meet new fire safety standards. The hotel became a ruin, and the restaurant limped along.

Eventually the property was sold to entrepreneur Wieninger, with funding from the Volksbank.

The main concern of the Viennese public is losing this marvelous spot to up-market business ventures and their clientele. When visiting the new site, one is instantly baffled by the sleek and modern look that contrasts with the carefully renovated baroque church. Light beige rock is accompanied with sleek glass and steel. In fact, only the church and the private houses surrounding it remind you of Josefdorf’s historic value.

"The apartments resemble a Gemeindebau, and would require substantial changes by the potential tenants. A couple of apartments have been sold already to prominent Viennese families, but not at the rate that was predicted," continued Schnitzler.

On paper, it seems as if the project is on the right track toward becoming a success, despite having to prove itself against the history of failed businesses at that location.

However, the lack of transparency, concerns by the Viennese and the locals may complicate the outcome.

"I want the site to be used, since there’s nothing worse than looking at ruins when walking out of the door," Schnitzler agreed.

"Yet I want this to be a consensus between the business people, the Viennese public and us. The current project is simply not fulfilling all of these criteria."

Other articles from this issue