Polishing Up Vienna’s Passages

A major facelift may give new life to the city’s historic underground walkways

News | James Kane, Franziska Nebehay | November 2009

A stroll through the subterranean Karlsplatz Passage by night is not, shall we say, totally prepossessing. It’s seedy and worn, hardly Vienna at its best – a place one Wiener Linien official characterized as being "primarily associated with drug dealing and homelessness."

But a planned €21 million reconstruction aims to restore the once-welcoming pedestrian concourse into a glistening artery of traffic and tourism, where passersby will meet the art and commerce of the city in a modern urban space. In addition, city officials have stepped up police presence, with a new initiative to combat drug trafficking in Vienna’s Underground.

Located under the Ringstrasse in heart of central Vienna, the Karlsplatz Passage is one of several underground walkways that today sit underutilized and poorly maintained. The nearby Albertina Passage, also scheduled for renovation, has been almost totally abandoned. Only boarded glass windows under exposed florescent lighting remain.

When they were built, however, these constructions were a model of imaginative city planning. Between 1955 and 1964, then-mayor Franz Jonas commissioned the series of underground pedestrian concourses under the Ring between Schottentor and the State Opera. They were called by the French word passage – "a way across." There were five in all: Schotten, Babenberger, Bellaria, Albertina and Opera.

Far more than dark tunnels, they were appealing places, tiled and bright, lined with shops and cafés, offering protection from the penetrating chill of the Viennese winter. In 1978, when construction began on Vienna’s "U-Bahn" subway system, the Opern Passage was extended all the way to Karlsplatz.

These original pedestrian underpasses were a viable solution to ease the flow of traffic above ground. And while today several have fallen to disrepair, others have been redesigned and put to new purposes.

Babenberger Passage, for instance, was converted into a nightclub in 2003. And the western extension of the Karlsplatz Passage toward the Secession, owned by the Vienna Transit Authority the Wiener Linien, has been spiffed up with new marble and become an extension of the Kärntnerstraße’s Boulevard of Stars – a pathway tiled with the names and signatures of the city’s great composers. On the walls are digital read-outs displaying several ever-changing measures of modern life – from world population, to children born in poverty, to the number of Schnitzels consumed in Vienna so far this year.

Now Karlsplatz Passage proper is also scheduled for a transformation: From a gathering point for drug-traffickers into a "feel-good place" – at least according to Vienna’s city planners. The Wiener Linien is all for it.

"The city’s government wants to turn the run-down Karlsplatz Passage into a place where passersby feel comfortable again," said Michael Zentner of the Wiener Linien.

In 2011, residents and visitors entering from the Karlskirche’s Resselpark will encounter a bright and modern alley, designed by the group "gerner-gerner plus," winners of a continent-wide architecture contest. Changes will broaden the hallway and encase it with glass walls, later to be decorated with art in a range of vivid styles.

Not everyone is happy with the planned renovations. Shop owners in the effected area were told to vacate their stores by the end of September, as the passage should be broadened according to the plans. However, many of the shops are still open, and shop owners are now negotiating with the Wiener Linien.

The owner of a florist shop in the Karlsplatz Passage explained their position. "We do not necessarily have a negative attitude to the project – it is just that we are not informed very well about what is going on." Speaking anonymously, the shop owner said that there would be a meeting in December between store-owners, city officials and the Wiener Linien to negotiate

Beatrix Wurm of Barbarella, a costume jewelry store, expressed similar concerns: "Many regular customers tell me that they cannot understand why the shops should close." From her point of view, it would make more sense to include the shops in the rebuilding, she said.

And the drug trade? Will it simply shift to another location, or will a more lasting solution be found?

Due to these concerns, some local politicians are openly skeptical about the benefits of the planned construction under Karlsplatz. Heidi Cammerlander of Vienna’s Green Party ("Die Grünen") has accused the city of entirely overlooking the existing social problems in their concept.

"Just turning Karlsplatz Passage into a glass case is not going to make drug addiction and alcoholism disappear," she said.

Johann Gudenus of the Freedom Party ("FPÖ") also remains unconvinced: "Before turning the alley into a so-called ‘feel-good place,’ the drug addicts have to be moved. Otherwise, this area is going to stay a site of discomfort."

Michael Dressel from the city’s Addiction and Drug Counseling Program ("Sucht- und Drogenkoordinaton Wien") sees the development proposal in a much more positive light. He already recognizes improvements in the situation due to various measures initiated by the city government:

"Not long ago, 300 to 400 people at a time would linger at Karlsplatz," Dressel said. "Today their number has been reduced to about 80." And Dressel is convinced that situation will continue to improve – not only with the reshaping of the area, but also because of a range of other preventative measures.

"We interact perfectly with the police, and in addition to the creation of projects such as ‘HELP U’ and ‘SAM,’ several overnight accommodations have opened up recently."

In addition, the storefront of the "Streetwork" intervention center at Karlsplatz has been renovated and is now serving a growing clientele, as more and more of the homeless, addicted or destitute begin to take advantage of the counseling and other services.

At the moment, the staff registers about 600 contacts per day. While nobody can spirit away the drug problems, Dressel believes there are ways to keep them at a minimum.

Cleaning up Karlsplatz may simply be relocating the problem elsewhere, however. Vienna police report that parts of the drug scene have moved from Karlsplatz Passage to the lower-level U-Bahn area itself, where, according to the police, drugs are now purchased and sold in large amounts.

As a result, the police launched a special initiative in September to put 110 officers on the beat each day, looking for drug trafficking suspects at U-Bahn stations and on the trains. Part of a new program targeting the open sale of narcotics, early results speak strongly for the project: after two weeks of operation, 144 arrests were made, of which one-third related to the trafficking of drugs.

"We have achieved much in recent years," Dressel said, "but there is still a lot to do."

Slightly less controversial are the restoration plans for the seldom-used Albertina Passage underneath Operngasse. Currently, all of its shops are vacant – glass windows, where they are not covered from the inside, reveal neglected inventory, unused cleaning supplies and exposed wiring.

But these conditions will soon change. Vienna’s Ministry for Finance and Business Affairs ("MA4"), who are in charge of the renovation, would like to see an up-scale redesign oriented to tourists. A panel of experts from Vienna’s tourism department Wien Tourismus is now evaluating a pool of design submissions.

While details are not being made public, it could hardly be worse. And time alone will test the effects of the forthcoming redesign and increased police presence at Karlsplatz Passage.

In either case, the future of Vienna’s underground walkways will be decided soon.

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