Interview with Ilya Mukosey on the results of a two-day debate about the future of industrial zones

23.07.2012, 16:31
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We have talked with Ilya Mukosey about industrial zones and their hidden potential.

– Speaking of industrial zones from an architect’s perspective – i.e. as a professional who cares about society as a whole, — what kind of a potential can they possibly have?

Different kinds of potential. First of all, they are really large parcels of land that can be used in a variety of ways. Second, a city can simply open up its industrial zones and let them live alongside other elements of the city. This would be useful for both the industrial zones and the city as a whole, because this would strengthen the cohesiveness of city space – you would no longer need to be a free runner to get into an industrial zone or cross it safely.

For the purposes of city planning, industrial zones should no longer be an obstacle to any vehicle or mode of conveyance whatsoever. And yet, now you have to make a detour – you have to drive or walk around an industrial zone. Many countries have a special law for this – the right of way – the right to travel unhindered through a parcel of land, which cannot be blocked. Introducing coherence to the urban fabric would address the issue of traffic jams, and the issue of city dwellers’ living standards – in other words, this would help resolve issues which on the surface seem to be totally unrelated initially.

All industrial buildings have a unique potential in that they’re 100% multifunctional. What developers are building today has a limited functionality – a project can contain either a retail store or offices. And if we take relatively undemanding office tenants which do not pollute the environment, and they can all live under the same roof. This is the kind of synergy you would never achieve in existing urban space as we know it.

– Does a city need industrial facilities? Do they serve a purpose?

The crucial issue is how far outside the city one should take industrial facilities. If they are too far, you get a separate single-company town; if industrial facilities are too close, one would get traffic congestion. Given all these pitfalls, it might even make sense not to move industrial facilities out of town at all – they can be combined intelligently instead. In fact, a city absolutely needs some production facilities serving consumers in the city.

– There are industrial zones throughout Russia. Can you see any potential for the nation as a whole in this type of space?

There may be different situations. Take a single-company town, which has efficient, active industrial facilities, which make constant use of their territory. Companies like that should not open doors to the general public. These industrial facilities are not part of the problem – in their current shape, they benefit the host city with tax revenue and jobs.

However, half-deserted, festering industrial facilities where the management is just holding on, afraid to lose control or ownership stake, are indeed a problem. Industrial zones like this are certainly very appealing. There’s no need to offer them any special treatment. If a company is inefficient, it had better scale down to as little space as is needed to accommodate its remaining operations, while the rest of the premises should be open to the public. The government can force company owners to do something only through economic levers: it can cut the subsidies or offer tax breaks or other benefits depending on the situation.

– Does the “urban space has to make money for the city” approach make sense for citizens?

Owners who use this territory one way or another should generate an income from this, and pay local and city taxes. If an industrial facility is losing money and effectively falling apart, it would not be paying any taxes. Even their land tax would be tiny. If the facility would open its doors to the public, and retail stores would replace half-empty warehouses, the owners would make more money and bring more benefits to the city.

And by the way, there is no problem with a new development supplanting an old industrial zone. People living nearby are going to benefit in any case, because the new development would have some sort of public space, playgrounds.

However, you have to realize that one cannot develop all these industrial zones all at once. Any trend should be restrained to stay within reason. There would never be enough commercial tenants to inhabit all industrial zones, and this kind of development would not be profitable. Besides, the city would suffocate with traffic gridlock and high prices for this land, the downtown would immediately move to the suburbs, and we’ll end up with something like late-1990s Atlanta, GA, where the downtown city core went dead and became a very unsafe place.

This quest for profits should stay reasonable, and not only in the sense of not getting greedy, but also in the sense that if there’s a lot of largely identical, copycat development, the outcome may be the opposite of what we were trying to achieve.

– What would you recommend city halls do?

The first step is to open doors. The second step will have to be making these parcels an integral, vibrant part of the city, and this is very easy to do – the authorities simply have to stop “feeding” and supporting the companies that own the parcels.  In other words, they have to even out the playing field for everyone involved in development. In our country, these processes take place in an enormous number of tiers; as a complicating factor, we still have Soviet-day Nomenklatura running things in this country, with the sort of mentality that goes with it — they may have been efficient years earlier, but now they’re reduced to the role of leeches. I believe there needs to be a conscious, concerted effort to destroy all this.

However, and this is a question you cannot really avoid, there have to be clear and fair rules of the game – a working court system, which is something we do not have.