Moscow puts its housing in order Three-ring system: City concludes that former Stalin plan may work better than suburban sprawl.

Sun Journal

April 09, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In 1935, Josef Stalin imposed a sort of order on this city. It was Stalin, the architect of the Great Terror that sent tens of millions of people to their deaths, who approved an urban design that now is returning to favor.

Moscow has found that his plan brings a certain order to what otherwise might be chaos. It called for a city that grew in three distinct, concentric rings -- the historic center, a middle ring for factories and an outer loop for apartment buildings. The city has concluded that the ring system may work better than American-style suburban sprawl.

"A few years ago, all the attention was to the outside and the center was decaying," says Valery V. Sukhotsky, first deputy of Moscow's Construction Department. "We abandoned the center and were building on the perimeters. It was a wild imbalance."

Much of the sprawl was fueled by the new class of well-to-do Russians rushing to build brick houses in the birch and pine forests that surround the city, the buffers that once helped dispel Mongol and Tartar invaders.

At first, the government tried to accommodate the homebuilders by annexing chunks of forest. But Muscovites began complaining about the loss of their parks, and officials realized that they could not afford to extend services to far-flung neighborhoods.

A few extravagant "cottages" are still being built in the woods, but city planners say that growth will now be confined within the roadway that encircles the city. "More and more," says chief city architect Alexander J. Bekker, "the city is looking inside itself."

Landmarks destroyed in the city's core by the Communists are being rebuilt. Baroque 18th-century mansions are being restored to their original splendor, their facades repainted in pastel pinks, greens and yellows. Along the Garden Ring, the highway that once formed the outer border of the city, factories that spouted soot are being renovated or demolished. And in the third, outermost ring, new apartment blocks are rising above flat, vacant fields.

The apartment boom reflects both the city's growth and its perennial housing shortage. Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has set ambitious construction goals -- 4 million square meters of new housing by the end of the year -- though his aides are unsure they can be met. Says Mr. Sukhotsky: "We can't create miracles."

But they are trying.

Between the Garden Ring and the outer beltway, construction cranes mark the site of a new crop of 22-story apartment buildings. Along the southern part of the outer ring, a former sewage treatment area is becoming the foundation for still another apartment complex. Five-story apartments built during the Khrushchev era are being torn down to make room for larger, more luxurious buildings.

A new apartment cannot come too soon for Marina Babicheva. The 36-year-old bank worker shares a three-room Khrushchev-era apartment with her elderly mother, a younger sister, brother-in-law and 9-year-old nephew. They are squeezed into a kitchen, bedroom and a small living room.

She adds that her brother-in-law monopolizes the sofa and the TV. She says with understatement, "It's crowded."

Miss Babicheva's parents moved into the then-new apartment in 1963. The three rooms seemed the height of comfort compared with the housing they replaced -- a communal house with an outdoor toilet.

Moscow was still recovering from the devastation of World War II and the influx of new factory workers. Thousands lived in barracks, basements and communal apartments.

Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised every Soviet family an apartment of its own, and for 10 years the country was in a construction frenzy. Builders invented a prefabricated concrete slab to speed construction. Ceilings were lowered and every inch was carefully counted in a formula that provided each resident with about 100 square feet of living space.

But the Khrushchev buildings were shoddily made and cramped. A neighbor's sneeze could be heard through the walls. During the winter, the radiators couldn't compete with the cold wind. And there were no elevators.

The Babichevs, who live on the fourth floor, struggle to carry groceries up the dimly lighted stairs. Miss Babicheva's mother, who suffered a stroke several years ago and has trouble walking, is a captive in the small cell.

Wreckers began tearing down the Khrushchev buildings last year; their replacements are supposed to be better heated and offer twice as much space for each person -- about 200 square feet, about half as much space as what an apartment-dweller in the United States might consider cramped.

With cash, a Russian can buy an apartment on the spot. But the average Muscovite finds it hard to impossible to save even small amounts because of low wages, and credit and mortgages remain almost nonexistent. So people wait a minimum of four to five years for their turn to obtain a government-issued apartment.

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