Immediately Stop the Destruction of Firdus District

A scene from the Firdus District (Photo: Tigran Amiryan)

The unfortunate practice of erasing Yerevan’s built heritage to make space for investment projects has reached the neighborhood of Firdus. Unlike other parts of the city center, the historic neighborhood of Firdus differs in its architectural and urban forms offering a unique way of life to its residents. Resembling neither the rigidity of Soviet planning, nor the post-Soviet suburbs with multi-story residential towers, Firdus is a place where ideas about vernacular architecture and everyday life of Yerevan residents have accumulated over many years. Ignoring the architectural, social and urban values of this special place, a new proposal is planned to replace the existing neighborhood wiping out most of what’s currently there. The sequel is obvious; gathering momentum from past infamous experiences, and in the name of economic growth, government officials are making way and facilitating a brutal intervention by investors who have shown utmost disrespect to the city’s urban heritage.

A few days ago, and in response to public outcry following the destruction of one of the most valuable 19th century structures within Firdus, the Council of Elders of Yerevan organized a joint special session dedicated to the 33rd district of Yerevan (Firdus). The session, held on June 13th, was attended by Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan, Head of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Serzh Varag Siseryan, Chief Architect of Yerevan Artur Meschyan, Deputy Minister of Education and Science Narine Khachaturyan (online), Acting Chairman of the Urban Development Committee Armen Ghularyan, members of the Council of Elders, and representatives of the professional and civil community.

During the meeting, the representatives of the Council of the Elders and the civil society raised a number of issues regarding the planned construction of the new Firdus district. Among the issues that were raised are the process by which the project was approved, the selection process for the investors and construction companies, the identity of the investors and concerns regarding their history, the selection of the chief architect of the project, the fate of the historical and cultural value of the district at large as well as specific monuments located in it, and a number of concerns related to the residents of the neighborhood including but not limited to their compensation.

Responses from the representatives present at the session were often evasive, and in some cases, unacceptable. Without providing clear and credible answers, they failed to dispel the concerns and doubts of the civil and professional community.

Below are excerpts from the statement that was issued following the session, written and signed by a number of civil and activist groups and organizations opposing the project and fighting for the preservation of this historic neighborhood.

We condemn:

– Mayor Hayk Marutyan’s evasive attitude in the discussions related to the destruction of one of the last historic districts located in the heart of the capital. It is incomprehensible for us that the person representing the position of the city authorities does not grasp the complexity of the issue at stake and shows an irresponsible attitude towards it.

– The behavior of the chief architect of Yerevan Artur Meschyan, who with his inappropriate sensational speech completely ignored concerns related to the residents living in that district and the destruction of cultural and historical values of the neighborhood. It is puzzling and dangerous that the chief architect of Yerevan equated urban development with business and abused his position to defend the interests of the investors rather than that of the city and its residents.

– The discourse used by Serzh Varag Siseryan, Head of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office and coordinator of the new Firdus District working group, which reminded us of the discourse and attitude used by former authorities. With contradictory and superficial arguments, he was unable to separate the current project from the corrupt schemes and actors of the former government. From his speech, it became clear that the current government did not assess the acts of previous government officials and businessmen involved in the destruction of Yerevan’s cultural heritage and continues to work with them today. The commitment to this large-scale construction project of Firdus that began in a very opaque and sketchy era and environment is seen as a retreat from the principles of the revolution that Siseryan represents.

We would like to note that the current developments in the Firdus district are part of a process that began during the previous government, as a result of which:

– A large part of the historical and cultural heritage of the city of Yerevan is being destroyed. The district of Firdus is one of the most important and unique parts of historic Yerevan. It is architecturally, historically and culturally as significant as Tamanyan’s Yerevan, the buildings of Soviet modernism and other cultural layers of the city. In this regard, it is important to preserve the district and the community, while providing modern solutions to the existing household and infrastructure problems.

– The rights of the residents of Firdus district are being violated. The developers have been putting psychological pressure on the residents, forcing them to sign contracts and vacate their homes. Some residents who have signed the contracts in the past stated that they have not yet received the compensation listed in the contract. Some residents who oppose the Firdus construction project are also being silenced.

– Companies involved in suspicious and illegal transactions in the past, and who have been responsible for the destruction and distortion of the cultural heritage of the city as well as aggressively grabbing the rights of its residents, are currently involved in the implementation of this project. In this regard, the involvement of Eduard Melikyan, the director and shareholder of Glendale Hills Company, which has filed for bankruptcy, is particularly concerning. Apart from being the person in charge of selling lots within the Firdus district and working with the investors’ group approved by the government, we doubt that Mr. Melikyan is also a shareholder in Dianar company, the mother company of almost all construction companies listed in this project.

– The principles of participatory process have been violated. There were no public or professional discussions regarding the project. It is not clear how Dianar was chosen as the contractor of the project and Narek Sargsyan as the chief architect of the project. In fact, the concept of the project was approved by the previous authorities during the time when Sargsyan was in conflict of interest abusing his position of power as city architect.

– In a state of emergency, a building of historical value has already been destroyed, and other historical and cultural values of the district are in danger. Without a comprehensive package detailing the urban development project, including relevant permits, high-ranking officials have given the green light to the investors and the project is aggressively being pushed forward.

Our demands:

– Immediately stop any kind of work in the Firdus district until all the documents proving the legality of the process are submitted to the public, including the project approved after 2018 and the permits arising from it.

– Hold responsible and call for accountability all those who allowed for the illegal demolition of the historic building that dates back to the late 19th/early 20th century.

– Publish all documents related to the project of construction of Firdus district, including the financial records of the investment and contracting companies, the contract signed between them and the Yerevan Municipality, project permits, the design of the district and of the individual buildings, the environmental impact assessment, environmental expert opinion(s), urban planning expert opinion(s), demolition and construction permits.

– Explain why Dianar Company was selected as a sales intermediary company and Mr. Eduard Melikyan was included in the working group approved by the government.

– Establish a joint working format with the participation of the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports, the Yerevan Municipality, representatives of the professional community and civil society in order to create an inventory of the existing monuments in the whole district.

– Organize an open competition for the development of Firdus district, ensuring the harmony between the newly proposed district and the historically preserved one. Taking into account the scale of such a program and the public interest to be engaged in its process, hold a public discussion of the selected proposals, and finally assign the construction permits in accordance with the procedures established by the legislation of the Republic of Armenia, and the best international expertise.

– Release the number of inhabitants that were landowners in Firdus district. How many of them received compensation? What was the price of lands assessed and on what basis? How many residents are currently waiting for their compensation? Are there families who are still land owners? What’s their number? Explain why they have not received compensation yet.

Meanwhile, we express our readiness to engage in a constructive dialogue with the relevant authorities, respecting the values of the revolution, the public interest and the vision of preserving our city’s heritage.
The statement was signed by:

The Initiative to Protect Firdus
The Committee for the Protection of Yerevan’s Heritage (Երևանի ժառանգության պաշտպանության կոմիտե)
Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center
Սեւ Բիբար / Sev Bibar, a Leftist Platform for Critical Thinking
Cultural & Social Narratives lab
Human Rights Research Center
SEMER – Young Diasporan Thinkers
Armenia PEN Center – Platform for Professional Discussions
Citizen’s Decision, Social Democratic Party
A group of concerned residents from Firdus Neighborhood

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