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Berlin: The Fight For and Against a New Department Store at ‘Hermannplatz’

‘Hermannplatz’, a rather chaotic spot in Berlin, is supposed to change substantially. At least that is what the owners of the ‘Karstadt’ department store at the square want.

A few steps away from the northern corner of ‘Hermannplatz’, at the bus stop for lines M29 and M41, the same scene repeats over and over. Someone stops his car in the no standing zone, just to run a quick errand at the ‘Sparkasse’ bank. For that reason, buses cannot perform the u-turn they need to make in order to get to the stop. Therefore they block ‘Urbanstrasse’. Nobody gets through this chaos anymore.

Mess at the Corner

At the same moment, rather fast bicyclists on the old and narrow bike lane right on the sidewalk ring their bells angrily because that corner is congested like hell, by people who are waiting for their bus and by those who are trying to enter the ‘Karstadt’ department store through its northern entrance, while other shoppers exit the building. That corner is a mess. But so are all other spots on and around ‘Hermannplatz’.

On the square itself, a market takes places several times a week. Mostly Turkish merchants offer inexpensive vegetables, fruit, fish, pita bread and snacks. Their market stands are the exact opposite of ‘Karstadt’, where almost everything is rather expensive. ‘Karstadt’ itself is located in Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, while the dirty and crowded Hermannplatz square right in front of it is part of Neukölln.

‘Hermannplatz’ is the place to be. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

On the large intersection at the square’s southern end, where ‘Hermannstrasse’, ‘Karl Marx Strasse’ and ‘Hasenheide’ meet, the broken glass from the latest accident there was swept onto a tiny traffic island. At this spot, the fact that the number of accidents is not a lot higher than at other intersections is actually a miracle. Bicyclist cross on red, so do some pedestrians. Young men race their loud cars with manipulated exhaust pipes around that corner all the time.

Cheap Passion Fruit

The square is surrounded by four big streets. Fish smell spreads all over the place from the market. At the large fruit and vegetable stall, Turkish salesmen keep on shouting their offers into the wind. “Oranges, oranges, oranges!” Recently, they even offered passion fruit from Latin America. In case Signa Group gets its way, this market might have to disappear, either forever or for a long time, during the construction period that would last for years.

On the sidewalk right next to the department store, a cop stops a bicyclist who supposedly rode along an old-fashioned bike lane in the wrong direction. On the same side of the center of the universe, the doner kebab they offer at a small stall built into the wall of the department store building tastes as well as it smells. But, because of the noise caused by all the traffic, this is not exactly the right spot to relax at during the lunch break.

A young lady who seems to be a drug addict, one of many assembled here, is asking pedestrians for “some change” while three drunk Russians are sitting on a low boundary wall with their beer cans. They are watching all the ‘wild life’ that is unfolding here, in the sense that this square in full of movement, noise as well as smells.

A Train Per Minute

Downstairs, in the ‘U-Bahn’ train station, things are even wilder. At least they used to be before Corona hit. About every sixty seconds, a train arrives or leaves on one of the two levels. The line U7 takes people from Rudow in Berlin’s south-east to Spandau in its north-west, while the other one, the U8, transports passengers from ‘Hermannstrasse’ via ‘Alexanderplatz’ to ‘Wittenau’.

The countless rats on the tracks seem to be the only beings that enjoy living down here. But there are also tens of thousands of passengers per day, a bunch of drunkards, and security people who check things once in a while. During the Corona crisis, the situation down there in the station improved to some extent.

This bus stop, the bike lane and the department store entrance need more room. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Place of Harsh Contrasts

Along with stations like ‘Boddinstrasse’, ‘Kottbusser Tor’ and ‘Alexanderplatz’. ‘Hermannplatz’ is one of the worst in terms of drugs, alcohol, crime and dirt. The Berlin Senate wants to make public transport more attractive, including down here. It obviously takes time. The Berlin Police Department recently established a task force for crime and drug hotspots, including this one.

‘Hermannplatz’ is a place of harsh contrasts. The noise and chaos is happening in the station and up there on the square. The Karstadt department store, on the other hand, is a more quiet luxury temple. Its concept is old-fashioned, its prices are high. These department stores in which they sell absolutely everything, including oranges, butter, pants, stereos, shoes and pet food, came up in West Germany in the 1970s. The same applies to the kind of architecture that defines this building.

What a place like this one needs is a relaunch, meaning a new building, a new concept, a new everything. The owners want to turn this thing into an American-style, far more modern place with shops, restaurants and other attractions. They intend to make it a magnet for visitors, and a money printing machine. Signa is not a charity, but a business. The company is obviously hoping for profits after those huge investments.

Investors vs. Critics

Right now, the cafeteria restaurant on the top floor is nice, but so expensive the regular residents of this neighborhood cannot afford it. Nobody in ‘Neukölln’ and hardly anyone in ‘Kreuzberg’ will pay 18 Euro for a Schnitzel and a drink. Neither will they invest 160 Euro for a cutlery set or 120 Euro for a new pair of regular shoes.

The supermarket in the basement offers it all, including the best brands, exotic fruit for four times the price compared to the market outside, or milk products for far more than they cost at the ‘Aldi’ budget supermarket located behind the gambling halls right outside the department store’s southern exit.

The building was last renovated in the year 2000. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Critics of the owner’s plans to pull down most of the giant building and to erect a new one say a luxury store like this one would not really fit this area. They also believe rents over here might rise even more, should that plan become reality. Signa, the company which owns ‘Karstadt’, along with the building, is trying to calm down the critics. They want to be likable. Why else would they suddenly open some kind of vegan, gluten-free café on the former parking lot in ‘Karstadt’s yard and invite people for chats and culture?

Local Politicians vs. the Senate

Earlier this year, they changed their plans for the new building substantially, by including affordable housing units and by making other adjustments. Nobody in Berlin should really reject any plans for cheap apartments, because of the alarming situation on the German capital’s housing market. Thousands of Berliners still need a place to stay, even though the city’s growth started to slow down just before the Corona crisis commenced.

Some local politicians reject any new building of the kind Signa wants. On the other hand, Ramona Pop, Berlin’s Green Commerce Senator, and Governing Mayor Michael Müller generally support big investments. If the locals continue to torpedo the project, Red City Hall might just take over and make it happen.

In January, the Antiquities and Monuments Office of the city state of Berlin approved the new blueprint Signa came up with. They wanted one part of the enormous building to stay, namely the one part that is left from the original department store building erected before World War II.

The Project and Corona

Not even the Corona crisis seems to change Sigma’s intention to rebuild the department store at Hermannplatz. Because this location is important, it will obviously not be closed, as opposed to other department stores across Germany.

During the crisis, the owners announced the closure of 80 out of 170 Karstadt branches. How does this announcement sound next to the plans in regard to Hermannplatz? Not too good. Because, usually, companies with problems so grave that they close that many stores do not invest hundreds of millions of Euro in new buildings.

The ‘Berliner Zeitung’ daily just published a long article about the Hermannplatz dispute, saying Signa had commissioned Joschka Fischer & Company GmbH, a business owned by Germany’s former Green Foreign Minister Fischer, for lobbying tasks. The Green party, which is very powerful in Berlin, is split what Signa’s plans in Kreuzberg are concerned. Joschka Fischer’s people seem to be trying to change things by trying to get opponents of the plans to talk to them. But the story begins much earlier.

A Square that is Not a Square

As it turns out, ‘Hermannplatz’ was never intended to be a square. Its creation was a coincidence. At first, it was part of the road from Berlin, the city’s much smaller, ancient version, to Mittenwalde. As the city grew, a tavern was established on the side of the future square, in 1737. It was called ‘Rollkrug’. Apart from getting drunk or eating, there was nothing else to do at this spot, since it was empty.

Some 150 years later, in the 19th century, the square we know as ‘Hermannplatz’ today was finally part of the city, meaning lots of buildings popped up, pedestrians and horse carriages were everywhere. In 1885, the square got today’s name, even though it still did not really look like a square, but rather like a street.

In Nazi Germany, the department store at ‘Hermannplatz’ was one of the most modern ones in Europe. Photo: ETH Bibliothek

During the Weimar Republic, in the mid-1920s, the apartment buildings on the western side of ‘Hermannplatz’ were pulled down shortly after being built. The intention was to erect an elegant department store in their place, one that would be the pride of the city. At this stage, in 1925, the square was extended, meaning it became an actual square.

Blown Up By the Nazis

The predecessor of today’s ‘Karstadt’ building was constructed from 1927 to 1929. From that moment on, ‘Hermannplatz’ had a building that actually deserved that word. It looked like an American high rise since the architects favored the New York style. Two enormous towers with blue warning lights for aircraft were part of the huge construction.

In the following years, this place was popular among people in the entire city, including its open air restaurant garden on the roof. Then the Nazis came to power. In the late 1930s, Jews were not allowed to enter the department store anymore, before they were deported and murdered. While the elegant building basically survived the war, the Nazis blew it up just before the Red Army moved in. That way they wanted to make sure the Soviets would not get the valuable merchandise in the basement.

There was not much left after the Nazis blew up the building. Photo: Deutsche Fotothek

After the war, one small part of the big building was standing. And it still is. The southern entrance to the parking garage leads through that original part of several stores. Berlin’s Antiquities and Monuments Office made sure the owners will not touch that original part, meaning it will be included in the new building they want to erect for 450 million Euro (500 million U.S. Dollars or 405 million Pounds Sterling), according to estimates.

Alien Element

Today’s version of the building is rather boring, in comparison. It was built in 1951 and got several refurbishments and extensions, the last one in the year 2000. The new building is supposed to follow the style of the original one, including the towers. Its interior will be adjusted to the present, in the sense that the concept will be modern.

Back then, in 1929, the department store was modern indeed. It had 24 escalators, the ‘U-Bahn’ train station was accessible from its basement, just like today, huge service elevators lifted entire trucks with goods up to the fifth floor, to make things easier. From the attraction it was in the Weimar Republic and even in Nazi Germany, nothing much is left.

The original part of the building can be seen on the left, behind the Neukölln trash. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

‘Karstadt’ is almost like an alien element in this quarter known for residents from different cultures. Turks, Arabs and other communities mix with German members of Berlin’s large ‘alternative scene’. Many of the locals are not really the right target group for a huge department store. In this regard, the critics are right.

‘Manipulation and False Promises’

On the other hand, who says an attractive, new mall or entertainment temple would not attract all kinds of people from all parts of Berlin, along with visitors from other parts of Germany and abroad? The plans Signa has put forward might be a gift to this area. It would not hurt if ‘Hermannplatz’ would be affected in a positive way. It might become more attractive and cleaner.

If and when it happens, the construction noise and mess this will lead to is survivable. But first, critics need to be convinced. At this stage, the project’s opponents are still distributing leaflets and collecting signatures. After the summer vacation, the Berlin Senate will start looking into Signa’s project more.

The ocean view from the top of ‘Karstadt’. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

The ‘Initiative Hermannplatz’ keeps on posting statements on a blue and while social media site, saying they could not take the new Signa plan too seriously. The company had spread “empty words” by adding the affordable living aspect. “We identify manipulation and false promises immediately!”, they said. They also include videos of statements on the ‘Karstadt’ matter by residents. Not one of them wants a new department store.

That way, the argument about a large investment project just became ideological. This does not seem to be about a nice new building or its features anymore, or about how it might change the neighborhood, but about the ‘system’. Welcome to Berlin.

An earlier version of this feature was published in January of 2020 under the Title ‘Berlin’s Hermannplatz: Center of the Universe’.

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