Lakhta Center – a large scale project of the construction of a modern business area in the north-west of Saint Petersburg. Opening in 2018.
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We Hope to Give Direction to Urban Planning in Saint Petersburg
On the eve of the Saint-Petersburg International Economic Forum 2017, Lakhta Center Executive Director Alexander Bobkov told BG correspondent Marina Yashko about how large scale projects like Lakhta Center change the investment climate and the external environment of the city.
BUSINESS GUIDE: What is your assessment of the economic situation in the region? How difficult is it to implement large-scale projects like the construction of the Lakhta Center at the moment?
Alexander Bobkov: In my opinion, the business environment has adapted to tougher conditions. The economic hardships have revealed the true picture. Strong players are hanging in there while the less effective players have left the market. And, as it turns out, we have picked the right partners: external economic factors did not affect them in any material way.
BG: When do you plan to complete construction?
A.B.: The plan is, as before, to complete construction in autumn 2018.
BG: Has the current "economic winter" had an effect on the concept of the project?
A.B.: No, it has largely remained unchanged except for one nuance. Two years ago we decided that instead of a hotel we would build additional office space. Demand for office spaces turned out to be much higher than had been originally anticipated because Gazprom's moving of its offices got underway really fast.
BG: But wasn't the hotel supposed to generate income? A complex this big cannot only serve company staff and just sit idle in the off-hours?
A.B.: The additional office space is going to generate revenue as well. The decision to forego the hotel has not affected the business efficiency of the complex. And naturally, the Lakhta Center is not going to be idle in the evenings or at weekends. That would just be wrong. That is why part of the territory will be given to public spaces that are supposed to become a new centre of gravity for city residents and tourists alike.
BG: You said on many occasions that the appearance of such a big business complex is going to affect the investment climate in the city and change the environment. In what way do you think that will happen?
A.B.: A project this big already represents a major change to the environment in and of itself. It has already given a major boost to the construction industry and a number of related sectors. If we manage to turn into reality everything we have planned, we hope in the near future to turn the site into a unique environment that will be setting new standards for office and public space.
BG: Do you expect that once Gazprom moves in, the Lakhta Center will become the new business centre of the city? Just like the City of London?
A.B.: We see our goal as giving a direction to urban planning in Saint Petersburg. Saint Petersburg needs to move away from the mono-centric paradigm where people live on the outskirts and work downtown. This model is detrimental to the quality of life. We want to create a precedent for poly-centrism by offering people and businesses a location outside the historic centre where they can find everything they need for work, recreation, education, and personal development. This should make the urban environment more balanced. We have already got people coming to work at the new offices and creating a reverse traffic flow from the centre to the outskirts.
BG: Are you talking about the observation deck and the planetarium?
A.B.: Not just about them. The observation deck is already a major attraction thanks to its height. This works in all cities across the world. People want to get a bird's eye view of their city and in our case they are actually getting a low flying plane's view of the city. We also plan to open a planetarium, a science centre for kids, a multifunctional transformable hall, and a host of other facilities. In addition to the various public functions, we are going to offer a series of events for the open areas in the territory of the complex.
BG: Do you plan to compete with Lenexpo and Expoforum?
A.B.: No, we will be offering a different format. They focus on business development while we want to focus on personal development.
BG: Are you going to hold festivals and exhibitions?
A.B.: Among other things. While the Center is being designed and built, we are holding a series of contests called ArkhiChance for young architects and designers: this allows us to solve real tasks for the project while also giving the young talent the opportunity to get noticed. Once the Center is open and fully functional, all kinds of modern non-orthodox formats are possible: exhibitions and shows that combine art and science, music festivals, conceptual art projects...
BG: And the concept for the office complex itself is it also going to be democratic with recreation areas and barbecue courts? Following the campus model pioneered by Google and Facebook?
A.B.: No, the companies you mentioned rely on horizontal links. Naturally, the way these companies operate differs drastically from how vertically integrated oil and gas companies are run; in the latter case, there are numerous production and technology requirements as well as standards that preclude the offering of entertainment and special events in the workplace.
BG: The kind of property you are building is likely to need a whole new level of security measures compared to an ordinary public and business centre?
A.B.: Naturally, while we were still designing it we included protection against all possible threats (fire, earthquake, terror attacks) and all the necessary measures were developed and implemented. Even now, unprecedented measures are in place to control access to the construction site. Almost 11 thousand people that work on the site undergo biometric control every day. People are identified as they enter the site not just using paper IDs, but by checking their unique facial features. It goes without saying that we are going to continue to use the same access control measures once the complex is operational.
BG: But you plan for huge numbers of strangers to be visiting the facility on a daily basis, how are you going to cope with that?
A.B.: That is a serious challenge for us. How do you go about ensuring security without putting up a huge concrete fence around the whole facility? Unfortunately, we cannot give the details. But given the volatile situation in the world, we and the investor's corporate security service are treating this issue with utmost seriousness. And we have already got some design solutions that we are currently working to implement.
BG: The construction of interchanges and roads in the vicinity of the Lakhta Center is clearly lagging behind your schedule. Do you think this may negatively impact the success of your project?
A.B.: When picking the spot for our new complex we took a very close and thorough look at the city's plans to develop its road and transport infrastructure. At the time, the largest number of transport infrastructure projects were targeting the Primorsky district and their implementation timeframes coincided with ours. Now those projects are being delayed and a lot of them won't be ready by the fall of 2018. This means we will just have to make our complex even more attractive to potential visitors so they will be willing to put up with the temporary inconvenience of a sub par transport infrastructure.
BG: But won't these inconveniences scare away potential tenants?
A.B.: Our negotiations have shown that the issue of transport accessibility is not among the top priorities for them. Everybody understands the situation is going to improve. Since the new section of the Western Rapid Diameter opened, the amount of traffic in the neighbourhood has already been reduced several-fold. In the mornings and in the evenings, we are moving in the opposite direction to the bulk of the traffic. I personally drive to the construction site on a regular basis and it takes me 15 minutes to get there from the city centre. By summertime, the construction of two U-turn ramps on Primorskoye highway will be completed and getting off and on the Western Rapid Diameter will be easier. And by autumn a design will be completed for a new interchange that will connect us to Primorskoye highway.
BG: Have you picked the main tenants at this point?
A.B.: We have decided what functions we want to see in our complex and have already held detailed negotiations with industry leaders. It is too early to name specific companies though. We will get to the stage of signing contracts about a year before the building is to be commissioned. Our main condition for all potential tenants is that they must offer an unorthodox concept that will help make the environment of the complex trendy and modern for decades to come.
BG: Will your rent be comparable to other class A business centres in the city?
A.B.: The rates in the adjacent buildings will be comparable; those in the Tower itself are going to be higher. But it is important to understand what is included in each rate. We will be offering not just space in a unique complex but a whole host of additional services.
BG: What innovations were used in construction?
A.B.: We did not try to reinvent the wheel; we simply couldn't afford to experiment in a project this big. And yet, practically everything about this project is unique: the diameter of the piles, the size of the foundation, the amount and composition of the glass. The content of the complex is going to be equally unique. Our goal is to utilize new technologies to make it space comfortable, versatile, transformable, friendly and open to human beings.