By Mark Dovich
The recent demolition of a 19th-century building on Firdusi Street in central Yerevan has prompted public outcry, thrusting the city administration’s longstanding problems with historical and cultural preservation back into the spotlight.
The building’s demolition comes as the first step of a government-led redevelopment project that aims to transform Firdusi, the last historical neighborhood in central Yerevan, into a new residential and commercial district by 2024. Though the city administration began attracting investment for the project in 2015 and later recognized Firdusi as a “priority area of public interest”—meaning an area slated for redevelopment—the project came under significant public scrutiny only after the recent demolition.
The neighborhood is believed to be named after the celebrated Persian poet Ferdowsi, who lived in the 10th century and wrote the Shahnameh, the national epic of Greater Iran. Prior to the Russian Empire’s expansion into the South Caucasus in the early 19th century, much of present-day Armenia formed part of the Erivan Khanate, a political entity under Iranian suzerainty. Armenia and Iran share millennia-old historical and cultural ties, and relations between the two modern states remain warm.
In fact, when the area of Firdusi was first built in the 19th century, a time when Yerevan’s population was quite diverse, many of its inhabitants were Persian and Azerbaijani merchants. Nowadays Firdusi, which is located in the very heart of Yerevan—just a few blocks away from Republic Square and off of Tigran Mets, a major thoroughfare—is largely run-down and suffers from poor sanitary conditions, with many dilapidated buildings and unpaved streets.
The $250 million plan envisages the complete redevelopment of the entire area of the 33rd district of Yerevan, as the neighborhood of Firdusi is officially known, except for eight buildings previously placed on a register of historical or cultural monuments. Despite its age, the recently-demolished building had not been recognized as such.
Following the public outcry over the demolition, the Council of Elders of Yerevan convened an extraordinary session dedicated solely to the issue of the Firdusi redevelopment plan on June 13. At that meeting, Artur Meschian, the chief architect of Yerevan, underlined the fact that investors had already poured more than $70 million into purchasing land in Firdusi for redevelopment, which, he claimed, left the government powerless to stop the plan from moving forward. Government officials at the meeting also stressed the significant economic benefits the city stands to receive once Firdusi is redeveloped.
Nonetheless, a group of civil society representatives and concerned citizens protested outside the building where the meeting was held and later published a list of concerns and demands. Aside from issues of historical and cultural preservation, the activists also raised concerns over rights violations of the nearly 500 families who live in the area, the involvement of companies in the redevelopment project with documented histories of suspicious business practices, and the complete lack of public participation in the process.
The activists demanded an immediate halt to all redevelopment in Firdusi until complete transparency is achieved and mechanisms for increased public participation are set up. Civil society groups have also called on the city administration to intervene and renegotiate the terms of the deal with investors in such a way as to ensure that the historical and cultural heritage of Firdusi is preserved to the greatest possible extent. The activists point out that the original plan was conceived by the previous authorities, whom they accuse of having major conflicts of interest in the matter, giving the current administration sufficient reason to seek a renegotiated deal.
In response, Hakob Karapetyan, the Yerevan municipality press secretary, expressed doubts that the government could successfully renegotiate the Firdusi redevelopment plan, noting that “the project had already been approved by the pre-revolutionary government” and developers had already created architectural plans and made major investments.
Speaking with CivilNet, Isabella Sargsyan, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Yerevan’s Heritage and a prominent voice on matters of historical and cultural preservation in the city, noted that the Firdusi redevelopment plan does not only affect the area and its residents, but also “concerns the city’s heritage as a whole.”
Many observers have compared the recent demolition on Firdusi Street to other well-known instances when efforts to preserve Yerevan’s historical sites had failed, such as the destruction of the 19th-century Afrikyan Building in 2014 and the construction of Northern Avenue, which was built over an old residential neighborhood in the early 2000s.