A high profile Prague clash between squatters and their supporters and police has highlighted the number of empty and deteriorating buildings in the capital. It has also put the spotlight on the powerlessness of local councils and authorities to force reluctant owners to take action.
The immediate media focus of the clash with squatters over the weekend was turned on the heavy police presence and medieval siege tactics used to break into the six storey high former steam baths left empty for almost a decade.
But the incident has also helped underline the squatters’ embarrassing choice of large, often empty and crumbling historic buildings on the edge of the capital’s tourist centre to take possession of. In fact, the squatters apparently tricked the police into thinking that they were going to occupy a now classified railway station not far from their final target.
Michael Zachař is the director of the Czech National Institute for the Preservation and Conservation of Monuments. He blames legal battles often dating back 20 years and real estate speculation for the fact that many buildings have been left for years empty and uncared for.
“There are several dozen such buildings. Basically the problem is either unresolved legal battles over ownership or problems caused by speculation and such like.”
He says speculators, many of them foreign-based, prefer to leave the building unoccupied and decaying rather than budge from their hoped for resale price or redevelopment plans even if these prove to be unrealistic.
Mr Zachař says that authorities also face many obstacles and are often virtually powerless to force owners into taking far-reaching or rapid action.
“In the case where buildings are classified, there is the possibility to make demands or take sanctions. But when you want to take tougher measures it is a problem. The law recognises, for example, the possibility of dispossession but the moment the owner carries out even some partial reconstruction, the law regards this as a sign of intent and good will.”
The local council at the scene of the weekend battle says it fined the development company which owns the 1930’s building for letting it go to ruin after it ignored repeated warnings. It has been waiting for more than a year for the company to lodge new plans to develop it.
Meanwhile the director of the conservation institute points out that that
the problem of crumbling monuments is far worse outside the capital, for
example, in central Bohemia and the abandoned border areas. But the high
profile squatters and their entourage do not usually get that far out of
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