A view of the current condition of the site. Straight ahead is the Mc Donald\’s restaurant, behind it to the left is Hoheluftbrücke subway station and to the right the empty lot.

There is a place next to Hoheluftbrücke subway station in Hamburg which consists of a small building with a fast food restaurant inside and some unused land behind it stretching for some 50 meters along the subway tracks (this lot actually holds a bomb shelter). In 2007, an investor made plans to demolish the restaurant and build an office building (they called it “Hoheluftkontor”) on the site (which as a side note would again include space for the same fast food restaurant). They also wanted to create a square in front of the building with a café next to the Isebek canal.

The building was planned to have six storeys that would raise out of a cubic-shaped base and which would then step back irregularly and form a kind of tower on the side facing the main street, Hoheluftchaussee. Thus, it would provide a counterpoint to the tower of the historic “Klinker” building on the other side of the subway tracks, creating a gate through which the subway would run. The building would be clad in red brick in a nod to local building traditions.

The project however soon faced opposition from an initiative that was concerned about the natural landscape along the canal, which might get partly destroyed by this “monolithic building”, as they put it.

After some discussions between the disctrict administration and the initiative, a compromise was offered, which included the reduction of the building height by one storey and abandoning the plans for the riverside café. The initiative did not accept this compromise and requested a referendum. Things started to heat up in the following time, with both parties slashing each other’s claims and actions.

In the end, it was hard to make out the facts from the massive amount of agitated rhethoric. Even for people who tried to stay informed about the project, it became hard to sort out the facts wihout getting swept away by propaganda from both sides (as a matter of fact, I am finding it very difficult to write this article and decide which facts to include and which to omit. The whole story if far more complex than I can reproduce here).

In my opinion, most of the facts stated by the initiative seemed very shallow and wouldn’t stand an in-depth examination. In fact, the only claim worth considering that I noticed was the traffic situation: leading the traffic for the office building through the surrounding network of quiet residential streets would lead to an increase in traffic and thus of traffic noise, and would aggravate the problem of finding a parking lot in this notoriously crowded area. It’s not that the office workers couldn’t get to work by subway, you could literally jump from the station into the building and vice versa since it would be located directly adjacent to the station. But many people probably would still prefer to drive to work in their car.

The referendum was finally held on July 1st. With a voter turnout of only 23,34%, 68,66% of the voters voted against the building. I was somewhat irritated by the low turnout, but then a phone call with my parents gave me a key to understanding the situation behind the results. My parents live in another borough some kilometers north of the site in question, but since it belongs to the same district, they would be eligible to vote. On the phone, my father said to me “We got a letter concerning this referendum. We threw it away. What do we care about some building to be built down there.” Thinking about it, this might be exactly the reason why this vote ended up the way it did: most people just don’t care about voting for or against some building somewhere in town (there’s a vast number of buildings being built in the city at any time after all), unless they happen to live right in the neighborhood. And in the neighborhood, the initiative did its work well. Add to that a generic “all new things are evil and everything in our little world should stay as it is” attitude and you’ve got a good chance to turn down any project in question. But even if you are not completely dismissive, it’s hard to get all facts sorted out and make up your mind about the topic. After all, why spend your time researching on the topic in order to come to a decision if the only way you will ever deal with the building is when you drive past it on your way into town? Why fight your way through the semi-facts that both parties throw at you when its blatantly obvious that both parties are trying to convince you with agitated rhethoric instead of useful facts? It’s just a building, it’s not worth the hassle. People have better things to do than worry about some random construction project somewhere in town.

In this respect, it becomes obvious why so many supporters of the initiative cast their vote: because they were the only ones who cared. This raises questions about the reasonableness of referenda. Although they may at first seem to be the most democratic solution for confrontations like these, an imbalance is created in reality between the creators of the initiative, who work hard for their interests to be considered, and the general people to whom the referendum is meaningless and who thus don’t cast their vote.

With development of this place averted by the vox populi, the lot will – for now – stay just as it was. The initiative aims to have a public park built on the site, but the borough administration already turned that idea down, saying that a park is out of question and had always been during the discussions. So for now, Hoheluft residents will have to continue living with an undeveloped lot that continues to attract shady types and does not provide am enjoyable public area.