18 May '10
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
St. Petersburg’s new $1-3bn passenger port project, Sea Façade, is nearing completion almost a year ahead of schedule. On a 400-to-470ha area taken from the Gulf of Finland St. Petersburg is expecting to have both Russia’s largest port and the city’s new downtown. While facing stiff opposition on urban aestheticism grounds, the futuristic project has the potential of attracting world-class tourism both to and beyond St. Petersburg into the heartlands of Russia—with some strings attached.
One of Russia’s most protracted transportation projects, a new sea port on the Vasilyevsky Island in St. Petersburg, is reported to have entered its final stage. Launched in 2002 as a priority investment project for the city, it had little accomplished between then and 2005-2006. Now it is speeding up, according to Serik Zhusupov, a vice-president of the Sea Façade management company currently overseeing construction of this country’s largest passenger sea port.
He said earlier this month that the project had secured uninterrupted government funding and a good consortium of developers. This has reportedly allowed Sea Façade to step up work, and now the project is poised to become one of Russia’s few to not only stick to schedules amid the debilitating aftermath of the economic crisis but even outstrip the target. The vice-president was confident that the port’s third passenger terminal with a ferry birth, the last one planned, would be put into full operation next year instead of the originally envisioned 2012.
$1bn for the port, another $2bn for a downtown
Sources with knowledge of the project say it is difficult to provide a clear-cut cost estimate for the Sea Façade project. The cost of port construction was estimated last year to be about $1bn. With the RF reportedly anteing up about $230m private investors, of whom St. Pete’s Terra Nova is believed to be the largest one, were expected to pick up the rest of the tab.
To raise its share of the cash for the final stage of construction the Sea Façade management firm issued last week through its port-building subsidiary nine consecutive bond series worth a total of $147+m.
However, the new sea port, a development at the heart of the huge project, is but a piece of a much broader program aimed at making the district St. Petersburg’s new downtown. On 400-to-470 hectares of man-made ground built more than a mile into the Gulf of Finland off the Vasilyevsky Island’s western part construction of over 1.5 million sq. m of business space and 3 million sq. m of housing with retail areas and social/entertainment infrastructure is planned, reportedly swelling an overall price tag to an estimated $3bn.
Eye-witnesses have reported increasing housing construction activity next to the port site, but the project planners have declined comment on when the entire program may be completed.
A PPP at its best
It is one of Russia’s numerous private-public partnership (PPP) based programs that the government hopes will help make one step forward to addressing Russia’s multibillion dollar infrastructure backwardness problem.
The RF government is now seeking a contractor for the final stage of the port, Restate.ru reports. A winner of a tender lasting through the end of May will be expected by November 2010 to fine-tune the operation of five berths and two passenger terminals built so far, and by late 2011 complete two more ferry berths, another terminal, and onshore infrastructure.
When fully commissioned, the port complex will reportedly become 100% owned by the city.
Re-mapping North European cruising?
The new sea port has the potential of bringing a new dimension to the current map of tourist itineraries in Northern Europe. Some even predict the project may give a slight nudge to a shift in Europe’s cruising preferences. When launched at full capacity, Sea Façade will be reportedly capable of handling cruise and ferry boats more than 311m long with up to 10m draft, thus welcoming Europe’s largest boat operators.
One of them, Stella Line, has already tested one of the port’s new terminals. After two-year downtime it resumed on April 23 a ferry service between St. Petersburg and Helsinki on the Princess Maria, a state-of-the-art ferry boat with a capacity of 1,600 passengers and 395 vehicles. Its successful inaugural voyage has reportedly prompted the operator to plan five ferry voyages a week between the two cities, and Stella Line is likely to continue operating from Sea Façade.
An eye-catcher or an eyesore?
For all the tourist advantages the new project is offering St. Petersburg, public opposition to its architectural aspect, however, has been a major thorn in St. Pete authorities’ side ever since the project was first announced.
Challengers and proponents have been squaring off over the impact Sea Façade will have on the city’s historical look. Doubters argue that a host of high-rise buildings to tower over the Vasilyevsky Island will be an eyesore undermining the “harmony and beauty” of Russia’s unofficial second capital, in the same vein as Gazprom’s much-contested Okhta Center office sky-scraper to be built in close proximity to St. Pete’s historical part has been verbally lambasted as a “doom” to the old city.
Putting aesthetics aside, some economists feel the project is worth any effort only if limited to the port facilities and infrastructure, referring to the broader plan with housing and offices as “an unjustifiable boondoggle.”
River cruising Russian style…
From an economic standpoint, the project nonetheless looks promising. Sea Façade may become a gateway into mainland Russia, welcoming international tourists who arrive in St. Petersburg by sea to a network of river arteries that lead to Russia’s most spectacular architectural and historic sights of Veliky Novgorod, Moscow and further east and south.
But with a deplorable state of today’s river infrastructure, it will take much more than just building Sea Façade to get demanding foreign travelers to find Russia’s internal river cruising as appealing as that along the Danube and other rivers in Western Europe.