This Wednesday Hungary’s always-busy government is scheduled to discuss a new concept for creating a vast “cultural quarter” along Pest’s Andrássy út, and areas in the City Park (Városliget) near where the landmark boulevard terminates. According to Cultural State Secretary Géza Szőcs, the Andrássy Quarter would incorporate the whole length of the avenue – where several cultural institutions would be moved – and the square behind the Műcsarnok art hall currently called 56-osok tere (“Square of the 56ers”), where a new building for the Hungarian National Gallery and other new museums would be erected. Szőcs said the creation of the quarter would be followed by a renewal of the entire Városliget, while the project would see major changes to traffic in the area, including a tunnel under Dózsa György út between Podmaniczky utca and Ajtósi Dürer sor. Most strikingly, the plan would apparently call for the complete “pedestrianization” of Andrássy.
If you hadn’t yet heard of all this, that’s probably because, like most such urban renewal concepts floated in Budapest, most of it is unlikely to get very far very fast. In addition to the ever-present problems of money, bureaucracy and political infighting, Index notes that there is a legal ban on building in the park.
I’ll set aside the legal, financial and logistical difficulties of the larger plan, and just focus on the part about “recreating the pre-motorized era” on Andrássy út – like in the adjacent pic, from around 1875 – by making it pedestrian-only. While I am as much of a fan of “ped-zones” as any enthusiastic city-dweller, one thing that has become very clear to me over the years is that pedestrianizaton is, to coin a bad pun, very much a two-way street. Do it incorrectly and you can end up turning an otherwise lively urban area into a wasteland, or just wasting everyone’s time. And even when done correctly, there are tradeoffs, as well as an “adjustment period” that is almost always much longer than the planners and boosters of such developments assume. A good example of the latter is the pedestrianized section of Hajós utca adjacent to the Opera House; it is only now getting “traction” as a walking street after upwards of a full decade as a car-free zone.
But in the case of Andrássy I would say that the plan isn’t just “tricky” or “flawed” but out-and-out idiotic.
It’s hard to see how anyone could think this massive boulevard could ever “scale” to a pedestrian street. This is especially true for the outer (külső) stretch between Oktogon and the park, which doesn’t really even fill up with people when it is closed to cars for street fairs. But it is also the case with the inner (belső) stretch running from Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út down to Oktogon, where pedestrians tend to be thin on the ground on even nice days (see picture above). More to the point, the massive sidewalks and shade trees offer a perfect buffer against the auto traffic. Indeed, the only thing wrong with Andrássy as a walking street is the lack of a vibrant retail component.
Unfortunately, that lack of vibrancy – which at this point can frankly be better described as a “zone of death” – seems set to get worse before it gets better. It’s not only super-luxury retailers like Roberto Cavalli that are leaving; Nike recently left, too. Worse, many landlords of empty spaces are apparently still clinging onto the belief that there are lots of deep-pocketed international retailers with no choice but to be present on the “Champs-Élysée of the East.” For the foreseeable future, the cars are a nice distraction from the death. Which, of course, would likely get even deathlier if the few pedestrians on the avenue were encouraged not to walk next to the shops.
Yet despite the fact that Andrássy is the perfect example of a grand shopping street that is crying out not to be pedestrianized – and the abovementioned barriers to any grand plan being enacted – I fear that this is exactly what may happen. Compared to rezoning the park and building museums, putting in a few planters and barring all non-local traffic would be a cheap and easy way for the government to be seen “doing something” in the capital. A cynic might also say that the sort of construction work and materials that go into pedestrianizing a street make a nice fit for kickback-hungry politicians.
So I can only hope that instead of deciding to quickly move ahead with the crazy scheme to pedestrianize Andrássy, the government is satisfied fast-tracking the one part of the larger plan that everyone can probably agree on: renaming the Budapest Circus after Harry Houdini. Clowns.