THE old part of Tbilisi is both enchanting and dismal. Its winding, cobbled streets, tilting houses and laced wooden balconies have a delightful, gingerbread charm; but decades of official neglect, widespread poverty and an earthquake in 2002 have taken a heavy toll. With one-fifth of the housing here categorised as slum-like, the need for restoration is urgent.
Yet regeneration attempts have proved controversial. During Tbilisi’s credit-fuelled housing boom, some residents feared ruthless property developers would replace swathes of the old town with gleaming office blocks. A law designed to preserve architectural heritage was enacted in 2007. But the large number of officially designated monuments, the limited availability of official funds and the commercial incentives of developers still make for hard choices.
In 2008 the housing bubble burst, following the financial crisis and Georgia’s short war with Russia. This created new problems. Tbilisi’s construction industry, a major local employer, was decimated, property developers had around $700m of unfinished buildings on their books, and banks were saddled with toxic debt.
In response, last year Giorgi Ugulava, the city's mayor, launched the “New Life for Old Tbilisi” scheme. The idea is this: the government provides working capital that allows developers to finish residential blocks. Slum dwellers, if they agree, then move in to the new housing, vacating land in Old Tbilisi. The government puts the land out to tender for property developers to develop, sell off and use the profits to repay their original debts to the banks. The benefits, officials hoped, would be multiple: a reinvigorated construction industry, more jobs, better housing for the poor and a boost for Tbilisi’s tourism industry.A year after the municipality released its first tranche of money, the signs are positive. Around 16 apartment blocks have been finished, creating living space for 500 poor families. Discussions now focus on to how to retain the spirit of Old Tbilisi as the vacated sites are developed: ideas include securing neighbourhood agreement to the plans, and forming a “parity council” (composed of the ministry of culture and the Tbilisi municipality) to approve and oversee the work. Praised by the Architectural Review as a good example for other cities hit by the financial crisis, the “Tbilisi model” will be the subject of a conference next year.
But so far, this is only a pilot project: in total, some 50,000 families require better housing. Applying again for UNESCO world heritage status (a bid failed in 2007) could help Tbilisi access new channels of finance. An overall development plan for the old town, beyond the scheme’s immediate focus on housing, could strengthen efforts further. But with the government flouting UNESCO rules in its restoration of Bagrati Cathedral, an actual world heritage site in Kutaisi, Georgia's second city, UN bureaucrats may have pause for thought.
How successful the scheme will be in the long term remains to be seen. One thing, though, is certain: Tbilisi residents will be quick to ridicule any unwelcome architectural innovation. Earlier this year, a gleaming new pedestrian bridge near the old town was unveiled to much fanfare. Wags quickly re-branded it the “Always Ultra” bridge, because of perceived similarities to a sanitary towel.