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Authorities in Yerevan have begun to demolish cafés in the park around the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, leading to protests from staff and owners.
The Mayor’s Office informed the owners of the cafés on 13 December that their leases would be terminated in 30 days, however, the demolition did not begin until 13 March.
The authorities said they were fulfilling a campaign promise to restore green areas that had been turned into cafés.
Owners and staff of the cafés protested the decision, claiming the demolitions were illegal and that they had not been informed beforehand. They also alleged that as a result of the café closures, around 300 people would lose their jobs.
On 14 March, as the demolitions continued, café workers blocked streets around the Opera House in protest. Clashes broke out between protestors and the police, with 16 people being detained. Despite protestors vowing to continue to fight against the decision, the demolition work continued.
In a post on Facebook that day, Hakob Karapetyan, the spokesperson for Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan, denied the claims of protesters, insisting the businesses had been informed in advance and that the number of people that would lose their jobs was exaggerated.
‘The opinions that 300 people will lose their jobs as a result of closing the cafes are exaggerated. At the same time, as we said earlier, the municipality is ready to support the same businessmen in developing their business in other parts of the city’, he said.
‘Today we are fulfilling our dream of many years: we are liberating the surroundings of the Opera and bringing back the atmosphere of culture’, Marutyan wrote. He added that this was the only the beginning of a continuous process.
On 15 March, Armen Petrosyan, one of the owners of Jazzve, the first café to be constructed in the area around the Opera House, issued a statement calling for an end to the protests.
‘Today's urban authorities state that they have assumed responsibility for the improvement of the city, and we wish them good luck in their work’, the statement said.
‘Time will tell how far these steps were justified and how honest their stated motives were. Taking into consideration the explosive situation, we call on all our partner café owners and employees to stop their protest and move the struggle exclusively to the legal dimension’.
Victor Mnatsakanyan, the head of Yerevan’s central Kentron District, said in an interview on Horizon News on 15 March that legally, any structures built in parks cannot be legalised retrospectively.
The mayor’s spokesperson, Hakob Karapetyan, said ‘the area of dismantled cafes will be surrounded by greenery; there will be lawns and shrubs’, promising that next year the area would be ‘completely renovated’.
More green spaces ‘to be cleared’
At a press conference on 14 March, Mkrtich Minasyan, President of the Union of Architects of Armenia, hailed the decison to shut down the cafés.
‘These areas, which are public, should not have been built on so heavily; it was a mistake. We have said numerous times, we have brought examples that there is no superdense construction of cafés in the park areas of neighbouring Tbilisi, there are no such things at all’, Minasyan said.
Minasyan and several of his colleagues have frequently spoken out in favour of protecting the city’s remaining green spaces. He said that once the green space around the Opera House was revived, other public areas should also go through the same process.
The Mayor’s Office has announced that more cafés in the same area are planned to be removed in a second phase of renovations.
In response to the controversy, the owners of a number of cafés operating in central Yerevan stated publicly that they had vacancies and were willing to hire those left unemployed by the closures.
The policy of the previous government
During the rule of the Republican Party of Armenia, which lost control of Yerevan’s city council in municipal elections in October 2018, the area around the National Opera was developed on, with trees cut, concrete paved, and numerous private buildings, including Jazzve, being constructed.
When construction of Jazzve began in 2013, it faced opposition from local environmental activists. The ‘Our City’ Public-Civic Initiative, created in that year, demanded that the city stop construction on the green area adjacent to the Opera House, which it argued was illegal.
In a statement in April 2013, the group said that those carrying out construction around the Opera ‘don’t actually have any legal, published permission’, and that it was ‘destroying one of the few public spots of the centre of our capital city’.
Regardless of the complaints, Jazzve was built, followed by construction of several other cafés, occupying almost the entire surrounding area.