LIFE ON MARS. National security over a historical landscape: a chronology of the Marsa park saga. UPDATED. 20.02.2020.

A real terraforming saga whirled in the middle of Riga in December, 2019. Activists fiercely fighting against cutting trees that surround a historical cycling track, while the country wants this landscape to be cleaned for the construction of the headquarters of State Security Service. CAPITAL R has prepared its biggest article to date - an extensive insight* into the whole timeline of a neighbourhood fighting for a green area, while the country keeps on protecting their top priorities. Who has the rights to what?


PREVIOUS CENTURY
From 1909 - 1911, the first complex was opened in today's location. It was named "Mars(s) sports garden" in honour of the newly created Mars(s) Sports (cycling) Union. In 1907, it was founded as the most famous sports union among Latvians before WWI; partly because it was also established by wealthy Latvian craftsmen. Once a man (yeah, only) turned 18, he could become a member of the union, and many did - it was only a matter of months before there were almost two hundred joining!

The purchase of land was funded by private donations, yet the construction of the complex was carried out by mainly the union members themselves. In 1909, the first wooden cycling track was opened. Turns out, - it was designed by one of the most famous Latvian architects Eižens Laube. Until 1912, Mars(s) would also establish speed skating, heavy athletics, track-and-field athletics, and football departments.

Velodrome in use (© Latvian Sport Museum; 1920s).

Burnt down during WWI, the track, along with the complex, was rebuild on concrete foundations in 1922, and the name of the sports union was linguistically corrected to "Marss". After WWII it was used by two other prominent Soviet sports unions during the time - "Spartaks" and "Daugava". The soviet era marks most success coming off the track - 2-time and 6-time USSR, and multiple world junior champions in track cycling, several silver medals in USSR cycling competitions, and more.

The velodrome was fully operational until 1985 before being dismantled as a hovel. In the eighties, it was never shortlisted for reconstruction due to plans to build the VEF metro station there. Important to say that, although the station of the never-started underground railway was actually allocated nearby, the cycling track was never even touching the plot. Its fate was probably ended because of ulterior political motive, not technical reasons related to the metro.

Plan of the VEF metro station and the nearby velodrome (© Latvian Environment, Geology and Meteorology Centre; 1986).

In 1989 the restored Mars union headquarters were relocated back to the then already inactive area. In the 1990's, a little spark of light was expected for track cycling to return at its best in Latvia, yet it never happened. Wages for the union were covered by the country, but the land was managed by the local school administration under Riga City Council until 1998; the space would also be used even for international rugby matches.

For several years until 1998, a national "State Real Estate" agency (who owns the land) started pressing on the school administration to pay more than € 16,000 rent per year, thus making it impossible to do. Soon after, the owner of the estate was re-registered to be the Ministry of Finance of Latvia.

A view at the complex c. 1950 (© Laimonis Lazdiņš; Zudusilatvija.lv).

THIS CENTURY
In 2000, the cycling veterans were sending letters even to the President of Latvia, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga; their destiny was ill-fated. From 2001 - 2005, time would be spent in courtrooms between the "State Real Estate" and Riga City Council; Marss Sports Union never really appeared in the process. In spring, 2005, a little protest of not more than 50 people was organized by the union. Despite that, the 5-year-long process would conclude with a total dispossession of the land in favour of "State Real Estate". Marss Sports Union was closed down soon after, in 2008, and the union's long-time director, Vilnis Oliņš, experienced emotional breakdown and drunk himself to death in 2011.

At the "funeral of Marss Cycling Union" (© Juris Straume's private archives; 2008).

In 2008, a public hearing could have been held to discuss further development plans - the state announced that the complex will be used to build the new Riga Regional Court. No resonance might have followed at all since the area is undeveloped, Mars Sports Union is liquidated, and no one was looking into developing responsible urban areas back then (especially because of the approaching crisis).

In 2009, a hasty architect tender for the complex was already finished with results. 25 participants would compete for roughly € 26,000 award for the first prize, € 15,000 the second, and € 10,000 the third. The list would be replenished with two extra promotional prizes each roughly € 3,000 worth. Despite the impressive project that positively tolerated the trees and public space, and despite Regional Court being in a priority list, the whole event would end in months due to the economical crisis.

TOP: an interesting choice of visual elements in the 1st prize design of the regional court by MARK Arhitekti. BOTTOM: layout of the building and how it would positively fit with the current greenery (Architects: Mārtiņš Ošāns, Jānis Sauka, Aleksejs Birjukovs, Līga Rutka, Santa Matule, Dagnija Smilga, Kaspars Bērziņš; 2008).




Since then, the territory has been girt by a shabby wooden fence with no real security. Despite the turbulent past and economical breakdown, the neighbourhood of the velodrome would become one of the several promising new areas in Riga in 5-years time, gathering businesses, residents and multi-storey real estate. Teika suburbs would now get probably several thousands of individuals more than before.

In May, 2018, VEFRESH (private co-developers of the neighbourhood), along with architect company ĒTER, would create a future vision of Marsa Parks. The overgrown space, still possessing a well-preserved oval form and 44 lime-trees of each 100 years old, would get a modern revamp.

Suggested plan of the park for multi-purpose usage (© ĒTER; 2018)

Seems that the overall development would not cost a lot to anyone, but Teika would stop being one of the neighbourhoods with no real public park. It would also help solve the problem of residents leaving the noisy and concrete central part of Riga. For the following year, Viesturs Celmiņš, socio-anthropologist and managing director at VEFRESH, would present the initiative and make it sound possible.

In March, 2019, an independent Teika Neighbourhood Association would be established for the first time. Later that year it would be confirmed the territory of the Marss velodrome is being chosen as an office space and further distanced from the public. It would trigger an avalanche of hard feelings from the neighbourhood developers and later - residents. By the end of the year, - the saga would begin and change the game completely.

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MARSA PARK CHRONOLOGY
We wanted to retell the current story of the forging and current decline of Marsa Park as a contemporary chronicle. Since many things have already happened with details pouring over, it seems like the best way to collect the park's current history would be using a minimalistic timeline. One that, turns out, uncovers quite a thriller.

The timeline is reconstructed from dozens of media articles, interview and discussion videos, transcripts, and personal encounters. Following the news related to Marsa Park, the timeline will be updated until a final verdict is reached. Yet it is already clear the whole situation serves as a precedent of the society and Riga City Council changing for the better.

Here we go:

07.11.2019.
The last, posthumous episode of "Adreses" TV show by a famous Latvian National Television host Mārtiņš Ķibilds (1979 - 2019) is released. Marsa Park is unrestricted and broadly explored as a forbidden brownfield and, because of the Mārtiņš' death, the episode becomes one of the historically most watched "Address" nationally. Turns out many living nearby have not even noticed the area, and the episode has open the eyes to many.

The former velodrome as seen during the "Adreses" episode (© VFS; 2019).

27.11.2019.
After the "State Real Estate" agency (who owns the land) announces the land of Mars park will be used to build a state office space, Teika neighbourhood association, Riga Neighbourhood Alliance, "Pilsēta cilvēkiem" activist and urbanist website, and VEFRESH decide to work together in order to protect the trees and push further the idea of Marsa Park. Their main argument is that no public hearing about the trees has been held, while every park in a city is not a luxury, but critical infrastructure. Only later they would find out the permit for cutting trees is already issued in 20 August, 2019.

13.12.2019.
Activists decide to launch a public petition against destroying the greenery that surrounds the velodrome. Signatures are started to be collected at the nearby VEF Culture Palace for keeping the park. In a week's time 3000 individuals have signed the petition. Until 15 January, the last day of collections, the number would be 4278.

16.12.2019.
Oļegs Burovs, Mayor of Riga (centre-left), publicly announces he also supports the idea of a park and offers an exchange of any land in order to save it.

19.12.2019.
After less than a week of collecting physical signatures, an Internet-based initiative is opened on ManaBalss.lv platform. It easily reaches the necessary 10'000 signatures for the petition to be filed in the Parliament. As of today, there are 12'256 authentic signatures online.

Letters are also delivered to "State Real Estate", Rīga City Construction Board and the Ministry of Finance, current holders of the land, demanding an official request for more information on any construction.

09.01.2020.
It has been almost a month of collecting signatures before it's revealed the construction permit has already been issued on 29 September, 2019, and the velodrome has had a status of national interest already since June. The secrecy angers part of the public and media, especially when the building permit is nowhere to be found in public register. Activists draw attention to this being an illegal breach of regulations "State Real Estate" commits and where residents would instead be immediately punished. VDD is again silent.

13.01.2020.
Soon after the online petition reaching 10'000 signatures, "State Real Estate" meets with the activists and promises it will keep the trees in place for now and would not proceed with any construction. Activists are hopeful toward collaboration, especially after "State Real Estate" have announced their readiness to meet with Riga City Council and discuss estate exchange.

The Ministry of Finance points out that the office plan was already decided during the previous convocation at the Parliament. It respects the activists' demand, but cannot act freely.

20.01.2020.
Positive agreement with "State Real Estate" and Ministry of Finance is not settled in order to protect the park. Therefore, the petition, signed by more than 15,500 residents in total, is submitted to the Parliament to demand full protection of the trees and the space being granted as a public park and handed over Riga City Council.

On the day of submitting the petition to the Parliament. From left: Māris Jonovs, Viesturs Celmiņš, Selīna Vancāne, Māris Jansons, Armands Būmanis, Linda Sleja (© Teika Neighbourhood Association).

22.01.2020.
More than two months have passed since the work of activists began, when it finally comes to light that the park has already been granted for the new headquarters of VDD in 2008, not just a regular office. Their current premises are multi-located, dated and don't meet the quality and security requirements. The reason for the previous mystery - confidential status of state secret. The fact plays havoc among the media, activists and part of society that condemn the lack of conversation the system has with its own people.

On the same day, League of Riga, another apolitical movement of activists that has announced their support in fighting for Marsa Park earlier, comes up with the now famous slogan "There is life on Mars" (© Kaspars Spunde).

23.01.2020.
Ēriks Cinkus, deputy head of VDD, announces that it had few, easy reachable, yet important demands only the space of old velodrome could satisfy. The state would grant funding already in August, 2017, to fulfil the construction, while there never was a park planned in the area - the society has been mislead. According to VDD and "State Real Estate", the area has been officially marked as a housing site in the publicly available city plan for 2030 (although it is marked as mixed coverage). Also - VDD states the old velodrome is nothing more but bushes, most of the trees would be gone due to construction, yet handful of larger ones would be salvaged.

However, VDD respects the community, and points out indirectly that they were in an unenviable situation - "State Real Estate" only offered two options to choose from and did not warn VDD about the forthcoming risks related to the velodrome. Ēriks Cinkus supports civic activities, but also admits VDD is waiting for their headquarters for a long time already. The current placement of the service is located in several buildings, while the headquarters are situated in a former Soviet army barracks build in the late 1950s.

Instead, professionals, urban practitioners, and social media trolls begin bantering VDD's response, proposing similar, yet already public parks and other peculiar places as "better" locations for construction. Few actually seem to be seriously better than the velodrome. Activists and part of the public are insisting the headquarters be built any place else, not in the middle of the city. They disagree with VDD, proving that the park's public status is of the essence - dense population surrounding the area, the space already belongs to the country, no other park in Teika neighbourhood within 300m distance (city planning standard).

The alternative of the old War Hospital and Brasa prison won people's hearts. The location would be huge and distant enough from civic areas, has a quiet and well fed traffic system (plus nearby railway). Also it would be cheaper if renovated, and has a history of state institutions. The current architectonic heritage otherwise would not have any purpose and would continue to dilapidate. (© Oskars Cirsis).

VDD begins using an argument of mysterious "several millions" of tax-payers money that have already been spent for planning and designing, yet the sum is not made public. From now on, other locations or reconstruction would be more expensive. Prime Minister, Krišjānis Kariņš (centre-right), announces that the idea of new VDD headquarters is old and mandatory, yet now it is unclear where it should be built. He announces the situation ought to be solved by the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Its Minister, Sandris Girģens (centre-right), responds with no comments; instead, Minister of Justice, Jānis Bordāns (right wing), announces to talk with the coalition in order to find a new location if able.

The activists visit Latvian Sport Museum to further the research of the history of Mars(s) Sports Union, including visuals and typefaces.

In a separate discussion, Māris Kučinskis, Chairman of National Security Committee at the Parliament (centre-right), draws attention to the park being protected due to business, not public interests. "A view to a beautiful park from your window would boost the value of property by at least € 100/m2," he states.

24.01.2020.
It comes to light that the new VDD headquarters would cost around € 50,000,000. Jānis Bordāns, Minister of Justice, believes the country should limit its number of 3 state security organisations. Activists meet with Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš. He disagrees with Bordāns; so does the President of Latvia, Egils Levits.

Sandris Ģirģens, Minister of Interior Affairs, acknowledges that the level of communication to the public about top secret matters related to urban areas must be improved in the future; due to exceptions related to classified plans, there was a reason for a public hearing to never happen. Yet he continues to insist the sovereignty of the country is also in the interests of the community.

27.01.2020.
Ēriks Cinkus, deputy head of VDD, reveals that the other location for constructing the headquarters, apart from Marsa Park, was the former College of Light Industry at Aristīda Briāna street. The house would not fit the high standards of security. According to earlier news, the building would already be set for reconstruction already on May, 2018, in order to open a new prototyping facility called "Riga Makerspace".

Teika Neighbourhood Association publishes a Marsa Park Facebook photo frame. It has a re-invented graphic identity from the 1930s, including the significant "M" for the park. It immediately becomes a brand for t-shirts and other merchandise.

The revamped visual identity of Marsa Park (© Krists Dārziņš).

Krišjānis Kariņš, after meeting with the coalition partners, considers a mutual hearing is necessary between all stakeholders. Parliament Speaker, Ināra Mūrniece (far-right), and Māris Kučinskis, Chairman of National Security Committee at the Parliament both agree with the headquarters being built at the current premises. Mūrniece comments that "trees in a now grey city are very important, but a handful of people, fighting against the building of national security, is unacceptable". Kučinskis (also former Prime Minister before Krišjānis Kariņš) reveals the amount spent on planning the new VDD headquarters is more than € 2,000,000. Artis Pabriks, Minister of Defence (centre-right), suggests hearing all responsible stakeholders and weighing out all alternatives.

Jānis Bordāns, Minister of Justice, and his fraction of New Conservative Party are the first, who invite activists independently. The Minister insists on following the procedure, yet also believes the 3 state security organisations could be united in one space. It creates an unprecedented situation now the offer by Bordāns might have created a breach in the dialogue between the activists and coalition - the question is now not about where to build, but if to build.

Later that day, the activists meet with Mārtiņš Staķis (centre), potential mayor candidate in Riga, who shows support to Marsa Park. Delna, NGO working as anti-corruption watchdog and supporting whistle blowers, also demands VDD to publish at least an approximate estimate how much would the building cost and its further spending.

28.01.2020.
The activists meet with Sandris Ģirģens, Minister of Interior Affairs. They reckon the headquarters can be built in alternative locations without destroying the park; as long as such a possibility exists, the public will be involved and hopeful. Selīna Vancāne, Teika Neighbourhood Association, thinks that state security does not depend on an address.
"If the country takes brave measures toward the community, it could instead boost not endanger the national security," thinks Māris Jansons, Rīga Neighbourhood Alliance. 
Viesturs Celmiņš, VEFRESH, points out that the territory is no way suitable for VDD. It is not easy accessible, there's plenty of private housing around, the traffic frequently experiences jams and will need to be reorganized since the park is close to one of the most intensive intersections in Riga. He draws attention to the country being publicly ready to replace the National Concert Hall to a different parcel just recently, but it is not sure why the same could not be done with VDD.

Sandris Ģirģens agrees with activists, but distances from being emotional when speaking about national security; he also admits not being the person to give final instructions "to push the green or red button". Ģirģens also comments Minister of Justice, Jānis Bordāns', decision to unite 3 state security organisations in one - this is a suggestion of great risk to the national reputation from such a high stake politician.

Jānis Bordāns instead promises to prepare a letter to the Prime Minister, providing alternatives to construction on Mara park. One of them - a house that has already been built for the needs of the Ministry of Justice.

29.01.2020.
Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš announces that VDD should have been more open before and reveal their plans already prior to the start of collecting signatures. He also notifies that any greenery and lack of it is the responsibility of Riga City Council that has done almost nothing for years.

President of Latvia, Egils Levits (centre-right), holds a view that the delay of constructing VDD headquarters would cause great loss of finances. He asserts that the state interests are also the public interests, and the country needs proper premises to protect the community. For now, the premises don't fit NATO standards. He is unsure about alternatives, and only wants the headquarters to be built as fast as possible, without increasing expenditures.

30.01.2020.
Jānis Domburs, popular host of political TV shows, organizes a discussion on the biggest News portal in the Baltics, Delfi between activists and politicians in charge. VDD passes their participation, commenting that all declassified information has been published, - there is nothing else they can and will share at the moment. During the livestream, Domburs asks Sandris Girģens a significant question - if this is a matter of state security, who owns the state?

Jānis Bordāns, Minister of Justice, announces that it would be possible to build the headquarters in the zone of old War Hospital and Brasa prison. Oļegs Burovs, Mayor of Riga, reveals he knew nothing and found out about the VDD headquarters in the news. He offers several other decentralized or undeveloped areas owned by the city. "I found them easily in a matter of an hour," he explains the vacant ability. "We could exchange parcels of land like we have done before with, e.g., Ministry of Culture." Burovs also promises to sign a letter to "State Real Estate" to change the status of the cycling track. For now it is mixed-coverage, only "State Real Estate" can change it to greenery, park or natural area.

Sandris Ģirģens holds a strong position that this is nothing but an anti-governmental campaign, and some activist names, their organisations and profiles might already be red-listed. The campaign against the VDD headquarters is made to destabilize the security and financed by political or private interests. He concludes saying that stopping the building just because of 15,000 signatures would be "superb for Russia".

Viesturs Celmiņš, after hearing Sandris Ģirģens say that some activist names, their organisations and profiles might be red-listed by VDD due to destabilizing security concerns (screenshot;© Delfi.lv).

Selīna Vancāne, Teika Neighbourhood Association, realizes that: "if the state overclassifies everything, with or without any purpose, it makes one think something can also be built even in Vērmanes (central) garden any next day."

Viesturs Celmiņš, VEFRESH, reveals he has received some hints from former politicians not to poke his nose into this matter, there might be consequences. Later that day, Celmiņš appears on one of the most popular TV talk shows "Pusnakts šovs septiņos" (similar to "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"). A new t-shirt is presented, inspired from the original typeface of Marss Sports Union and restored by Eva Abduļina, graphic designer at Overpriced.

31.01.2020.
The president of Latvia, Egils Levits, agrees with the public that has suffered from the lack of green spaces in Riga, but again asks for finding an alternative to the park instead of VDD.

04.02.2020.
VDD only now announces its current premises are unreliable to protect national security for years already and COULD not fit EU and NATO regulations of protection of classified information soon. The building of the new headquarters is crucial, it is planned to be started in 2020. People are furious why such facts come to light only in such situations. They are also annoyed when the country finds it a top priority to fight internationally for financial or protective, instead of social prestige.

The activists publish an open letter demanding public hearing with the community. It also points out that residents and businesses can yearn for a qualitative urban environment; demanding rights to communities is legitimate and must not be demonized or announced to be a counter-state action.

05.02.2020.
The collective petition of more than 15,500 signatures is being reviewed by Parliament's Commission of Mandates, Ethics and Petitions. The commission expresses little support to establishing the park - the national security must always be the priority, announces its member, Raivis Dzintars, from the far-right. He also thinks the anti-campaign is another pre-election trick.

Minister of Interior Affairs, Sandris Ģirģens, fortifies the decision saying that already in 2008 the society showed no interest in public development when a competition for architects was announced. Important to mention that there is a reason for it. In 2008, the situation was diagonally the opposite - the planned Regional court would have an public park with almost no trees damaged, while VDD would be located on premises closed to the public with most of trees cut.

Ģirģens criticizes the private investors, who have themselves overbuilt the neighbourhood too much, and now demand other independent land owners oblige to them. Sorting out problems of greenery is not the duty of the ministry and VDD, it's Riga City Council's responsibility,

Finally, Ģirģens agrees that the counter-VDD activity could be engaged with political interests in Riga City Council, and it is not acceptable how VDD has been defamed in social media. "Those who share fake news, hate speech, and comment, are already being monitored and will be found," he concludes.

Ēriks Cinkus, deputy head of VDD, again declares that the country owns no other similar real estate. He reveals the space must also be protected from electromagnetic fields, and Marsa Park is the only suitable one (despite one of the largest mobile phone operators, LMT, situated opposite the street).

Janīna Kursīte-Pakule (right wing), Chairwoman at the Commission of Mandates, Ethics and Petitions, is not happy one unique place gets to be pointed out - in Riga, all are unique.

Krišjānis Kariņš again announces that both the park and VDD headquarters are necessary. He blames Riga City Council for not defining what a park is in the city (despite the cycling track being owned by "State Real Estate", not the city). Kariņš agrees with Ģirģens and criticizes developers overbuilding the area themselves while realising there is no green space left. He agrees that, most likely, the VDD house will be built on the planned parcel.

Following the discussions, Oļegs Burovs, Mayor of Riga, offers an alternative to Marsa Park. A sports track/stadium, managed by a nearby 45th High School in Teika could be re-developed into a public square. It could be done by 2022, but he is not sure, though, if such compensation will be satisfying enough. Selīna Vancāne, Teika Neighbourhood Association, criticizes the verdict, saying that nothing would satisfy cutting down historic trees and trimming down an area with unique value and story. She reveals the idea about the school is not new - there has already been communication with parents council: "a new square or park, planned since 2016, would not protect the trees we are fighting for."

The petition might be further transferred to the Commission of National Security instead of being given to Commission of Social Affairs where it should be really addressed. Any next review of the petition will now be behind closed doors. The activists comment that, in this way, state representatives try avoiding open discussion.
"This is the only way we can show the society, which politicians are on the side of democracy, interests of residents and present-day urban environment," says Viesturs Celmiņš, VEFRESH.
The activists warn that not listening to the interests of communities can lead to mistrust of the country and shaken national security as well. "Such precedents stay in the collective memory for a long time," concludes Māris Jansons, Rīga Neighbourhood Alliance.

07.02.2020.
Also Civic Alliance - Latvia, umbrella NGO that unites 100+ non-governmental organizations and private members, publishes their position, criticizing Sandris Ģirģens, Minister of Interior Affairs, and stating that civic activism must not be discredited. In their opinion, it is not acceptable to call activists "non-loyal" to the country, and, even if some community initiatives cannot be fulfilled, it gives no reason to diminish them.

10.02.2020.
VDD announces they have no intel any country, hostile to Latvia, would be organizing any counter-security action in relation to Mars Park and the construction of the VDD headquarters.

The activists receive an answer from the Ministry off Finance, current holders of the land, to their letter sent on 30 December, 2019. It also confirms the land being handed to the construction of the headquarters in 2017, and responsibility in this occasion is in the hands of the Ministry of Interior.

Māris Kučinskis, Chairman of National Security Committee at the Parliament, grants some sessions on reviewing the petition to be public as long as restricted topics are not covered.

20.02.2020
The majority of Parliament has voted for the petition being further transferred to the Commission of National Security instead of being given to Commission of Social Affairs where it should be really addressed. The activists again call it a chance to avoid open discussion. There is a big chance now the petition will be put in a drawer.

22.02.2020.
At the council meeting of New Conservative Party (dedicated to the upcoming extraordinary elections), its members presented a 3D visualisation (see below as a Twitter reply) of their promised Marsa park. Juris Jurašs, the party's candidate for the mayor's chair, declares for a week already that the party, along with the Ministry of Justice (lead by his party member Jānis Boardāns), have found alternative grounds for the VDD headquarters and other planned buildings for the secret services. Many call this an act of populism since the action has come from a party not being involved into any shape of activism before than only prior to the election.

To be continued...



*CAPITAL R represents no political party or private force, yet is still for the park being created at the former velodrome. We believe that state security is a top priority, but, at the end of the day, a disappointed society does not make the state secure.

This article is also a manifestation to our conviction, is not funded or engaged by anyone, and is publicly available to everybody, including the state security organisations. If this puts us into any red list, so be it, - was worth it.

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