In Tallinn, the golden mile from the port to the city centre is beginning to take shape – a route that should immediately attract tourists disembarking with its shops and cafés. New developments are starting and will soon be completed along the so far rather unremarkable route.
Approximately four million passengers a year disembark at Terminal D of the Port of Tallinn. Many of these are tourists who are looking for a more direct route to Tallinn city centre. Until recently, there was just a large asphalted square in front of them. Today, construction work commissioned by the Port of Tallinn is underway. By the end of the summer, it will be an unrecognisable new environment with plenty of greenery and recreational areas.
Crossing the former empty asphalt plaza and the current construction site, you can enter the Nautica shopping centre. According to Capfield, which manages the centre, Nautica used to attract around 2 million tourists a year before the corona. It is hoped that by the end of the year this figure will be back to pre-corona levels. But the Nautica has so far been virtually the only thing that has been able to capture tourists on their way into town (or back from town to the port). Turning from Laeva Street in front of the Hotel Europa onto Paadi Street, the only thing that catches the eye are the sprawling car parks. On crossing Ahtri Street, the petrol station on one side and the incomprehensible building on the other side, enclosed by a fence that has remained until now, are obviously of no interest to tourists on foot. Crossing Ahtri Street again, there is again a parking area on one side – this time for buses – and a grey stone wall on the other. There is nothing glamorous about the whole journey to suggest a desire to be the first contender for the money spent by tourists in Estonia.
Tallinn’s city government is reluctant to comment on the development prospects for the area, but the city planning authority confirms that the tourist route to the city centre is set to undergo significant changes.
Behind the grey wall of Hobujaama Street is in fact the architecturally distinctive Rotermann Quarter, with its cafés, shops and outdoor squares. Urmas Sõõrumaa, who is developing the Rotermann Quarter, admits that attracting tourists has been difficult. “We worked hard on it,” says Sõõrumaa. Tourists crossing Ahtri Street from the Olerex petrol station were given footprints on the road to the quarter and other enticements to turn into Rotermann. “A large crowd still headed straight for the Viu Hotel along Hobujaama Street,” says Sõõrumaa. Today, he has managed to attract more and more people to the district. A new challenge lies ahead, as it is mainly his ideas and decisions that will shape the route from the rest of the port to the city centre. Just as in the game of monopoly you have to own an entire street to win, Sõõrumaa has also acquired a large part of the land and building rights along the tourist route. He himself calls it the ‘golden mile’, which in the world means streets with fancy shops and pedestrian walkways.
“These plots of land are a bit of a coincidence,” says Sõõrumaa. He acquired his first plot in the Rotermann quarter in about 2003. There was no conscious aim to be right in front of the tourist trail. When I was taking my first steps in real estate development, I repeated the mantra that location is the most important thing in real estate development. You can’t miss too much, says Sõõrumaa.
Yet for a long time, the Rotermann Quarter had serious problems attracting people. Sõõrumaa says there is a reason for this. “The quarter needs to have gates to get in. There are no gates here,” he explains. One of the problems is the location of the Coca-Cola Plaza, which did not take into account the integrity of the quarter and the development of the internal streets. The quarter became a place behind the Coca-Cola Plaza, and it is not clear exactly how to get there. Sõõrumaa says there is not enough ‘view’ length in urban planning, urban planners should look several hundred years ahead. To save the day, he still tried to get his hands on the Post House development, but the Swedish pension funds were too rich. Sõõrumaa’s offer of €33.5 million could not compete with them.
However, the first gateway to the Rotermann Quarter is now taking shape. In agreement with the developers of Coca-Cola Plaza, a beautiful plaza and entrance to the Rotermann Quarter will be created over the entrance to the underground car park of the cinema. When the Aswega property on Mere puistee is developed, there will also be a clearly recognisable western gateway. Sõõrumaa says it will be marketed in such a way that all the entrance gates will be known to every taxi driver and tourist arriving from the port or airport who has visited Tallinn before. The eastern gate will be located between Ahtri Street. At the end of last year, US Real Estate acquired the land behind the Olerex petrol station in the area between the Ahtri Street lanes. The old hangar and the old commercial building there have been mostly demolished. Only the stone walls from the beginning of the last century remain standing, which will become part of the new building. The six-storey office building, open in the middle, will be the gateway from the harbour area to the Rotermann quarter and the city centre. The development has been given the name Golden Gate. “It will be the most glamorous building in Tallinn, because it will be truly golden,” says Sõõrumaa excitedly. The ground floor of the building, which will be completed in 2024, will of course have shops and restaurants.
Sõõrumaa’s latest win was at the Tallinn Port Authority’s auction for the right to occupy the Laeva 5 property for 50 years. The current old and tired building by the Admiralty pool and behind the Hotel Europe will also be replaced by a seafront restaurant building with terraces by the summer of 2024.
The largest area awaiting a suitable solution is the lame gravel parking lot at the corner of Ahtri and Paadi streets, known as development A3. At the moment, car owners can probably use the cheapest paid parking in the city, but not for much longer. Construction could have started there as early as 2007, when the city granted planning permission. For 15 years, the search has been on for the best option to build there. So far, none has been found. Work is still ongoing to find the best solution. According to Sõõrumaa, there have been dozens of development options for the property over the years. Originally, he bought the plot with Arco Vara and a large spa hotel was planned. However, perceptions changed and the planning was re-done because such a monstrosity does not need to be located in the ‘golden mile’, says Sõõrumaa. In the meantime, it was decided that the right thing to do was to build a huge, 70 000 square metre shopping centre. But their time has come too, says Sõõrumaa. “We’ve still come to my old truism that I’m not going to build a single-family house there,” Sõõrumaa says. “I’m building an environment where there’s something to do at night and during the day, you can spend your leisure time as well as work.” The site has 50,000 square metres of building space. According to Sõõrumaa, it will have the dimensions of a city of its own, with apartments, office space and services – as diverse as the Rotermann Quarter. He promises that work on the site will start as early as next year and in 5 years’ time it will be a gorgeous quarter.
The biggest development in the city’s near future is the tram line that will be brought to the area. The deadline for submitting bids to the Public Utilities Board for the tramway will fall in the coming days. In 2024, the tram will run along Hobujaama Street, diagonally between the Olerex petrol station and the Golden Gate, across Ahtri Street and from there via Laeva Street to the A-Terminal.
The addition of the tramway will lead to less traffic on Ahtri Street. The desire of the city for a wider area is greater. “One of the biggest urban planning pushes I’m trying to influence is to get cars underground,” says Sõõrumaa. “Everyone clogs up downtown traffic at rush hour. It’s such a shame to see,” he says. He says he has worked with people who know urban planning and architects to model a solution for moving traffic underground. Around 180 00 cars pass through the city centre every day, 70-75% of which are in transit – they just need to go through the city centre to get to Mustamäe, Nõmme, the Kopli peninsula or Lasnamäe. All of them, according to Sõõrumaa, will have to be diverted underground into a tunnel. The same goes for cars and heavy goods vehicles coming from ships. Only one slow-moving car lane and safe pedestrian paths lined with flower pots would remain on the ground. He says that current city leaders also agree with this idea. The only question is how much money to spend to build the tunnels. “It’s very simple – there should be a charge for going through the city centre. Anyone who sticks their nose into the city centre has to pay for it,” he says. It wouldn’t be big money for the car owner, he argues. For example, there would be no charge at night, but it would cost €2-3 to pass through the city at rush hour. At six o’clock it would cost €20-30 per car. “That’s a third of a tank of petrol today,” says Sõõrumaa. According to his calculations, the city would collect around €50 million a year. With that money, infrastructure could be built for €1.5 billion, says Sõõrumaa. “All the tunnels, all the pedestrian paths could be built with that money,” he says. A tunnel on Ahtri Street would cost €150 million, he estimates. “Go or 200 million, there’s still plenty of money left over,” he says confidently. But his advice is to get started quickly, because the more buildings that go up along Ahtri Street, the more difficult it will be to build the tunnel. The city declined to comment on Sõõrumaa’s idea of tunnelling.
One sweet spot remains in the way of tourists. Currently, the city parks buses at the corner of Hobujaama and Ahtri streets. Most of the bus park belongs to the city, but a smaller part of the back corner is also owned by PalmGrupp LLC (which came to prominence this spring when it led a group of investors that acquired the Ülemiste hotel property next to the airport). The latter has initiated a detailed planning of the site. The company’s CEO, Janno Rokk, is not enthusiastic about the future of the site. He says that, given how long planning takes in Tallinn, there is no way of predicting when any development will start on the site currently used as a bus park. He therefore declined to comment on what his company would build there. The City of Tallinn was also unable to give an answer within a week as to how long they would be parking buses on one of the most attractive sites in the city centre and what could be located there in the future. However, the explanatory memorandum submitted for the detailed plan, which was submitted to the Commission for the initiation of the procedure, states that the current asphalted square is to be transformed into a built-up area with a large public park in the middle.
Mr Sõõrumaa admits that the area is indeed a sweet spot, and that he too has his eye on it. This property is the most uncharted stretch of the tourist golden mile, but Sõõrumaa believes that within the next ten years it too will be developed.