Like Washington, St. Petersburg adamantly strives to maintain strict height limits in the historic center, designated by UNESCO in 1991 as a World Heritage Site. Thus, the 18th- and 19th-century city fabric remains low, thanks to the efforts of preservationists. But real estate pressures are high. Tall towers have begun sprouting up outside the city center, and skyscrapers have been proposed — and vehemently opposed by local residents — near the center.
Meanwhile, the city is making steady progress restoring, renovating and reusing its palaces and aging commercial structures, in addition to building new buildings. Because urban living has become so desirable as urban amenities have expanded, real estate market demand and prices have greatly escalated, just as Washington real estate values have risen in recent decades. Affordable housing is now available only in St. Petersburg’s suburbs.
The most visible changes, fortunately, have not adversely affected the city’s unique architectural heritage. Yet the sidewalk-level cityscape and pedestrian experience have been transformed. Streets are more visually animated by enhanced storefront graphics and advertising signage — the English word “SALE” appears virtually everywhere — with colorful lighting and display windows filled with merchandise of all types and quality.
Junky Russian cars have disappeared. Instead, St. Petersburg’s streets are congested with Fords, Volvos, VWs, Mercedes, BMWs, Toyotas, Hyundais and Hondas. The city finally has painted wide-striped crosswalks at signalized intersections where, unbelievably, St. Petersburg motorists actually stop for pedestrians. Whenever I crossed a street, I thought of Washington crosswalks that drivers frequently disregard. Also streets are generally litter-free, another surprising contrast with D.C. Because smoking is now prohibited in most public establishments — and fewer Russians smoke — you rarely see a cigarette butt.
This is the new St. Petersburg and, for many of its residents preoccupied with their mobile phones and other consumer products, the new Russia. Few seem to care about or pay attention to Russian politics. They are too busy trying to live the good life in their now very livable city.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.