Berlin's gentrified neighborhoods ban new restaurants

BERLIN -- When bakeries and flower shops are forced out of up-and-coming neighborhoods, what do Berliners do? Prohibit new restaurants and bars.

BERLIN -- As he eyed the dusty stacks of antique furniture in his small, flourescent-lit shop in Berlin-Kreuzberg's Graefe neighborhood, Bassel Ibrahim admitted that business has never been better.

"Sixteen years ago, there was hardly anything here," the Lebanese-born former-barber recalled of the time when he made the career jump to antique refurbishment. "Then doctors, lawyers and actors started moving in, and everything changed."

But doctors, lawyers and actors weren't the only newcomers. Before them artists, activists, students and other low-income, high-potential earners settled, bringing a wave of hip new cafes, bars, bakeries and artisan and specialty shops with them to the once-working-class area.

If talk of rising rent and other gentrification-tinged discussions have run their course in the now-pricey Graefe neighborhood, another foe has since emerged: Locals have complained that an inordinate number of restaurants, bars and cafes are muscling out smaller businesses that cannot afford the higher rents -- and residents together with local politicians have now declared a ban on new gastronomic establishments in the area.

"One restaurant or bar opening after the other -- that's not something we want," city councilman and center-left politician Peter Beckers told the city's Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, adding that the regulation would be applied when a business requests to open a gastronomic establishment in a space where a store previously stood.

"Bakeries, vegetable vendors, hair salons, clothing retailers, flower shops, hardware and secondhand shops unable to afford the rising rents are being forced out," the German newspaper TAZ quoted the proposal.

Though zoning laws are generally weak in Berlin, municipal development regulations state that such a ban is possible "when annoyances or disturbances arise that could conflict with the character of an area." Led by the Green Party, the district parliament submitted the Graefe neighborhood proposal in December 2012, with Berlin's Department of Legal Affairs reviewing the ban since early July.

This isn't the first attempt to stop restaurants and bars from overtaking a popular neighborhood in the city. New gastronomic establishments have been forbidden on Maaßen Street in the district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg since September 2012 after city councilwoman Sibyll Klotz of the Green Party announced a moratorium. Two requests to open gastronomic businesses have been rejected since then with no lawsuits, according to the Morgenpost -- and rent for empty business space has gone down.

"We hear this again and again from small businesses coming to us for advice," an employee of the district office told the Morgenpost. "Small shops have a chance again."

"Everybody wants bars, cafes and restaurants as much as they want a mix of other businesses," Martin Kesting of the EU-sponsored organization lokalleben told SmartPlanet. Lokalleben was contracted by the European Union to find "soft" solutions to local conflicts between neighborhood residents and businesses, which have been exacerbated by an absence of zoning laws in Berlin. "It's a question of balance."

But some politicians in other parts of the city say they would welcome the Graefe neighborhood situation in their areas, with the western district of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf saying it isn't interested in following Kreuzberg's example: "When an area becomes attractive for nightlife, this is a good thing," urban development city councilman Marc Schulte told the Morgenpost, adding that gastronomic culture in the city is always influenced by Berliners anyway.

"But these aren't touristic nightlife areas," he said, admitting that "people don't stay out as long [in Charlottenburg] as in other districts."

City councilman Torsten Kühne of the Christian Democratic Party said he doesn't see the need to negotiate -- not even in restaurant-laden parts of the Prenzlauer Berg district.

"Things aren't as extreme here as on Simon-Dach Street in Friedrichshain or on Maaßen Street in Schöneberg," he said, citing some of Berlin's most tightly-populated gastronomic pockets. "But the city also lives from change."

Back in the Graefe neighborhood, Bassel Ibrahim holds his small daughter as he ponders his comments about change and the new ordinance.

"I don't know how I feel about it," he said. "My gut feeling is that new rules are bad. But in my experience, all these laws we love to hate -- traffic tickets, orderliness, registration -- they are actually the reason life is so good here."

PHOTOS: Shannon Smith

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