Bankers and businessmen building Rome’s new Colosseum

ROME - Late summer 2018. Weeds have conquered patches of the bicycle lane along Via della Magliana. The bicycle lane is elevated and offers splendid views on the Tiber. At regular distances stand wooden banks. There is even a kiosk. Yet, everything is overgrown. The lane gradually edges away from the city. After a stretch under a noisy, congested motorway bridge, high reeds pop up on both sides of the lane. The sudden tranquillity is only interrupted by birds singing from trees. At the right, the river flows quietly.

 Suddenly, a steep path descends off the bicycle lane. Below lie disused refrigerators, broken tiles, shattered washtubs and building debris. The path leads to a former, potholed road that runs parallel to the busy Via del Mare. Along the road stands a wall of concrete plates. The plates carry a green logo that is composed of the letters “tdv” beside the picture of a horse carriage. Finally, the road ends at an entry gate: “Ippodromo Tor di Valle”.

 The Tor di Valle hippodrome closed in January 2013. The site will host the new stadium of AS Roma, the local football team that is owned by American businessman James Pallotta. On Dec. 30, 2012 Pallotta, property developer Luca Parnasi and then-mayor Gianni Alemanno unveiled their plans. Rome’s new football stadium would not be a public, but a private initiative. Architect Dan Meis, known for his designs of sports facilities, would design a stadium with a maximum capacity of 60.000 spectators while his colleague Daniel Libeskind would design three adjacent state-of-the-art skyscrapers.

 During the presentation, the promotor used a scale model. The bend of the Tiber would host a football stadium, retail space, a Business Park and several residential neighbourhoods. Two bridges would connect the site to the other side of the river.

 This green and tranquil area stretches from the EUR-Magliana underground station to the Magliana viaduct. It separates the administrative EUR neighbourhood from its working-class “La Magliana” counterpart. The bucolic greenery is not virgin nature, but nature that has reconquered former industry: stretches of a rusty pipeline run through it and along the river, former factories and ditto warehouses are crumbling.

 Since the day the project was unveiled, it attracts fierce criticism and suffers from delays. Every City Council, Alemanno’s right-wing, Marino’s left-wing as well as Raggi’s alternative, first opposed the project and then approved it to proceed after it had modified the plan. In particular Libeskind’s up to 220 metres-tall skyscrapers have been eliminated. Critics feared that Tor di Valle would be granted the same privilege as EUR: i.e. surpassing Rome’s unwritten limit on building height.

 Besides aesthetical objections, the Tor di Valle project raises problems concerning the area’s mobility, infrastructure, and hydrology.

 Computer-simulated images of the project show an artificially-lit enclave, a 24/7 venue area that is surrounded by dormitory suburbs. By adding shopping malls and a Business Park to the stadium, the project would burden the already saturated Via del Mare even on moments when there is no event. In order to cope with the numbers of visitors, a new railway station, Roma Lido, would be needed while the Tor di Valle railway station would have to be enlarged. The project would also require two new bridges.

 Along the bicycle lane, hidden behind the trees and bordering the river, stands a decaying building. A fading inscription reads “Impianto Irrigazione Ostiense-Appia”. In February 2017, the authorities disqualified the project because, following a study, the parcel would be a high hydrological risk zone. And hundreds of thousand square metres of built surface would increase the risk. Immediately, former AS Roma-captain and local legend, Francesco Totti, tweeted “#famostostadio” and called the stadium “il colosseo moderno.” Pallotta threatened to sell AS Roma. Parnasi’s company ordered a second study. This study toned down the risk and stated the project could do with hydrological works.

 A run-down road interrupts the bicycle lane. The road crosses the railway track. At the other side of the track, above green cypresses, appear the snow-white basilica of “Santi Pietro e Paulo” and the ditto former Ministry of Labour: icons of Rome’s EUR quarter.

 EUR (“Esposizione Universale di Roma”) originated in the run-up to the 1942 World Exhibition. It also hosted the 1960 Olympic Games. Its landmarks are pieces of fine architecture, in particular the Ministry of Labour which is nicknamed “il colosseo quadrato”.

 Admiring EUR’s landmarks, one wonders why architecture following a one-off event should be distinct from architecture coupled to a permanent venue. Catalan architect Julio Lafuente designed the Tor di Valle hippodrome in 1959. His hippodrome replaced the hippodrome that was razed for Rome’s 1960 Olympic Village. Contrary to Rome’s innovative “Villaggio Olimpico” and Lafuente’s impressive tribune, the Tor di Valle project will be uninspired copy-paste of similar projects around the globe, including no doubt a Tiber Docklands.

 “Stadio della Roma will serve as an anchor for a larger new privately owned and managed mixed-use development,” says the official “Stadio della Roma” website. Although Dan Meis inspired his stadium on the Coliseum, a Roma Village, a Hof Nike, a retail corridor, an anchor retail and an artisanal market will surround the stadium. Images on the website show sterile commercial space similar to the wall of franchise stores that encircles Paris’ “Stade de France”: a non-place.

 When Rome’s urban planning chief, Paolo Berdini, resigned in November 2017 because of the Tor di Valle project, he referred to it as “the biggest real estate speculation in Europe.” Whereas EUR was a complete, visionary project including a basilica, the Tor di Valle project is merely about adding to a sports venue a maximum of marketable square metres. Residential, office, commercial and cultural space are to spread the entrepreneurial risk. Investment banks Goldman Sachs, which is AS Roma’s mayor financer, and Rothschild Bank, which marketed the stadia of Juventus and Arsenal, will have to lure investors from all over the world.

 In May 2018, before any official approval of the project, heavy machines were brought to the abandoned hippodrome –property developers usually know what the representative of democracy will decide even before the “demos” does.

 Luca Parnasi started buying the parcel in 2010. His company was to build the stadium. Yet in early summer, Parnasi was arrested for corruption: for years, he had been bribing politicians and civil servants. The bribery ranged from cash-in-hand bribes, illegal financing of electoral campaigns, apartments and villas, to fake invoices and nepotism. Parnasi even paid a lawyer to make disappear the recommendation to classify Lafuente’s tribune. The criminal investigation revealed that Parnasi did not intend to raise the stadium, but speculated on selling the land as soon as the city council would have issued the building permit.

 Parnasi’s company, “EURnova”, has built in EUR the highly-contested “Palazzo della Provincia” as well as “Euroma2”, a shopping mall that provoked protest from residents. In EUR, he also erected Rome’s first skyscraper, “Eurosky”. Francesco Totti promotes “Eurosky”.

 Much of the recent construction in EUR does not fit the quarter’s original concept. When EUR was being built, it was an isolated neighbourhood halfway Rome and the sea. Its architecture and greenery attracted a well-heeled public. Gardens surround the apartment buildings near the basilica.

 An artificial lake dominates EUR’s centre and, at the edge of the quarter, a park builds up to the “colosseo quadrato”. Ongoing construction, however, makes the quarter ever more crowded. Property developers and city council consider every inch of green as an opportunity cost. They apply a variant of the “creaming” strategy: first ask early buyers a premium price for green settings, then –as the greenery vanishes and the square meter price rises- offer smaller units.

 Every building, road and bridge on the scale model is white. The model contains but two colours: a bit of light-brown for the stadium’s roof and abundant green in the form of oversized trees. The model is a classic example of greenwashing, a technique property developers use to appease opponents. Manicured gardens, lawns and parks are to mask the surface of original greenery that will disappear.

 Both “Villaggio Olimpico” and EUR suffer from lacking maintenance, especially of their greenery. It takes little imagination to have an idea of how Tor di Valle’s landscaped greenery will look like ten years from now.

 “The project is a golden opportunity to renovate and reclaim an area of Rome that currently lies dormant,” claims the website. This project obviously aims at triggering property development on both sides of the Tiber. It does not answer a need –of what use are new apartments to a city that already has 200,000 empty apartments? Nor is it fit-for-purpose –sports facilities represent only 14% of the built surface.

 The vast plane around the hippodrome gives a majestic air to the site. Especially on a foggy morning, its 730 ochre-yellow horse boxes amid the trees breathe a particular serenity. One can imagine a new, colossal stadium in these fields, the tranquillity only interrupted by sportsmen exercising on the adjacent training grounds.

 Luca Parnasi learned the trade from his father Sandro, a successful businessman who for more than 40 years built all over Rome and frequented its politicians.  “In the end, they only think about themselves, they don’t think about Rome. They don’t give a rat’s ass,“ investigators recorded Luca, an avid AS Roma supporter, telling his staff: “that’s the truth: nobody gives a toss about Rome.”