BERLIN (Reuters) - Plans to demolish former East German apartment blocks in a prime central Berlin location have stoked fears about the loss of the city's socialist heritage and its seemingly relentless gentrification.
The blocks on Wilhelmstrasse were one of the last large housing projects built before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. When they opened to renters in 1991, members of the former East German Communist elite quickly took up residence there.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, then just starting out on her political career, also lived there in the early 1990s.
Real estate company B.A.R. wants to replace the blocks with a part-residential, part-retail development, and has offered residents alternative accommodation, its lawyer Markus Hennig said.
Critics of the plan - which has been approved by the city authorities but still faces opposition from residents - say it is part of a wave of gentrification which puts profits before people and which is driving many poorer citizens out of central Berlin.
East German buildings and their ageing residents are becoming rarer in Berlin's downtown as real estate investors and developers flock to the city, Daniel Dagan, chairman of the Wilhelmstrasse renters' association, told Reuters.
The apartment blocks, which take up most of the street, were built in the late 1980s to enhance the prestige of the East German government which, then on a path to bankruptcy, funnelled money into the construction of status housing within view of West Berlin just over the Wall.
They look impressive, if not particularly inviting, with their raw, modernist concrete facades and 80s-style geometries.
"Officials in Berlin find them bothersome. Even sympathisers with these buildings will admit that they are not striking architectural beauties," said Katrin Lompscher, spokeswoman for urban development in the Berlin branch of the Left Party which is protesting against the planned demolition.
"But given the current housing shortage in Berlin, it seems odd to tear down the buildings," she said, noting that less than 5 percent of apartments in former socialist housing blocks were empty.
"We need affordable housing in the inner city, and usually that exists in buildings that aren't particularly beautiful."
The buildings are in an area steeped in 20th century German history. Wilhelmstrasse was the administrative centre of the German state until the end of World War Two and is a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's most famous landmark.
Some see a political design in the demolition plans.
Architecture critic Wolfgang Kil suggested it was aimed deliberately at erasing vestiges of old East Berlin. "We are now witnessing the final results of the Cold War - they are being realised in the city plan, just as World War Two was," he said.
Supporters of the redevelopment plans dismiss such concerns. "We do not consider these buildings as historically significant," said B.A.R. lawyer Hennig.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Pravin Char)