By Markus Kather and Paul Köper
Are you looking for a small boutique or an antique shop in the north of Berlin’s Schöneberg district? Whereas a few years ago you would stumble into one of them at almost any corner, you are nowadays most probably out of luck. Instead, you will now be presented with an almost countless number of cheap restaurants. The balanced sectoral mix that once was a distinguishing feature of the neighborhood seems now partially replaced by a low quality food concourse. More and more traditional shops are pushed out of the neighborhood. The first assumption of the local authorities was that it’s the increasing number of visitors that is discussed widely at the moment in Berlin and that also can be felt Schöneberg. But is seems like the main reason are not tourists flooding the neighborhood or a change in consumer taste, but mainly found in the changing real estate landscape of Berlin.
It seems like the business landscape in the north of Schöneberg is currently undergoing some drastic changes. Especially in recent years the number of long-established independent businesses between Nollendorfplatz and Winterfeldtplatz, which had to close down or relocate, rose dramatically. Accompanied with this changing business landscape is also an assumed change in the type and quality of labor the local employment market – marking a shift from owner-led retail to chain-store gastronomy.
Inpolis´ task was to record these structural changes. Our second goal was to develop an early warning system that would inform about changes to the current state of the local retail and gastronomy sector and enable local stakeholders to respond appropriately to these changes.
Alongside with an extensive literature research and interviews with key experts from the local government, we executed numerous in-depth interviews and analyzed over 50 questionnaires that we distributed among business owners and their employees in the neighborhood. We were interested in the following issues:
- Their assessment of the current economic situation
- The potential reasons for the latest changes in the business landscape
- The consequences of these changes to their businesses in specific and the neighborhood in general
- Their willingness towards future participation in processes leading to a strengthening of the north of Schöneberg as a location of business.
Our research revealed that in recent years the number of long-established independent businesses in the neighborhood that either had to relocate or to close down is indeed growing. This development is ongoing and more independent businesses, whether it is the drug store or the luxury gift shop, fear their extinction.
Excluding the case of antiques dealers, whose business area is shifting towards digital marketing and sales, long-established independent businesses do surprisingly not see themselves forced to relocate or close down because of missing costumers, but due to staggering rent increases. Our interviewees spoke of rents that increased by €3000 to €5000 from one day to the other. Overall, it seems like the real estate market in Schöneberg has become the playground to anonymous real estate funds and dubious investors. Direct and personal communication between property owners and business operators in a neighborly network has become a rarity.
As a consequence the sectoral mix in the North of Schöneberg shifts from an equilibrium of businesses supplying luxury as well as everyday products to a business landscape dominated by cheap gastronomy. These new restaurants can afford the high rents, as they are usually only branches of citywide operating restaurant chains.
The new sectoral mix, dominated by cheap and part-time labor, is now mainly catering to visitors of the neighborhood, but not to its inhabitants anymore. The impression remains that in course of these developments, the north of Schöneberg is slowly losing its distinct touch and quality of life for local residents decreases.
This is a question of globalized real estate markets – the local authorities (in this case the addressee of our results) have only a very limited scope of action.
Never the less we came up with a few ideas. The first goal of the study was to monitor the development – overhanding a toolkit for ongoing monitoring in the next years gives the local authorities the possibility to keep in touch with the business owners and employees. Especially understanding why the gastronomy sector (and especially chain-restaurants) has a strategic advantage compared to small owner-led stores will help to balance those inequities.
The local and city-wide authorities have a number of legal instruments to react to the situation – from restrictive allocation of new licenses for gastronomy to a stronger supervision of the out-door-use of the restaurants and bars as well as inspecting peace at night. But all those don’t really seem to tackle the heart of the problem.
Any strategy to approach the shifts observed in the districts need to involve the real estate owners. They are of course harder to get involved into a location dialogue than the local businessmen (especially if its international real estate funds, as it is more and more the case in the district) – but their choices have great influence on the fate of the shopping street and therefore we need to find a way to involve them.
There are some examples of low-threshold participation of real estate owners – as informal meetings, discussing their issues, focused on long-term maintenance of value of their property – but also starting to sensitize them for the changes in the neighborhood. (For any further ideas on how to involve owners please comment!)
Another group that can be addressed by a location management are the visitors – they don’t seem to be a mayor driver in the shifts described here – but they maybe could play a larger role for the local businesses. Therefore we are addressing this group in a follow-up study – seeing what features of the neighborhood the use at the moment and how interrelations and benefits for the local businessmen can be increased.
See also the TV report on RBB Klartext from 30.04.14 on the topic (in German)