What was once known as “one of Armenia’s best architectural structures” is now subject to demolition. For the past six decades, tourists and locals alike flocked to the Pak Shuka (literal translation “closed market,” meaning covered indoor market), where vendors sold their goods under the massive building’s prominent arches.The historic Pak Shuka Market was a central bazaar constructed in 1952 by engineer Hamazasp Arakelyan and designed by famed architect Grigor Aghababyan (whose 100th anniversary was celebrated in 2011). It was listed on the State List of Immovable Historical and Cultural Monuments of Yerevan as an officially recognized architectural monument. During the Soviet era, when the avenue was named Lenin Prospekt, it was Yerevan’s only market with a fixed roof.
Just months ago, on Jan. 1, the sudden closure of the market—a tourist mainstay in the center of Yerevan, on one of its main arteries Mesrop Mashtots Avenue and the intersection of Amiryan St., across from the Blue Mosque—left shoppers, proud vendors, and some officials confused and angry. This, despite assurances from the management that following a renovation, the market would revert to its original splendor and vendors would be able to flaunt their goods as before. Around 70 salespeople working for the vendors were left without a job.
About a year earlier, in January 2011, under the administration of former Yerevan Mayor Karen Karapetyan (who was the former head of ArmRosGazprom), a ban on street trade was adopted, based on a 2005 law on trade and services that banned open-air sales of all produce and goods except ice cream, flowers, and soft drinks. The goals of the ban were to clean up the streets of the capital and ensure that traders conducted business under sanitary conditions. With the departure, however, of many lively characters, the city has reportedly undergone quite a transformation. The ban affected some 3,000 traders (unofficial estimates put the number at 10,000), among whom were backyard farmers and others who would regularly come from outlying areas of Yerevan to set up shop on the sidewalks—as they couldn’t afford to pay the rent of 1,300-1,500 drams (about $3.25-$4) daily for the stalls in most of the city’s existing markets. The Municipality Department of Trade and Services began offering the traders space at any of the 30 covered markets in the city, some of them with a first-6-months free option. The city also started building a number of mini-markets. By then, the opening of a variety of convenient supermarkets in every neighborhood of Yerevan in recent years had already taken a toll on the markets, as well as street trade.
On Jan. 7, Tiv 1 Shuka CSJC, the company in charge of the renovation, began demolishing the inside of the landmark, which held ornate stone carvings considered by some as architectural jewels and massive intricate iron gates considered as the “gateway to the capital.” For the average Yerevantsi, to shop there was an expensive proposition, compared to the regular markets. In its heyday, once inside, tourists entered another universe, where they experienced true Armenian culture and hospitality, and were greeted by a myriad of proud and friendly vendors offering them samples—from the latest fresh harvest of organic fruits and vegetables, intricate displays of dried fruits and nuts, spices and herbs, an assortment of meats, seafood, and poultry, fresh lavash bread, sheets of dried fruit syrup (ttu lavash, or sour lavash) or roll-ups, and the ever-present fruit sujukh (shelled walnuts threaded on a string, dipped in grape molasses, then hung to dry until a thick and tender coat covers it in the form of a sausage). Pak Shuka offered an amazing range of goods and souvenirs, something to satisfy every appetite, all displayed on attractive stalls and decorated booths. Experiencing the atmosphere, color, and aroma was described as visiting a veritable “colorful museum of food.”
The current owner of the building, Samvel Aleksanyan (b. 1968 in Yerevan), a businessman (he owns the Yerevan City supermarket chain) and parliamentarian representing the Republican Party of Armenia, has tried to reassure Yerevantsis that he only plans to renovate the building and construct an underground parking area. Yet, despite his persistent denials, rumors abound that he plans to relocate his largest four-story supermarket to the site of the Pak Shuka building. Aleksanyan’s company, Fleetfood, Armenia’s largest food import conglomerate, enjoys a de facto monopoly on the highly lucrative imports of wheat, sugar, alcohol, and cooking oil to Armenia. He’s one of the country’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, widely known as “Lfik Samo” (a nickname where “Lfik” comes from the Russian word for bra, as Samvel’s father owned a bra shop in Soviet times).
Aleksanyan acquired Pak Shuka in September 2011 from fellow oligarch and MP Gagik Tsarukyan (b. 1956 in Arinj), also known by his nickname “Dodi Gago.” Tsarukyan still owns G.U.M., the other major indoor market in the capital. A former sportsman (arm wrestling), he is the founder and head of the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) and, since December 2008, the head of Armenia’s National Olympic Committee (NOC). Readers of the Armenian Weekly might recognize his name from an earlier article as the wealthy businessman who promised $700,000 to the scorer of an Olympic gold medal, in addition to a series of monetary rewards by the government to Armenia. Tsarukyan, along with Aleksanyan (also known as the “Informal ‘Feudal Lord’ of Malatia”), is considered to be one of the most influential of Armenia’s government-connected oligarchs. He owns Multi Group, a holding company that oversees his interests.
According to Aleksanyan, a few months after buying the landmark building in September 2001, a draft plan for a supermarket was filed at the Armenian Ministry of Culture with the Monuments Preservation Agency. He insists that once the proper modernization is complete, standardized booths are in place, and an underground parking facility is built under the market floor, there will be a number of new shops opened inside where the storage areas used to be, which will operate alongside the food vendors, resulting in the creation of up to 300 new jobs. Around 25 vendor villagers, some of whom come from different parts of the country, were temporarily relocated to the Masif market, says Aleksanyan, with a plan to bring them back to Pak Shuka when it reopened. He further claims that the market had fallen on hard times, with facilities inside the market needing quick attention, including toilet facilities and problems with the running water. These claims are supported by Yerevan Municipality spokespersons who say the architectural elements of the renovated building will remain intact—another one of Aleksanyan’s guarantees to the public. Odds, however, are that the new version will not be quite the same as the original. In fact, some of the vendors may not be able to return given the probable rent hikes and the larger new retail stalls.
On Jan. 19, Hasmig Poghosyan, the minister of culture, announced at a press conference that since no plans had yet been submitted, all the renovations to the interior of the building (except the work underground for the parking area) had been halted following an order from authorities at the Yerevan Municipality. Yet, by early February, photos showing the dismantling of parts of the roof began to inundate social media sites. On March 7, the Ministry of Culture defined the building as a third-level wrecking structure, and the Ministry of Urban Development released a report on the condition of the building. It subsequently suspended the ongoing dismantling, and required that an architectural plan be put in place to repair the reinforced concrete structures and replace them one at a time. The construction company was fined 200,000 drams (around $510 USD) for their earlier attempts at demolishing the building. On learning that the latest renovations were being carried out without the proper license, Mayor Taron Margaryan sent a team to investigate. Construction was halted and the site placed under close scrutiny. A team of experts from the Ministry of Culture and the Yerevan Municipality formed a joint commission to review the damage and propose concrete recommendations on how to proceed.
Then on Sun., May 27, early in the morning and in the darkness of night, heavy machinery brought down some of the building’s arches. The experts from the joint commission visited the site and verified that six arched roof sections of the building had been demolished, and late in the evening suspended further construction work at the site. Those working on the underground foundation of the building had apparently noticed that some of the ferro-concrete arches in the back of the building needed attention, and while they tried to take down the damaged ones, other arches connected to them collapsed as well.
The next day, on May 28, the joint commission came out with a protocol allowing construction only in the underground part of the building. Word got around that no official permit had yet been acquired for the demolition work in other parts of the building, prompting Margaryan to, late in the evening of May 28, publically admit the collapse had occurred as the workers were trying to buttress the arches, but that the steps taken were to avoid further accidental structural collapse. Also on the same day, a group of activists of the “Let’s Save Pak Shuka” protested the dismantling and demanded their inclusion in the decision-making meeting on the market’s future. One group, headed by former MP Stepan Safaryan of the Heritage Party, collected signatures demanding an end to the dismantling, and turned the petitions over to the police department. He said he wanted everyone to realize that, in addition to the lack of the proper documents, there were no architectural plans, nor renditions of the proposed renovation, had been submitted. Activists from different backgrounds continue to take every conceivable measure to forestall the destruction of Yerevan’s important architectural landmark.
On May 31, Gayane Durgaryan, the head of the public relations office of the Ministry of Culture, in an attempt to counter the many rumors, issued the following statement: “The construction company did not submit the project of additional stories to the Ministry of Culture.” Durgaryan also confirmed that the exterior of the market would be preserved, as new solutions were being applied to other areas, including modifying the building entrance for handicapped access. She said the head of the Yerevan Territorial Department of the Agency for Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Karo Ayvazyan, was going to visit the storage location of the doors to the building; the engravings on the market doors are similar to the bas-reliefs on the altar of the Makaravank Monastery of the 10th-13th centuries.
On June 12, the special joint commission released some of its findings. They outlined several violations, including the fact that some of the renovation work done had overstepped the bounds set in the approved architectural plan, and that the earlier collapse of the arched sections of the building was a direct result of the unauthorized work performed by the construction company. The joint commission requested the immediate reinforcement of the underground parking foundations, and asked the developer to file a new architectural plan and blueprints for the ongoing renovation, delineating the fact that all exterior and interior design elements of Pak Shuka were to be preserved.
In a video interview with CivilNetTV correspondents on May 28, posted on YouTube on May 31, Aleksanyan is heard saying, “About the Covered Market…I’m saying it for the last time…it started falling apart by itself because it’s a building from 1952. A committee has been formed to find out what caused it to crumble.” When confronted about the presence of construction vehicles in the building the night before, he responded, “Those weren’t construction machines. They were just there to hold up the wall so it couldn’t crumble on people. We have secured it so nothing will happen.” The interview goes on:
Q. But why would it start crumbling?
A. Ask the committee after they give their final conclusion.
Q. So you wouldn’t destroy it?
Q. Was it predictable?
A. The building was in very bad shape. The seismologists had stated that it should be taken down anyway, but I don’t know why they didn’t demolish it then.
Q. So would you like to keep those arches?
A. Why wouldn’t I? Why not?
Q. A lot of people are saying that it’s going to become a supermarket. Will you speak about the general project? What have you planned to do?
A. People say a lot of things… You can go stand under those [market] walls and hear whatever you want to hear.
Q. What is it going to be, in the end?
A. A market.
Q. What kind of a market?
A. A food market, as it was before.
Q. What will it look like?
A. The market will look the same.
Q. Will it have many stories? They say there will be 4 floors.
A. Says who? Who says that?
Q. The media…
A. Who is saying that?
Q. OK, why don’t you tell us about the plans concerning the building. Tell us what you’ve planned so we don’t have to listen to the rumors.
A. There will be a market. A one-story market.
Q. Will the columns be restored?
Q. Mr. Aleksanyan, how will you cover the expenses later? After all, you are a serious businessman, you must have considered the risks. How will a one-story market cover the expenses, especially when it was there before and people said it was a very bad business, it did not profit.
A. The market has not been renovated in over 20-30 years.
Q. Will there be windows?
A. Windows? Of course there will be windows.
Q. But you were aware from the beginning that the building is an old one?
A. I did not know that the building was in such bad shape.
Q. Is it possible that you will restore the columns?
A. I already told you, yes.
Q. So, you’ll try to achieve the same look as before.
Q. Will it be like “Yerevan City” supermarkets? Why isn’t there an architect working with you? It is a violation of the law since there are only engineers working there. I talked to them yesterday.
A. We had permits for the parking, we are doing work there. As for the rest, the upper part, when the papers are ready, we’ll proceed.
Q. Mr. Aleksanyan, will there be a sign saying “Yerevan City” on any part of the market?
A. No, there won’t be. It will be Yerevan Market.
Q. But G.U.M. Market is Yerevan Market. [G.U.M. Market is another famous market in Yerevan, the official name of which is "Yerevan Market."]
A. Well what can I say?
Q. Gagik Beglaryan [the minister of transportation and communications, also a former mayor of Yerevan] will argue with you… Will you be the main provider of the market goods?
A. Who was the provider before? Was it me?
Q. Whoever did it before will keep doing it.
A. How many people were there standing and selling things? How many years ago were you there last ?
Q. I went to the market often.
A. Oh did you?
Yet, in a May 31 article by Grisha Balasanyan on Hetq.am, Aleksanyan seemed to have changed his story: Although he once again claims that the Pak Shuka building will remain a one-story market, in response to an often-asked question—whether there will be a Yerevan City supermarket in the renovated building, possibly the largest one in the chain of markets he owns—he answers, “If the people demand it, a part of the building will house a Yerevan City market.”
The controversy over Pak Shuka is the latest in a string of historical structures slated for demolition or sale for newer developments across Yerevan, resulting in a wave of initiatives, including an Open Letter to Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan and Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan by concerned citizens, activists, NGO’s, and officials to save the market. They ask that any further modifications to the interior of the building be reviewed by the Urban Development Council and discussed in public awareness campaigns, with the goal of preventing the further loss of landmarks that represent the city’s cultural and historic heritage.
If their efforts are not successful, then Yerevan as designed by the great architect Alexander Tamanyan is at risk. The city’s unique architectural landmarks must be preserved and passed on to the next generation for safekeeping. If MP Aleksanyan shares that outlook, then there is no reason he can’t step up to the challenge, given his considerable wealth, in modernizing while restoring both the interior and exterior of Pak Shuka to its former splendor. Estimates are that the renovation may take three to five years to complete. The demolition of this unique structure would be a major disservice to the citizens of Yerevan, and denies future tourists a must-visit.
While communities around the world harken back to the days of fresh, organic, and local produce, and indoor and outdoor markets are valued and supported, the closure of Pak Shuka sits in stark contrast.
"The Armenian Weekly," September 10, 2011