Sochi natives brace for another year of construction

A year before athletes converge on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, the Russian seaside city remains a vast construction site, with traffic choking the streets and locals bracing for another year of nonstop work to transform their landscape.

"Construction is everywhere, it is very stressful," said Sochi native Lidiya Naberezhnaya, who lives in the central part of the Black Sea resort city.

"Maybe when work is over, it will be pretty, but now everyone is unhappy," she said of her historic town, which was set up in the early 20th century as a Russian riviera after the Tsarist army colonised the region.

"The city is destroyed, there are traffic jams everywhere, the roads are trashed because of the big construction trucks."

The Sochi area, dotted with palm trees and old buildings, stretches along the Black Sea for about 100 kilometres (60 miles), straddled to the east by the foothills of the Caucasus range.

The main Olympic Park sits far south of Sochi proper, in an area that was formerly an agricultural backwater and the site of one of the region's largest communal farms.

The city is home to a chain of Soviet health spas for industrial workers from the country's north. The retreats were built on a massive scale in the middle of the last century.

Today many of these spas, or sanatoriums, are shadowed by towering skyscrapers erected by investors in recent years, with some buildings as high as 25 floors -- a scale unheard of in the city as recently as a decade ago.

Workers are building new roads in Sochi, but for the moment the main drag, called Kurortny Prospekt (Resort Avenue) is jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

When President Vladimir Putin or other top officials are in town, authorities apparently try to solve the traffic situation by diverting private automobiles to the peripheral highway around Sochi, making all car owners take a roundabout way and adding to their list of grievances.

In addition, thousands of people, including Naberezhnaya, suffer from near daily power outages, which come without a warning and last for hours.

About 50,000 people in Sochi were left without electricity on New Year's Eve, local media reported. The power only returned at 2:00 pm the next day. Two weeks later, dozens of people held a protest near the City Hall.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak on Thursday said the task of improving the city's infrastructure was the reason why the total cost of Olympic-related projects snowballed to $50 billion.

"Everyone was in great discomfort" in Sochi before and "we have resolved most of the transportation and energy infrastructure issues," he told reporters.

But many residents are not convinced the Games will improve their lives.

"A lot has been done for the city, but a lot has been stolen too. The scope of the construction is huge, but it's really thoughtless," said Nikolai Petetsky, a former intelligence officer who moved to Sochi from nearby Stavropol region when he retired in 2007.

"I think in the future there will be less, rather than more tourism, because everything became so expensive," said Petetsky, who is the owner of a small hotel in a central neighbourhood.

"They are thoughtlessly destroying Sochi's greenery, they are destroying historical buildings, Sochi's heritage. There is no city plan, and everything is incredibly dirty."

At the Olympic Park this week, visitors from other parts of Russia enjoyed the sun and balmy climes of about 15 degrees Celsius.

Security officers manning the tightly controlled check points sweated in traditional Russian fur hats and knitted pompom beanies as they directed guard dogs to the visitors' bags and equipment.

Beyond the secure area of the Olympic park, piles of soil and gravel stretched out, dwarfing the remaining residential houses, with their small gardens and "For Rent" signs in the windows covered in construction dust.

"They say about the Olympic Games: 1.3 trillion (rubles) has been spent, with 500 billion going to infrastructure," Sochi resident David Khakim wrote in his blog Wednesday in a rant about the near-daily power outages.

"But we won't be able to see these billions -- it's simply too dark."

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