By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW (Reuters) - For decades, it was home to the Hotel Rossiya, a white concrete-and-glass hulk that for some symbolized Soviet architecture at its soulless worst.
Now, by order of President Vladimir Putin, a prime patch of land off Red Square is to be transformed by a New York firm into a 13-hectare (32-acre) park as part of a drive to make Moscow's congested heart more liveable.
The big lot between the Kremlin's red brick turrets and tiny Orthodox churches dating back to the Middle Ages has been empty since the razing of the Rossiya, a 3,000-room warren built in a 1960s construction frenzy, was completed in 2007.
Many ideas were floated for the site, including a massive complex housing Russia's parliament and government.
Putin stepped in and ordered its use as a park at the height of unprecedented protests that swept through Moscow in 2011-12, attended largely by young urbanites tired of a leader who has dominated politics since 2000.
Putin weathered the protests to win a third term in the Kremlin in March 2012 after four years as prime minister.
On Tuesday, Moscow city authorities announced the winning design project for Zaryadye Park, its name derived from the old neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for the hotel. The new park costs are estimated at up to $200 million.
"We really want the city center to be as pedestrian-friendly as possible, accessible and pleasant for residents and visitors," Sergei Kuznetsov, Moscow's chief architect, said in announcing the winner, the New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro studio.
The firm's design for Zaryadye Park is meant to reflect Russia's diverse climate zones and aims to turn the Moscow River embankment into a popular recreational area instead of a major transport route clogged with heavy traffic.
Construction is expected to start by the end of 2014, but no date was given for completion.
What to make of the lot has been the subject of heated debates in Moscow since the Hotel Rossiya, an eyesore to many, was brought down. A business center, a shopping mall or mixed-use developments had all been on the table.
Putin's close ally, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, has overseen an effort to make central Moscow more accommodating, with pedestrian streets and parking fees, and to spruce up its neighborhoods with more playgrounds and greenery.
(Editing by Steve Gutterman and Ralph Boulton)