Mechanisms Of Urban Decay

Downtown Kavalla’s mix of well-kept properties and hopeless ruins confuses me. I’ve seen similar in the Baltic States, but there it has to do with uncertainty about the ownership after the Soviet period, I’ve been told. That doesn’t apply here. So I googled real estate agencies and went visiting on my lunch break.

The first clue was simply that I couldn’t find most of the agencies at their stated addresses. One had closed down so recently that the sign was still there and the shop space hadn’t found a new tenant. The real estate market here isn’t exactly booming: demand is low. But eventually I found an open realtor’s office where a woman kindly yet sarcastically told me what I wanted to know.

Here’s why property owners don’t renovate old buildings in Kavalla, according to the realtor I spoke with.

  • You can’t get bank loans.
  • Low demand: even if you have the money, you’ll never make it back in this weak market.
  • Light repairs can be profitable, but there is a point of no return beyond which a property is too run-down for it ever to make you the money back. (I notice that a lot of the worst-kept buildings are low ones with a low potential ratio of tenants to plot acreage.)

Here’s why owners don’t tear the ruins down and redevelop.

  • Heritage protection.
  • Complicated bureaucracy.
  • Low demand.

Here’s why owners don’t just give up and sell their properties.

  • “Who would buy?” No demand for plot acreage. Might as well wait for a century or two.

Yet as I said, there are a lot of well-kept buildings here too, some of them recently renovated. One big difference according to my informant is that public property is usually much better kept than private property. I guess this is because private property has to support its own costs on site, while the government purse is nationwide. Case in point: see the picture above, with the beautiful municipal music school next to a once lavishly appointed ruin in private hands, both on busy Venizelou Street across from St. John’ schoolyard.

But my informant told me of one confusing case that seems to contradict much of the above. Kavalla is full of run-down tobacco warehouses from the early 20th century, when Western smokers still liked Turkish tobacco. One, on Filipou Street, is incongruously in great shape, very recently renovated. A sign proudly proclaims it to be the Euro Mania store, which if I understand correctly used to sell cheap stuff. But it’s closed and has started to attract spray-painted tags. I was told that the Euro Mania store did healthy business until a buyer recently offered the owner €9 million for it and perhaps made a small down payment. The condition was that the owner immediately close down his retail business and evacuate the premises. This seems to have been a handshake deal. But by the time the Euro Mania store had been completely cleaned out, the buyer withdrew his offer. And there it sits, one of Kavalla’s best-kept older private properties, making no money at all.

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Urban Decay and Renewal in Marrakech

I saw something odd in Marrakech recently. Along the main avenues there was a considerable amount of construction going on. But also properties right next door that had clearly been vacated years ago without receiving new buildings. And newish buildings and shop space that were boarded up. Freshly painted fronts of closed restaurants that looked like they’d opened and failed within the past year, right on downtown main street.

Moving out a few blocks from the main drags, there were entire abandoned buildings. And in the Medina / Old Town, buildings that had been abandoned so long ago that they were in ruins, roofless. Right in the middle of extremely densely developed urban quarters. Add to this the townspeople’s timeless habit of using abandoned properties as no-fee garbage dumps, and you can imagine the squalor.

What are the economics of this? Our recently published guide book described an ongoing demographic takeover of the Medina where foreigners are buying up the old riad houses and renovating them as holiday homes. In the face of this demand, the locals are selling out and moving to the suburbs. So there is some demand for properties in Marrakech. But it seems weak or inefficiently mediated. Very alien to me, coming from a country where we only occasionally see severely dilapidated buildings way out in the countryside.