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 in Istanbul

Last winter I was amazed by the poor upkeep afforded to buildings in central Marrakech. I spent part of last week in fascinating Istanbul, and there it was again: plentiful ruins of recent buildings in the middle of busy shopping and hotel districts. Istanbul is in even worse shape than Marrakech. Many older houses are only maintained on the ground floor. There may be eight ruinous floors on top, eroding steadily and falling piecemeal into the street.

Many property owners in Istanbul fit their buildings with horizontal metal-grille shelves sticking out from the facade above the first floor. This keeps bits of a building from falling onto the tourists frequenting the street-level shops that pay the rent. The grilles and their installation must cost a pretty penny. Still owners prefer them to putting the money into renovation.

Again, I wonder about the economics of this. Is the dilapidation a result of some poorly worded rule intended to protect historic buildings? Are the property owners waiting for the old buildings to collapse so they can legitimately tear the remains down and build higher and more profitable structures?

Or is there insufficient demand for housing and office space in central Istanbul, so that the only parts of the buildings that actually pay for themselves are the ones catering to tourists?

Then I thought maybe the problem with getting property owners to pay for upkeep isn’t insufficient carrot, but insufficient whip. Perhaps the reason no Stockholm property owner behaves like this is that if she does, she will get her ass kicked by the authorities. So I asked the city planning office of Stockholm municipality, stadsbyggnadskontoret. And they kindly explained that there are two levels of whip on these issues in Stockholm. The Planning Code demands that you keep your property in good shape: if you don’t, the city planning office will tell you to either get the problem fixed or pay a fine. And if, as is common in Istanbul, your building becomes so decrepit that it’s dangerous to people in or near it, you will no longer be allowed to use your building, for instance by letting out shop space in it.

Or maybe it’s neither carrot nor whip, but a culturally established readiness to see buildings in severe disrepair, combined with a unwillingness or inability to invest now for long-term profit.