In İstanbul's western fringes, realtors gamble on new megacity's rise

Yet all of these projects are about to descend on the sleepy towns and loping hills west of İstanbul, where promises of an “alternative city” are driving a real estate boom that is remaking the region in the concrete image of its eastern neighbor.

In İstanbul's western fringes, realtors gamble on new megacity's rise

World Bulletin / News Desk

Taken together, the projects seem impossible in their scale and expense -- a 30-mile-deep water shipping canal, a new “pop-up city” for 1.5 million residents, a third Bosporus bridge, a new highway network and İstanbul's third airport, hoped to be the world's largest.

Yet all of these projects are about to descend on the sleepy towns and loping hills west of İstanbul, where promises of an “alternative city” are driving a real estate boom that is remaking the region in the concrete image of its eastern neighbor.

Looking over the property maps of realtor Bülent Boral, the opportunities are hard to deny.

“You can't contain this city, and, at the moment, it is headed west,” says the affable ten-year real estate veteran, who proudly announces that he is also the brother of Beşiktaş forward Uğur Boral. “Three years ago, land here was TL 50 a square meter. Today it goes from TL 125 to TL 200 [a square meter]. And I'd say that's not even close to the roof of the market,” he says, conceding on the last point that his view is “somewhat influenced” by his profession.

His office is nevertheless an impressive testament to the boom. Located in a tiny village on the outskirts of Arnavutköy – a 30-minute drive from İstanbul's outskirts -- the sparse farmhouse-made-office is sandwiched between a mosque, a grain elevator and a tiny pasture where sheep munch on lush spring grass. “You have to show people what they're buying, and things are selling out now even back in Arnavutköy,” Boral says, “but investors will even drive here, because this region is where everything is going to come together.”

Just a few kilometers to the north is the vast, (formerly) protected Black Sea forest zone that is slated to become İstanbul's third airport. The $9 billion, six runway project will be rivaled in scale only by a recently approved 30-mile shipping canal, which allegedly will divert shipping from the winding Bosporus to somewhere a few kilometers from Boral's little office. The “crazy project"-- that is what Prime Minsiter Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan himself has called the canal -- is an engineering challenge for which Ankara has so far refrained from listing a price tag. Filling in the space between the two projects will be a state-funded satellite city, a new highway network and a third Bosporus bridge to link “new İstanbul” with Asia, Boral explains.

As if on cue, a passing SUV slows, then stops on the gravely curb. The driver and Boral take to a widescreen computer monitor in his office, where they review plots of buyable land superimposed on a Google-maps-like system. “I see and I buy the same day, deliberating means you lose out,” brags the man, who says he's been buying property here over the past two years. After less than half an hour, the strategy seems less arrogant than necessary. Calling after five properties for his anxious customer, Boral finds that they were all sold earlier that morning by his partner back in Arnavutköy. “People grab a property here within an hour of seeing it, and they throw it back on the market two years later,” Boral says as the man leaves. “It's an impulse market.”

Boral doesn't like the word gambling, but the market seems to have plenty of uncertainties. For one, Ankara hasn't yet announced exactly where the canal will be -- a map on Boral 's wall shows a canal drawn optimistically close to his main holdings, images of cruise ships and sailboats pasted into a lane of ocean blue. But a recent government projection suggested that the canal could connect near the city of Silivri, 18 miles to the west. “No, the location isn't sure, but there are deep lakes near here and a large inlet at Küçükçekmece that make it the logical place,” he says, defending his map.

A few people are also sure how the government will compensate landholders in the canal zone or on future airport grounds. Some are buying up those lands in hopes the government will settle for a higher price, but Boral suggests that the government may reclaim land at bottom dollar. “Often the state can seize land at whatever price they are valued at in municipal land registries,” he says, arguing that those registries are updated infrequently and don't follow the market. “So maybe you can win, but you can also lose.”

But the ultimate loser, argue environmental groups, will be the city itself. Last week, a report by the Environment and Urban Planning Ministry said that over 650,000 trees will be cut down for the airport alone. The ministry's impact report also gave the vague order for a further 1.85 million of the region's 2.5 million trees to be “relocated.” The third Bosporus bridge is also unlikely to be a friend of nature. In 2011, wide opposition to the plan by city planners and environmentalists centered on the fate of the city's last major green spaces and scant drinking water reservoirs.

More subtle damage is meanwhile being done to the city's already flimsy environmental restrictions on building and water pollution. Boral's digital property map indicates “red zones” near water basins and seashores where factories cannot be built, but says that the government has repeatedly narrowed the zones so that industry can move closer to the sea. “There's plenty of guessing about that property; my guess is that much will be open to free development in a few years,” he says.

The realtor is adamant about one advantage, however: “Out here, new buildings only go up with real construction permits and inspections for earthquake readiness. The new İstanbul is much, much safer than the old.”

How long before the two merge, and the long stretch of forested highway leading to Arnavutköy is filled with sprawl? “I don't know. But I have 50 customers a day out here. They all know one thing -- the changes here are going to be big,” says Boral.

Last Mod: 28 Nisan 2013, 15:06
Add Comment