Real Estate & Construction

One Neighborhood, One City

Urban Redevelopment

Istanbul's Tarlabaşı neighborhood is undergoing a program of gentrification, amid a wider urban renewal scheme.

Gentrification is hardly a new phenomenon in history’s great pantheon of rising civilizations, decadent empires, and pulsating demography. In a globalized era of megacities and digital economies, however, it has emerged as a contentious science of policy and protest. From the gentle weaponry of Brixtons’ bearded latte-wielding warriors, to the forcible eviction of favelados from the lush Rio hillsides, gentrification represents a confluence of economic indicators, which graphically depict a nations’ development level.

Istanbul is the engine of Turkey’s undeniably booming economy, with an enviable strategic location, unparalleled history, demographic strength, and concurrent human capital to easily justify an anticipated $100 billion worth of construction projects. Antiquity and the insatiable demands of enterprise suggest a troubled future for the city’s fabled fabric of small historical enclaves represented more in poetry than in balance sheets.
Nowhere is this foundational clash of priorities more starkly portrayed than in the central neighborhood of Tarlabaşı. Comprising a compact 20,000sqm, the site is a mere five-minute walk from the Istiklal Caddesi shopping hub with its cosmopolitan range of multinational usual suspects and boutique stores. With a storied history of ethnic cohesion and dispute played out over the centuries under the shadow of Ottoman buildings and daggered rooftops, Tarlabaşı now represents, in the minds of reflective citizens, a battle for the soul of Istanbul itself.

The Tarlabaşı Renewal Project began in 2006, when the Housing Development Administration of Istanbul (TOKİ) declared it an urban renewal area. Aimed at identifying illegally settled households and clearing land for projects including shopping malls, luxury housing, and tourism development, Beyoğlu Mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan sought to recreate a Turkish Champs-Elysées. Rather than this ambitious vision, the subsequent time lapse has instead seen an unprecedented level of protest against the plans amass in a very public fashion while the gathering storm of real estate investment awaits.

In 2002, building permits were issued for 36 million sqm of space, whereas the first three months of 2014 saw 43 million sqm approved for redevelopment at a cost of $24 billion, double that seen by the spring of 2013. The $100 billion construction lay out will see bridge, rail, and car tunnels snaking underneath the Bosphorus, the demolition of a reputed 50,000 buildings, and, most significantly, the grand opening in 2017 of what promises to be the world’s largest airport.

The calm before the storm has seen local residents evicted or relocated to peripheral suburbs while gentrification knocks on the abandoned doors in the guise of students, artists, and westerners attracted by central locations, lower rents, and a claim to culture that makes satire of the ironic. However, in a positive turn of events, the purgatorial state of Tarlabaşı, as it idly endures pre-reconstruction, has enabled civil society to engage with the government and developers in a more productive manner than before.

An association founded by property owners in Tarlabaşı has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights regarding Beyoğlu Municipality’s urban renewal project, claiming their historical buildings will be demolished. Across the city in Kadıköy, Design Atelier Kadıköy (TAK) represents a collaborative initiative between local cultural foundations, a planning consultancy, and local government to deal holistically with problems blighting the area. Whether these enterprises can blossom into an effective blueprint for peaceful resolution of the glaring disputes remains an irreducibly political matter.

What remains true is that if any city has the inherent capacity to withstand one of the greatest contradictions convulsing cities in the globalized era, it is Istanbul. Abound with history, awash with refugees, relentlessly building atop one of the world’s most perilous fault lines, the city retains an entrepreneurial character that will determine its future far more than these contemporary debates.

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