Istanbul’s Mega-Projects: Bigger Is Better Or A ‘Crazy Canal’?

February 4, 2014

Istanbul has long been a city of historical layers and sharp contrasts: ancient monuments share the skyline none too comfortably with modern skyscrapers, and charming cobbled streets run alongside massive highway traffic snarls.

Those contrasts have multiplied under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his love of giant building projects hasn’t abated after more than a decade in power.

Despite a widening corruption scandal and growing investor wariness about Turkey’s economy, Erdogan is pushing ahead. He wants a third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait, an airport billed as the world’s largest, and a new waterway that would run parallel to the Bosphorus, which critics are calling the “crazy canal.” Two Istanbul neighborhoods face dramatic changes because of the new developments, and people there have very different reactions.

A Fishing Village On The Bosphorus

Garipce is a fishing village on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait. A restaurant and café sit in front of a small natural harbor where a single fishing boat was anchored on a recent afternoon.

Aysa Bayram runs a colorful stand selling preserves, honey and exotic items like buffalo butter. Her view of the harbor has been dramatically altered by giant columns thrusting hundreds of feet into the sky — supports for a third bridge being built across the strait. She says villagers don’t really know what to expect.

“Maybe more people will come to Garipce, that’ll be nice for our restaurant,” she says. “The gossip among the fishermen is that the fishing grounds are being damaged by the construction, but we don’t know if it’s true.”

The changes to Garipce’s serene environs are dramatic. A new highway is being cut through the forest leading to the bridge, and another will provide access to a massive new airport.

Nearby, fisherman-turned-shipwright Omar Oz watches a wooden boat get some badly-needed attention. He hasn’t heard many complaints about the new bridge – just the opposite.

“They say some of the work has created a place where the fish seem to get stuck for awhile, so it’s easier to catch them,” he says, smiling.

A Way Of Life Slipping Away

Inside the minimally furnished fishermen’s café, men play cards and backgammon and grumble about the season, as fishermen do. The anchovies came and went, and the next runs haven’t showed up in any great numbers.

Mustafa Serter, who’s 64, was born and raised here. As he stares out the window at the massive green bridge supports dominating the landscape, he says he’s afraid the younger villagers don’t realize what’s in store.

“The city could probably use another bridge, but it’s going to take something away from this place,” he says. “We’re still sleeping here with our doors unlocked. Soon we’ll be afraid like everyone else.”

There’s a general stoicism here; just about the only request the fishermen have made of government is for a small dock to tie their boats to, which has been ignored for years. Now the government is around in a big way, and Serter isn’t sure he’d call it progress.

“Next year in the sky we’ll see the bridge; instead of the birds we’ll hear the traffic,” he says. “We’re hearing rumors that we’ll be kicked out, and the problem is that half the families here, they’ve been here for decades but don’t have legal papers for their places.”

But if the village of Garipce is circumspect about the government’s passion for development, other parts of this sprawling city are displaying no such doubts.

Hustling To Cash In On The Real Estate Boom

Istanbul has a popular neighborhood called Arnavutköy, known for its historic wooden Ottoman-era houses and great Bosphorus views.

But there’s another Arnavutköy: a noisy urban patch well inland, surrounded by mostly undeveloped fields. In fact, residents say, some of the last large undeveloped tracts in the city are in this district. But not for long, at least that’s what people here are hoping.

It doesn’t take long to notice what’s new on these rather uncharming streets — it seems that every other shop sports a sign saying “emlak,” or real estate. People here figure that with two mega projects going on in the vicinity, it’s time to bet big on rising property values.

Within minutes of arriving, visitors find a real estate agent to helpfully point out the changes coming to the area on a map. The map features a vast space – nearly 19,000 acres reaching to the shores of the Black Sea – that represents the proposed site of Istanbul’s third airport. Real estate agent Bekir Memis says the development will send land prices here soaring, and people are eager to cash in.

“Wherever you buy, you’re going to make money. In the last year property went up 50 percent, and it’s still rising,” he says. “Mostly we’re selling to Germans, or Turks living in Germany, and Arabs, those are the big customers. And the Chinese.”

The ‘Crazy Canal’

Enormous as they are, the third Bosphorus bridge and the new giant airport are dwarfed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s most ambitious plan – digging a new waterway parallel to the Bosphorus.

There are plenty of critics, but the project drew only cheers from Erdogan’s supporters when he introduced it in 2011, saying “Today we are marking the start of work on a canal project that’s so big it cannot be compared with the Panama canal, or the Suez.” He added, “When it’s done we will have two waterways between the Black Sea and Marmara.”

These days, the sheer financial weight of the projects – and the fact that some of the developers involved in them are suspects in an ongoing corruption probe – are raising questions about their viability.

Local opposition has also grown. Borcu Koc with a group called Northern Forest Defense says these projects will mean the end of Istanbul’s last major green space:

“If these projects go through there will be a major deforestation, which has already started, she says. “We’re trying to warn people it will get much, much worse. These forests are the lungs of Istanbul and we will all suffer as a result.”

Believing Despite The Doubts

Analysts point out that not only is financing uncertain for the canal, there are legal problems as well. For one thing, thye say, Erdogan’s plan to move oil tanker traffic to the new canal would violate an international treaty.

But real estate agent Bekir Memis is convinced that the empty fields of the Arnavutköy district — some of which he owns himself — will one day be lucrative waterfront property. He says he knows that day is coming, as long as Erdogan is around to achieve his vision of the new Istanbul:

“If Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t die, that canal will go through,” he says. “That’s what everyone here believes – as long as he’s still here, it will be built.”

Others wonder, however, whether Erdogan’s party will quietly delay or scale back some of these projects, possibly after local elections are finished this spring.

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