Saturday, 14 June 2014

Real-Estate Opportunities for Compact Architecture in Istanbul's Üsküdar District

Istanbul, like many developing cities across the world, is the epicentre of a massive housing bubble  that has seen house and land prices jump beyond the reach of most people. The situation is particularly bad at the central parts of the city. Waves of gentrification have rendered “hip” neighbourhoods such as Cihangir, Galata, Karaköy and Moda unaffordable to their previous inhabitants.

Outside the city centre, numerous fancy housing developments have proliferated. These are aimed at middle-class office workers and their newly-found families. Many such projects lie far away from the city and, while remaining slightly more affordable than the centre, are likewise priced way above their real worth. Most often, their sterile exteriors conceal horribly utilitarian lifestyles in which no human being can discern a meaningful existence. They are dormitories for slaves, bound not by shackle and chain, but by mortgage, rent, car and school payments, and Sisypean “careers” that pay far less than their equivalents in the rest of the world.

 Broadly speaking, a young, well-educated person, living solely on his or her entry-level white-collar wage, has only two choices - either live in a squalid, overpriced apartment at the centre, or be resigned to live away from the city and waste hours of his or her life in traffic every day.


However, while jogging across the Asiatic shores of Istanbul around the borough of Üsküdar, I began to imagine an alternative scenario. Property prices in Üsküdar remain lower than their counterparts on the European side of the city. However, the area is strongly connected to the city centre, mostly by a network of very pleasant boat and ferry rides and a newly-opened underwater crossing (see map above, the red areas are the Üsküdar district.) The only reason Üsküdar’s property prices remain low is due to its conservative population and lack of well-built housing stock. 

Despite these shortcomings, Üsküdar is a very suitable location for a young professional to live in. Rents remain low and it only takes a brief boat ride to cross over to the European side. Life is affordable, and the streets feel far away from the noise and grind of big city life. Although the resident population is made up mostly of conservative immigrants from Anatolia, Üsküdar used to have a diverse, multi-ethnic population of Jews, Armenians and Greeks back in the Ottoman days. Neighbourhoods of Üsküdar still reflect this heritage in their architecture. While running through Üsküdar’s streets, I saw many small, quaint buildings, some left over from past non-Muslim inhabitants, and others built by recent immigrants in a more clumsy style. 

Here are some such buildings from Üsküdar's environs:

Greek house from the 19th century, İmrahor district, Üsküdar.
Colourful row of small immigrant houses, İmrahor district, Üsküdar.
Colorful house, İmrahor district, Üsküdar.
Colorful row of immigrant houses, İmrahor district, Üsküdar.
Greek or Armenian-built single block home, İmrahor district, Üsküdar.
Small modern apartment, possibly built in the 1950s-60s, İmrahor district, Üsküdar.
One-room immigrant house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
One-storey Greek house, Murat Reis district, Üsküdar.
Two-storey Greek or Armenian apartment, Zeynep Kamil district, Üsküdar.
Eclectic triangular two-storey apartment, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Old wooden house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Small three-storey Armenian or Greek shop, Sultantepe district, Üsküdar.
Beautiful Greek shop and house, Sultantepe district, Üsküdar.
Two-storey immigrant house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Two-storey Greek house, Zeynep Kamil district, Üsküdar.
One-storey Jewish house, Kuzguncuk district, Üsküdar.
Two-storey Armenian or Greek house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Two-storey house, Kuzguncuk district, Üsküdar.
Eclectic two-storey house, Kuzguncuk district, Üsküdar.
Set of two small houses, Kuzguncuk district, Üsküdar.
Strange corner apartment, Kuzguncuk district, Üsküdar.
Two-storey house with large balcony, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
1960's-style summer house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Ottoman-era wooden house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
This property was up for sale for nearly 150.000 dollars - a very small sum for a central-location house in Istanbul.
One-storey Greek house, İcadiye district, Üsküdar.
19th-century wooden house, İcadiye district, Üsküdar.
Ramshackle immigrant house, İcadiye district, Üsküdar.
Restored and refurbished house, Kuzguncuk district, Üsküdar.
Slanting house, Selamsız district, Üsküdar
House built against historical wall, Burhaniye district, Üsküdar. 
Real estate office built around old Greek store and house, Emniyet district, Üsküdar. 
Mosaic-covered immigrant building, Emniyet district, Üsküdar. 
Concrete building in the shape of an old Turkish mansion, up for sale, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar. 
Old Greek house with shop below, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Splendid old Greek house, built in 1913, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
Wooden Turkish or Greek house, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar. 
Old house with grandma, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar. 
Beautiful old Greek building, Bağlarbaşı district, Üsküdar.
I looked at all these houses, and thought of all the neat compact buildings made by inventive architects in developed countries. I came to believe that Üsküdar, (and other similar neighbourhoods in Istanbul,) had great potential for such further development.

Compact house in Tokyo, Japan.
Compact house with garden from London.
Compact home from Melbourne, Australia.
Compact house, built on top of three parking spaces, from Sydney, Australia.
After buying such land lots and buildings, one can restore them, or rebuild them as seen above in the examples from the rest of the world. The main point here would be to preserve (or build) each property as a single home, and avoid the temptation to turn them into ugly, multi-storey apartment blocks.

The target audience of such compact houses can be young, mostly single urban workers and expats with an inner-city lifestyle, who commute from their houses in Üsküdar to their jobs in the European shore of the city via boat. Similar buildings across the world have become very valuable investments and desirable properties to live in. If (and when) Istanbul’s real-estate bubble bursts, such houses will retain their desirability while the Kafkaesque housing projects outside the city will evaporate. 

 While the exact financial details of such a project need to be further worked out, I am confident that turning Üsküdar’s small houses into clean, well-designed compact houses can be a lucrative financial opportunity, and a chance to enrich Istanbul with some beautiful and exciting buildings.


2 comments:

  1. Good mental (and running) exercise Memo. It helps to bring these anecdotes into easily graspable and comparable media. It is also a very nice collection of some of the (few) remaining and fine examples of vernacular architecture in this part of town. I am glad you took time off from running to take photos, so many people pass by these areas with these details unnoticed.

    However, such musings, even at this level need more evidence-backing for some of the harder facts. You are a bit off the mark with Uskudar's real-estate value per sq. m. as it is one of the most expensive in Istanbul. Of course, that is a larger district-wide phenomenon but the prices are not much lower in these central neighbourhoods either, due exactly to the points you've raised about its centrality.

    Of course, what happens in Tokyo is to provide residential space for an already squeezed population with exorbitant real-estate prices with very little place elsewhere to go. In order to subset the already high (and what will be increasing) real-estate prices, either very wealthy individuals will buy up the space to owner-occupy and refurbish to their taste (probably as in the example you've shown) or a potential developer will need to subset for the price they are paying for the land (remember, in places like Istanbul, construction prices are extremely high due to land prices, especially when labour, and materials are relatively cheap). That only works when the projects are scaled up (i.e. larger plots, and an increased floor area ratio redevelopment, like we see in all those cheap regeneration projects). In places like Fener - Balat, they've tried to work this via special zoning regulations but it had failed.

    For the type of gentrification procedure to take place as you suggest, more thought needs to be given to what kind of incentives can be created for those who are willing to do such undertaking. That also requires a political body that would reward conservation of such heritage --- or else, it really is down to architectural philanthropy to save such treasures or restructure them into something of value in form and function.

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  2. Thanks Ömer, for your kind thoughts and also the first comment of this blog! :)

    I see your point - it will be difficult to do any sort of “buy-renovate-and-sell” exercise with these houses, financially and perhaps culturally/ethically. But I still think people can use these opportunities for “personal acts of philantrophy,” buying a cheap house in Üsküdar (still cheaper than Şişli, Beşiktaş or Beyoğlu,) renovate and live in it - therefore ending up with an eclectic house close to the city centre, without needing to pay exorbitant rents or mortgage prices.

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