Burj al Babas, billed as a luxury housing development near Mudurnu, a village roughly halfway between Istanbul and Ankara, was left unfinished last year after its developers Sarot Property Group went bankrupt.
The future of the 300 closely packed chateaux – which cost an estimated £151m to build – is now uncertain and the project has become a cautionary tale for other developers in Turkey’s debt-laden construction sector.
Work began in 2014 on units primarily designed as holiday homes for wealthy Gulf tourists. The plans also included Turkish baths and an entertainment complex.
Only a handful of the £379,000 Disney-style homes were sold, however, and several investors have since pulled out, Mezher Yerdelen, deputy chair of the Sarot Property Group, told Agence France-Presse.
Of 732 planned buildings, 587 were completed, and the company is now £20m in debt.
The construction project has long been hated by Mudurnu locals, who say it is not in keeping with the area’s traditional architecture, characterised by Byzantine buildings, traditional Ottoman wooden houses and a 600-year-old mosque.
Since Burj al Babas got the go-ahead, the Turkish government has introduced new building regulations designed to preserve local character and heritage. In several places, housing developments must now be low-rise and fit in with existing neighbourhoods.
But it may be too late to undo some of the damage, said Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, an Istanbul-based urban development researcher. “I worry that projects like Burj al Babas opened Pandora’s box, in some respects,” he said. “Developments without proper planning that do not contextualise the geography and history of their surroundings have exploded in Turkey since.”
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has encouraged a construction boom during his time in office, hailing large, job-heavy infrastructure projects as the engine of the Turkish economy.
However, the weakening Turkish lira has left many companies struggling to pay off the foreign currency debt borrowed to finance projects, stalling work and bankrupting companies. The collapsing construction bubble has resulted in half-finished high-rises and ghost towns all over the country.
Atilla Yesilada, Turkey analyst for GlobalSource Partners, an emerging markets analysis firm, said Burj al Babas’s fate was a snapshot of the wider malaise plaguing the Turkish construction sector. “It’s not just the homebuilders who go bankrupt. The people who supply goods to those industries – the architects, the technicians, the glass makers – those people suffer too,” he said.
Last year, Turkey slashed the financial and investment criteria for foreigners to become Turkish citizens, in a move it is hoped will double annual property investment by foreigners to around £7.6bn.
Despite no sure indications that the country’s economic woes will reverse in the near future, Sarot Group is still hopeful Gulf investors, lured by the prospect of Turkish passports, will return and Burj al Babas will be finished.
“We only need to sell 100 villas to pay off our debt,” said Yerdelen. “I believe we can get over this crisis in four to five months and partially inaugurate the project in 2019.”
Article originally published in The Guardian.