Collapse of building in Istanbul highlights risk city faces from earthquake, as urban renewal projects continue full steam.

The collapse of an abandoned six-storey apartment on January 13 is a stark reminder of the cost Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, could pay in the event of a devastating earthquake. While the building had been evacuated in 2015 and was awaiting redevelopment, its collapse still killed two ill-fated passers-by. Abandoned buildings are a common sight across the sprawling metropolis, many of which are earmarked for regeneration in a continuing process of large-scale urban renewal, while numerous buildings deemed at risk are still occupied. A similar collapse had occurred just months prior, in February, close to the famous Taksim Square. Luckily, nobody lost their life in that incident, despite the building being actively used, but the latest calamity reinforces the reality that Istanbul is on shaky ground and rapidly running out of time.

Urban renewal efforts began in earnest in the years following the 1999 earthquake, in which 17,000 people lost their lives and around half a million were left homeless. While the nearby city of Izmit saw the most damage, the Avcılar district of Istanbul, built on weak ground, also witnessed extensive destruction.

Speaking just two days after the tragic events of January 13, Turkey's Environment and Urbanization Minister Mehmet Özhaseki announced that 50,000 buildings, totaling 250,000 residential units housing 1.2 million people, have been identified as at risk. A total of 48 areas across 19 districts covering 13 million sqm in Istanbul have been determined as particularly under threat, and will be the focus of urban renewal going forward. And far from considering the efforts a burden, the government has seen the opportunity to inject energy into the local construction sector. “The construction sector [positively] influences over 200 segments," said the minister, who also commented that “perhaps [urban renewal] could be a medicine for economic sluggishness," reflecting the opportunities for profit that so often emerge in the wake of untold urban catastrophe.

Heading up the majority of urban renewal projects is state-owned social housing developer TOKİ, which is currently on a mission to develop 1 million housing units by 2023, the centenary of the Republic and a year that features prominently in ruling-party publicity. The developer has committed to ensuring that 40% of its social housing is built under urban transformation/renewal schemes, and over 2016 focused on areas in Istanbul that, combined, totaled the size of 71 football fields. Over the course of the year, the firm tendered projects in the Gaziosmanpaşa, Esenler, Güngören, Üsküdar, Beyoğlu, Bayrampaşa, and Bağcılar districts of the city. And while most of these areas are purely residential, some projects are taking place in more prominent areas of the city.

One such project is the Tarlabaşı Urban Renewal Project, which has become a symbol of gentrification efforts on the outskirts of Beyoğlu, a popular destination for tourists and Istanbulites alike. The project, run by the Beyoğlu Municipality and Çalık Holding, a large local construction and real estate group, envisages the development, renewal, and restoration of over 200 buildings, including office and residential space, expected to be completed in 2017. The project isn't without its fair share of controversy, however. Concerns revolve around the damage being done to the historic aesthetic of the area, as well as that too much of the neighborhood has been zoned for touristic and business purposes, a reality that, combined with rising prices, will force people into other parts of the city. The neighborhood has become popular with African and Middle Eastern migrants in recent years, having been a popular destination for Kurdish migrants in the 1990s.

Moving forward, vast urban renewal projects have also started to have an effect on supply and demand, with local Hürriyet newspaper reporting in December that prices had dropped by up to 20% in certain parts of the city as an oversupply kicks in. The fall in housing prices has been especially pronounced in high-end units and in neighborhoods targeted by large-scale urban transformation projects. Turkey has an annual housing requirement of 600,000 units on average, with urban renewal putting supply above that by up to 200,00-300,000 units, according to Housing Developers and Investors Organization head Ömer Faruk Çelik.

That said, sector insiders also point to a number of other factors, including an oversupply in apartments for rent as families re-housed in urban renewal efforts begin to move back to their newly completed accommodation, terminating rental contracts, as well as a natural readjustment in prices brought about by the harsh realities of a struggling economy.

Experts are now predicting that an earthquake of 7 or more in magnitude will strike Istanbul within the next 30 years, or by some estimates at a probability of 2% a year, putting the city into the same risk bracket as San Francisco and Tokyo. With this in mind, the race is on to ensure the city's stock of old buildings is replenished in time, but observers are hoping that the process will not be accompanied by some of the gentrification's most detrimental effects.