Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Relentless Baku Building Boom

City residents watch in alarm as their skyline is transformed by developers with little regard for planning regulations.
By Samira Husseinova

The high-rise buildings appearing all over Baku threaten to alter the face of the Azerbaijani capital forever, architects say - and much of the construction contravenes the law.

The rate at which multi-storey buildings are being thrown up in the city has tripled or quadrupled over the past six months, and developers are making big profits.

Although Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalibov has assured the public that the high-rise construction would not be allowed to spoil the historic cityscape, that's not how it is working in practice, and some old areas of the city have already been disfigured by tall modern buildings. Many of the new buildings are pressed too close together, and streets have not been broadened to accommodate them.

The city centre is particularly badly affected. "People want to live downtown, and are prepared to pay treble the price for it," IWPR was told at Farah Inshaat construction company.

Architects and urban planning specialists are deeply worried. "It is only natural for a city to change," said Ranko Tripkovic, a French architect who studies Baku's architecture. "But the city needs to lay down firm rules. Baku is a beautiful city with a charm all of its own. It has changed dramatically even since last year. If construction continues at this pace while standards are neglected, in five years' time there will be nothing left to salvage."

Rizvan Bairamov, who heads the Landmark Protection Department at Azerbaijan's culture ministry, explained, "In many cities around the world, there are protected zones around historical buildings and landmarks, keeping new construction at bay. Azerbaijan has no such regulations."

A few weeks ago, the Baku media reported that Baku's famous central market, the Teze Bazaar, would be relocated to clear space for another set of tower blocks. For several hundred market traders and their management, the news came out of the blue.

Laid out in 1949, the Teze Bazaar is one of Baku's landmarks, selling gifts, spices, sweets and caviar. The market is spread over three hectares and employs up to 1,500 people, depending on the season.

Mammedaga Ibrahimov, chairman of the board of the company that manages Teze Bazaar, said reports of the sale were "just a rumour".

"We have not been contacted by anyone wishing to buy the market grounds. But Teze Bazaar is not for sale anyway," he said.

Azerbaijan passed regulations on construction in the mid-Nineties, stipulating that any new building project in the capital must be reviewed and approved by Baku's chief architect. But the legal position surrounding the construction boom is opaque.

"Executive government, as represented by the city's architect-general, has no power to veto a construction project," presidential aide Shahin Aliev told the Zerkalo newspaper. "All it can do is tell the developer what a building proposed for a specific land plot should look like."

Aliev voiced support for preserving the best parts of the city. "In my opinion, the centre of Baku, which was formed in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and is dominated by buildings with five storeys or fewer, is spoiled by multi-storey buildings. Especially since those neighbourhoods are jam-packed with historic landmarks," he said.

Many residents are being relocated against their will as existing residential blocks are redeveloped. Once a permit is obtained from the city authorities, the developer sets about removing local residents, offering them housing elsewhere in the city, or paying compensation.

Some people are unhappy with the terms of their enforced relocation, and are rebelling. Samed Mammedov and Valihad Safarov of Suleiman Rustam Street ended up fighting the developers in court.

Mammedov, who owns a café on this central street, claimed 140,000 US dollars for his property from the developer Global System, which offered him just over half that amount and refused to negotiate further. "The Global System spokesman told me to take what was offered, otherwise he threatened to use his government connections," Mammedov told IWPR.

When Mammedov declined to accept another café in the Yasamal district because it was too far from the city centre, Global System took him to court. The district court temporarily took possession of the café pending a hearing which will determine the value of Mammedov's property.

His neighbour Valihad Safarov got into a similar situation. He said, "Most of our neighbours were refugees and were very poor. They readily agreed to the developer's terms, whereas we are trying to fight for our rights and our property."

Shahin Aliev said that court rulings which forced Baku citizens to sell their land on the developer's terms were against the law, and that some judges were exceeding their powers.

Large amounts of money are being earned in the Baku property boom. Real estate prices in Baku have soared by 50 to 60 per cent over the last year alone. "As recently as a year ago, a single-room near Neftchilar metro station went for 8,000 or 9,000 dollars, but now the same apartment will cost 13,000 to 14,000 dollars," said real estate agent Kamil Gurbanov.

Local people say a lot of scams have been devised to maximise profits. Some developers avoid tax by concealing the real asking price of properties. One Baku resident who recently bought a new apartment in the centre told IWPR that the actual amount he paid was triple the "official" amount named in the papers.

A foreign businessman, who asked not to be named, said that most of the new building designs come from Turkey. "Usually it's [based on] buildings that already exist in Istanbul and other Turkish cities," he said. "It is not difficult to secure the official go-ahead for construction as long as the price is right. Developers wishing to build higher, bribe officials to the tune of between 10,000 and 15,000 dollars per extra storey, depending on location."

The boom is hitting Baku residents who want to buy apartments.

"We've been saving for many years to buy a two-room apartment," said Almaz Jafarova, 36, a housewife. "My husband and I have three children. When we finally had the money to buy it, the prices shot up. Now we can only afford a one-room apartment."

Samira Husseinova is a freelance journalist in Baku. Kamil Piriev is a reporter for Radio France Internationale in Baku.

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