The untold story of Torre de David

Today we get word that the Torre de David in Caracas may be sold/given/loaned/something to a Chinese group to use as offices. This is good news.

The tower, also known as Torre Confinanzas, has become world-famous as a “vertical slum.” Or as I called it in a report on Monocle24, the world’s only squat with a heliport. It’s a 45-story building with a heliport, atrium, and parking garage. When mostly built in 1994, it was abandoned because of financing problems related to a banking crisis in Venezuela. The government’s bank intervenor, Fogade, took ownership of the tower, but did nothing with it for years. The place became a dangerous squat.

In 2007, the mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, helped organize the mass invasion of the tower by hundreds, if not thousands, of families. Within days, hundreds of families stayed there night and day, clearing out trash, booting the addicts who had been squatting there in a less dignified way, clearing out corpses of animals and who knows what else. In the end, the popuation of the building swelled to as much as 5,000. Residents built apartments in the skeleton of the old office building. Today, it’s a barrio (slum) like almost any other — a few things about it are better than the typical peripheral slum, especially the location, professional security controlling access, and decent conflict resolution through a system of floor councils and a building council. Other things are worse, like the danger of falling to one’s death through unfinished shaftways. And many things are about the same — unreliable water, lots of stairs to arrive at one’s home, broken sewer lines.

That’s all old news, right? It’s been in a hundred articles, videos and radio reports (guilty!). But here’s a part that few people know:

Somewhere in the middle of the 2000’s, Fogade prepared to sell the building. A private developer was ready to spend US$50 million on it, and committed to investing another $50 million to complete the building. According to my source inside Fogade, the contracts were written and ready to sign. And then President Hugo Chávez heard about it. He forbade Fogade from selling the building. It would be more fitting as the headquarters of a ministry, rather than being in private hands, Chávez supposedly said.

But the ministries never got the money to complete and refurbish the buildings, and before they could, it was a formal squat and nobody wanted to evict thousands of people.

This isn’t an energy story, but it’s a good story about what happens when ideology gets in the way of policy. I know a lot of people who fight against privatization of anything. In this case, what good did it do to avoid privatization? This building got lived in for 7 years, some kids fell to their deaths, and now the building ends up privatized anyway. It’s hard for me to see this as a big win.

I am just glad to know that the government may find someone who can use the tower for its best and highest use, and that the residents might be given homes. Sadly, their new homes are likely to be crappy, and a similar cycle is most likely to begin anew.

6 thoughts on “The untold story of Torre de David

  1. moctavio

    This will be one tough negotiation as they want to move the people to Cua. It will be a hard sell.

    1. Steven/Setty Post author

      Yup. The Tal Cual story indicates that the residents are going along with it. They have been demanding decent homes the whole time, so it could work. But, with respect to my friends who live there, life in Cua is pretty harsh. I’d take a stinky highrise in Caracas rather than the hot flatlands of Cua and mass transit like this

  2. Darius Wilkins

    Okay, I had a longer comment, but I guess I’ll just keep this one succinct.

    $100 million total is probably (well, almost certainly) not enough money to rehabilitate a long neglected skyscraper.

    Take something like this joburg project to understand the sheer scale of what it means to rehabilitate a neglected skyscraper:

    $40 million or so just to fix up an older, but merely 10 story (and probably simpler) facility. If one were to build a new facility from scratch, it would cost *at least* $350 million. Knowing all of that, how much do you want to bet that the developer plans didn’t actually exist to any real degree and something shadier was going on?

    1. Darius Wilkins

      Whups, I got the rand-dollar conversion wrong. Actually is about $5 million. I’m not sure if my point changes, though. It’s actually pretty hard to find examples of fixing up *neglected* properties rather than facelifts for worked in buildings. My intuition is still inclined to be suspicious that the land is more valuable than the building, and this is some scheme based on that, and needed work/demolition won’t happen after title transfer.

      1. Steven/Setty Post author

        Of course it could be a scam, but the real estate folks at Fogade seemed to think it was the real deal. Having seen the state of that building in 2010, as a non-expert I can imagine that $50 mln would have been enough to get it damn near done in 2007. Now it will be more. Recall that in 2007, it was still easy to find subsidized cement and rebar; glass, plumbing and electrical cable imported at official exchange rates; and labor for a song. The building is really in decent shape — the structure is sound. Most of the windows are installed. It needs elevators, plumbing, electricity & data cabling, machine rooms, interiors and upper-floor windows. But the obra gruesa is mostly done. It will now need a lot of cleaning out as well, but that will be a speedy task; these apartments are not structurally connected to the building. They are set on the cement, not implanted into it.

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