Tag Archives: urbanism

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.

Pave the Earth II: Chile loves cars

If there’s one thing that defines the Chilean national character, it’s a love for the countryside. That means that the first thing people do when they can afford it is buy a car. For country-dwellers, a car or truck helps make the rural lifestyle a bit more profitable, as taking crops to market in horse-drawn wagons is more quaint than efficient. For city folks, a car helps people to see the countryside on the weekend. But of course soon enough, a big portion of both country and city folks, once they own cars, become suburban folks. And once they are living in spread-out suburbs, they need another car, and another. It’s a feedback loop we’ve seen all over the world.

I don’t know exactly where Chile is in this process, or whether it’s already too late to halt the sprawl. What’s clear is that the feedback is accelerating. Check this out, from the national statistics office car report, released yesterday: Continue reading