Cablegate: Kucukarmutlu: Apple of Istanbul's Eye And

Published: Tue 9 Nov 2004 06:48 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: 03 ANKARA 2914
1. (u) Summary: A storm is brewing in the Istanbul
neighborhood of Kucukarmutlu, pitting Istanbul Technical
University (ITU) and its plans for a technology park against
local residents and politicians. ITU recently reiterated its
intention to seek implementation of court decisions to evict
tens of thousands of illegal residents on 90 hectares of land
it owns in Kucukarmutlu, one of the largest remaining
"gecekondu," or squatter, neighborhoods in central Istanbul
(Note: Istanbul's sprawling poorer suburbs still contain such
neighborhoods). Although merely the most recent of many such
disputes, its breath-taking views of the Bosphorus and
convenient proximity to downtown Istanbul make Kucukarmutlu a
particularly contentious and intractable dispute between the
rule of law and political expediency and reality. End
2. (u) Settled between 40 and 50 years ago by economic
migrants from the Black Sea and central Anatolia,
Kucukarmutlu tells a story typical of greater Istanbul. Poor
city planning and an inability to absorb a flood of
immigrants led many of the poorer arrivals to construct their
own housing on whatever available land they could find.
Local politicians eager for fresh votes looked the other way
as these "gecekondu," or squatter, settlements illegally
appropriated both government and private property. In an
effort to meet the needs of constituents and appeal for their
votes, local officials later began to provide municipal
services (e.g., water, electricity) to these communities,
gradually converting them to more established neighborhoods.
Today, with newly paved roads, bus routes, schools, mosques,
an array of local businesses, and even some middle-to-higher
quality housing stock, only its relative poverty and
incongruous breath-taking views of the Bosphorus distinguish
Kucukarmutlu from other central Istanbul neighborhoods. A
resident and shopkeeper boasted recently to poloff that
Kucukarmutlu is "the apple of Istanbul's eye."
3. (sbu) Istanbul courts have already ruled in favor of ITU
in hundreds of legal cases in the neighborhood. Now worried
they may be evicted from their homes, thousands of
Kucukarmutlu residents marched on October 18 to the offices
of Sariyer district Mayor Yusuf Tulun. In his second
(non-consecutive) term as Sariyer mayor, Tulun told the press
that his office opposed the ITU project. "There isn't a
square centimeter of empty space. They (ITU) made their
plans without asking us... We should give the people deeds
(to their houses)," he added. In an earlier meeting with
poloff, Tulun emphasized his desire to be responsive to his
constituents and detailed plans for popular projects in each
of Sariyer's neighborhoods. Nurettin Cosan, the elected
neighborhood representative for most of Kucukarmutlu,
separately told poloff that both his constituents and the
university are victims in this matter; a just solution must
be found that takes care of all concerned (read: the
government or city should shoulder the costs involved). ITU
Rector Faruk Karadogan told poloff that ITU is determined to
keep the land. If the politicians are willing to take
responsibility for the situation, however, Karadogan thinks a
win-win solution can be found (probably by building larger
apartment blocks and relocating some residents).
4. (sbu) Despite the fact that much of the land in
Kucukarmutlu belongs to the greater Istanbul municipality,
senior Istanbul officials are largely sympathetic to the
plight of the Kucukarmutlu residents. Ramazan Evren, the
Secretary General of the Istanbul Municipality, reminded
poloff that the city had reached relocation agreements with a
number of Kucukarmutlu residents in order to expand a key
access road through the neighborhood to the city's major
international highway. He estimated, however, that similar
agreements for the whole area would cost USD 1 billion -- a
price neither the city nor the government is prepared to
shoulder (Note: Because many of the residents merely "rent"
their apartments, Karadogan claims the costs would be lower).
Evren noted that the city is working closely with ITU (a
claim that Karadogan denied), the Sariyer municipality, and
others to look for solutions, but added that he could not
envision any in which the neighborhood would be evacuated.
Ilker Ayci, newly-appointed member of the Istanbul Exceutive
Committee, concurred that the neighborhood was unlikely to be
evacuated. He shrugged his shoulders, reminded poloff that
the problem began decades ago, and remarked, "we just got
caught holding the hot potato."
5. (u) Mahmut Ovur, Istanbul editor for daily Sabah
newspaper, described the situation in similar terms. Despite
having a valid property deed and court decisions to back its
claims, Ovur saw no chance at all for ITU to have the
eviction decisions enforced. Instead, he argued that, in all
likelihood, ITU was merely hoping to force local officials to
compensate it with another piece of land elsewhere.
According to Ovur, in addition to proper city planning (long
absent in Istanbul), the solution to such gecekondu problems
is to open up new land for development and to sell squatters
the deeds to their land (ideas supported by PM Erdogan in
proposed reforms last year, reftel). Ovur predicted that
after Turkey gets its invitation to begin EU negotiations in
December, the AKP government would push ahead with reforms
along these lines. The bigger problem, according to Ovur, is
illegal construction. Most buildings in Istanbul are built
on legally-owned land, but without proper building permits.
As a result, tens of thousands of buildings (with more being
built every day) are now believed to be susceptible to damage
or collapse in a major earthquake. Reinforcing or rebuilding
them would cost tens of billions of dollars and the city has
yet to put forth a plan to address this key issue.
6. (sbu) Comment: Only seven months in office, the new
Istanbul municipality has already grappled with several
property issues. Plans to demolish buildings susceptible to
flood damage in the Alibeykoy neighborhood sparked public
outrage until the city offered generous relocation packages
to affected residents. Even after concluding similar offers
prior to the destruction of a dozen or so buildings in the
Pendik district to make room for a school, local officials
and police faced open riots by nervous gecekondu residents
there. Given the difficulties sparked by these small-scale
problems, it is highly unlikely that local officials would be
capable (were they so inclined) of evacuating the much-larger
contested area in the Kucukarmutlu neighborhood. Current
political realities will dictate that the rule of law take a
back seat in this dispute. Its implications, however, for
the city's ability to address the much larger and more
serious issues of illegal construction and earthquake
preparedness are worrying.
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