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Put us on the map, please: China’s smaller cities go wild for starchitecture

From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to the centre of braised chicken reinventing itself as Solar Valley, Chinas second (and third) tier cities are hiring big-name architects to get them noticed

From egg-shaped concert halls to skyscrapers reminiscent of big pairs of pants, Chinas top cities are famously full of curious monuments to architectural ambition. But as land prices in the main metropolises have shot into the stratosphere, developers have been scrambling to buy up plots in the countrys second and third-tier cities, spawning a new generation of delirious plans in the provinces. President Xi Jinping may have issued a directive last year outlawing oversized, xenocentric, weird buildings, but many of these schemes were already well under way; his diktat has proved to be no obstacle to mayoral hubris yet.

From Harbin City of Music to Dezhou Solar Valley, provincial capitals are branding themselves as themed enclaves of culture and industry to attract inward investment, and commissioning scores of bold buildings to match. Even where there is no demand, city bureaucrats are relentlessly selling off land for development, hawking plots as the primary form of income accounting for 80% of municipal revenues in some cases. In the last two months alone, 50 Chinese cities received a total of 453bn yuan (54bn) from land auctions , a 73% increase on last year, and its the provincial capitals that are leading the way.

At the same time, Xis national culture drive has seen countless museums, concert halls and opera houses spring up across the country, often used as sweeteners for land deals, conceived as the jewels at the centre of glistening mixed-used visions (that sometimes never arrive). Culture, said Xi, is the prerequisite of the great renaissance of the Chinese people, but it has also proved to be a powerful lubricant for ever more real estate speculation even if the production of content to fill these great halls cant quite keep up with the insatiable building boom.
From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to cavernous libraries, heres a glimpse of whats emerging in the regions.

Fake Hills, Beihai

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A render of how the Fake Hills would look. Illustration: MAD architects

Forming an 800 metre-long cliff-face along the coast of the southern port city of Beihai, the Fake Hills housing block is the work of Ma Yansong, Chinas homegrown conjuror of sinuous, globular forms whose practice is appropriately named MAD. Having studied at Yale and worked with Zaha Hadid in London, where he nourished his penchant for blobs, Ma has spent the last decade dreaming up improbable mountain-shaped megastructures across the country.

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Less scenic mountain and more lumpen collision of colossal cruise-liners The first phase of construction on Fake Hills has been completed. Photograph: MAD

As it rises and falls, the undulating roofline of Fake Hills forms terraces for badminton and tennis courts, as well as a garden and swimming pool. Sadly the overall effect is less scenic mountain range than a lumpen collision of colossal cruise-liners.

Greenland Tower, Chengdu

Greenland
Greenland Tower, Chengdu. The building harks back to the crystalline dreams of early 20th-century German architect Bruno Taut. Illustration: Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture

A crystalline spire rising 468 metres above the 18 million-strong metropolis of Chengdu, the Greenland Tower will be the tallest building in southwestern China, standing as a sharply chiselled monument to the countrys (and by some counts the worlds) largest property developer, Greenland Holdings. It is designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, architects of Dubais Burj Khalifa, who say the faceted shaft is a reference to the unique ice mountain topography of the region. It harks back to the crystalline dreams of early 20th-century German architect Bruno Taut, who imagined a dazzling glass city crown to celebrate socialism and agriculture; whether Sichuans farmers will be welcomed into the penthouse sky garden remains to be seen.

Sun-Moon mansion, Dezhou

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A rival to Silicon Valley the Sun-Moon mansion of Solar Valley, Dezhou. Photograph: Alamy

Once known as a centre of braised chicken production, the city of Dezhou in the north-eastern province of Shandong now brands itself as Solar Valley, a renewable energy centre intended to rival Californias Silicon Valley. At its heart is the Sun-Moon mansion, a vast fan-shaped office building powered by an arc of solar panels on its roof. It is the brainchild of Huang Ming, aka Chinas sun king, an oil industry engineer turned solar energy tycoon who heads the Himin Solar Energy Group, the worlds biggest producer of solar water heaters as well as purveyor of sun-warmed toilet seats and solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheels.

Harbin Opera House

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Harbin Opera House, with the St Petersburg of the east in the background. Photograph: View Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock

Nicknamed the St Petersburg of the east, the far northern city of Harbin has long had a thriving cultural scene as a gateway to Russia and beyond. In the 1920s, fashions from Paris and Moscow arrived here before they reached Shanghai, and it was home to the countrys first symphony orchestra, made up of mostly Russian musicians.

Inside
Inside Harbin Opera House. Photograph: View Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock

Declared city of music in 2010, Harbin has recently pumped millions into a gleaming new concert hall by Arata Isozaki, a gargantuan neo-classical conservatory and an 80,000 sq metre whipped meringue of an opera house by MAD. Shaped like a pair of snowy dunes, up which visitors can climb on snaking paths, the building contains a sinuous timber-lined auditorium designed as an eroded block of wood.

Tianjin Binhai library

Tianjin
Tianjin Binhai library. Illustration: MVRDV

Due to open this summer in the sprawling port city of Tianjin, this space-age library by Dutch architects MVRDV is imagined as a gaping cave of books, carved out from within an oblong glass block. The shelves form a terraced landscape of seating, wrapping around a giant mirrored sphere auditorium that nestles in the middle of the space like a pearl in an oyster.

The
Inside the space-age Tianjin Binhai library. Illustration: MVRDV

Along with a new theatre, congress centre and a science and technology museum by Bernard Tschumi, the building forms part of a new cultural quarter for the city, itself being swallowed into the planned Beijing-Tianjin mega-region population 130 million, thats more than Japan.

Huaguoyuan Towers, Guiyang

Huaguoyuan
Arups twin towers are almost complete. Illustration: LWK & Partners

Nowhere in China is the disparity between economic reality and architectural ambition more stark than in Guiyang, capital of rural Guizhou, the poorest province in the country, which has the fifth most skyscraper plans of any Chinese city. The twin 335-metre towers of the Huaguoyuan development, by Arup, are now almost complete, standing as the centrepiece of a new mixed-use office, retail and entertainment complex, while SOM is busy conjuring the even higher Cultural Plaza Tower, a 521-metre glass spear that will soar above a new riverfront world of shopping malls and theatres. It has the glitz and gloss of any other Chinese citys new central business district, but as Knight Franks David Ji points out: It will be hard for a city like Guiyang to find quality tenants to fill the space.

Yubei agricultural park, Chongqing

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Will Alsops Yubei agricultural park. Illustration: Will Alsop

Architectural funster Will Alsop may finally have found his calling in the supercharged furnace of Chinas second-tier cities booming leisure economy, crafting a number of fantastical dreamworlds from his new satellite studio in Chongqing where he is busy building a new cultural quarter around his own office, with a restaurant, bar and distillery. He is also plotting an enormous agricultural leisure park in Yubei, 20 miles north of the city, designed to cater to the new middle classes nascent appreciation of the countryside, a place hitherto associated with peasants and poverty. The rolling landscape will be dotted with cocoon-like treehouses, a flower-shaped hotel and a big lake covered by an LED-screen canopy, so visitors can enjoy projected blue skies despite the smog.

Zendai Himalayas centre, Nanjing

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A limestone mountain range : Zendai Himalayas Centre, Nanjing. Illustration: www.i-mad.com

Erupting across six city blocks like a limestone mountain range, the Zendai Himalayas Centre will be Mas most literal interpretation yet of his philosophy of fusing architecture and nature. Taking inspiration from the traditional style of shanshui landscape brush painting (literally meaning mountain-water), the 560,000 sq metre complex is designed to look as if it has been eroded by millennia of wind and water, not thrown up overnight by an army of migrant labourers. Once again, Ma appears to be forgetting that elegant feathery brushstrokes dont often translate well into lumps of glass and steel. It is one of many such green-fingered schemes in Nanjing, including Stefano Boeris vertical forest towers and the Sifang art park, where Steven Holl, SANAA, David Adjaye and others have built pavilions in a rolling landscape as another decoy for a luxury real estate project.

Huawei campus, Dongguan

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/18/real-estate-revolution-unstoppable-building-boom-china


Deportation orders threaten Trump’s own turf: the real estate market

Immigrants represent a large share of the demand supporting house values, says a demographics expert amid warnings the system could be tested

Is Donald Trump, the property tycoon turned president, about to bust the housing market? Thats potentially one of the unanticipated impacts of the Trump administrations crackdown on illegal immigration, according to demographics experts and immigrants rights groups.

The effect of the mass deportations outlined in Department of Homeland Security memos released this week may not only affect real estate values at the lower and middle end of the housing market, they warn: they could resonate up to the top of the housing chain, testing the entire system in ways that are both novel and not clearly understood.

There are consequences for the economy and the whole of society, and the public doesnt understand the value immigrants bring to the housing market, warns Dowell Myers, director of the Population Dynamics Research Group at the University of California.

They represent a large share of the demand supporting house values. If you were to subtract any part of that demand, it would jeopardize house values across the board.

In a comprehensive 2013 study, Immigrant Contributions to Housing Demand in the United States, Myers estimated that in this decade, immigrants nationwide will account for 32.2% of the growth in all households, 35.7% of growth in homeowners and 26.4% of growth in renter households.

The study found that the volume of growth in foreign-born homeowners has increased each decade, rising from 0.8 million added immigrant homeowners in the United States during the period from 19801990 to 2.8 million in the current decade.

While immigrants were once concentrated in a few gateway states, such as California, New York and Florida, the pattern of immigration after the 2007 economic crash is less concentrated, making the economic effect of mass deportation less easy to predict.

According to Alex Nowrasteh, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute, the effect of an immigrant crackdown on property values has already been seen, albeit on a small scale, after Arizona passed its controversial SB 1070 and Legal Arizona Workers Act.

Two hundred thousand people left because of those immigration laws at the same time as we had a housing collapse. So Phoenix suffered more than any other city except for Las Vegas, Nowrasteh says. We saw a huge increase in rental vacancies and a decline in home prices immediately after these laws were passed.

Immigrants, he says, have a disproportionate effect on the housing market because they rent property and buy houses. So now Trump wants to do nationally what the Arizona immigration laws did to the Phoenix housing market.

In California, the state with the largest immigrant population, a sustained crackdown on immigration could not only affect the lower end of the market but, in some areas, the top end of the market as well.

Its pretty clear what will happen, warns Myers. One way that people afford houses is by pooling incomes. So if you were to deport one of the three mortgage payers, that can destabilize the whole rest of the household. Immigrants are so interwoven into many communities that when you unravel one thread, you can destabilize it entirely.

House values, he considers, are like a pyramid. If you pull out a chunk from the bottom, the pyramid starts to collapse. The loss of the immigrants coming in at the bottom end doesnt directly affect prices in Beverly Hills or Silicon Valley but it will undermine the whole structure of pricing in a way that hasnt been tested before.

Myers report, published by the Research Institute for Housing America, corresponds with a report issued last year by the real estate website Trulia that found that the homeownership gap between native-born and immigrant homeowners has shrunk over the past two decades.

That gap is about 15 percentage points, down from nearly 21 points 15 years ago. While the rate of US homeownership stands at 66%, homeownership for foreign-born nationals has risen about 2.3 percentage points to more than half.

Critics of the Trump immigration orders say the value of the immigrant housing market is often overlooked, in part because undocumented workers who nonetheless qualify for mortgages are frequently not identified as such in official figures.

Further analysis by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute found that 33%, or 3.4 million, of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US own their homes or live with family members or friends who do.

In a separate study, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that about a million undocumented immigrants in the US hold college-level degrees.

Its wrong to think of undocumented homeowners as people working in low-skilled jobs and living together in a marginal neighborhood, says the institute director, Michael Fix. A large share, around 60%, of college-educated undocumented immigrants are working in middle- or high-skilled jobs.

The real danger here is the long-term chilling of immigration flows, legal and illegal, into the country, and that would be felt in our housing market, and people do not properly appreciate that almost half the number of recent immigrants to the US are college graduates.

A further consideration, says Fix, is that infrastructure projects, including a border wall, could be complicated by immigrant deportation efforts. Undocumented immigrants, in particular men, typically enjoy very high rates of employment as high as 95%.

While its residential projects that typically hire unauthorized immigrants, there will still be ripple effects on big public projects. They may not be undone, but they will certainly be complicated, Fix says.

According to a Pew Research projection, future immigrants and their descendants will account for 88% of the US population increase, or 103 million people, between 2015 and 2065.

Those figures alone should give the administration pause for thought, say analysts, since immigrant-driven housing demand will be needed to buoy the market as native-born baby boomers as move into retirement.

The housing market may not be the first concern, but President Trumps immigration orders could destabilize whole communities, says Myers. Were not playing around here. This is a serious business. Its pretty clear what could happen.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/23/trump-deportation-immigrants-real-estate


Foreign billionaires in London choosing to rent to avoid stamp duty

Number of lettings costing more than 3,000 a week increased by 28% in the last three months of 2016, research shows

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/feb/12/foreign-billionaires-london-choosing-rent-avoid-stamp-duty


Trump’s Scotland golf resort proceeds with expansion despite business pledge

President-elects team does not consider multimillion-dollar plans in conflict with written vow to end new foreign investments, which critics call ambiguous

The Trump Organization will press ahead with multimillion-dollar plans to expand one of the president-elects golf resorts in Scotland, despite its apparent pledge to halt new investments overseas.

Trump officials said the plans for the Trump International Golf Course Scotland in Aberdeenshire likely to immediately involve extending its boutique hotel and building a second 18-hole golf course did not conflict with his promise not to pursue new or pending deals outside the US.

Implementing future phasing of existing properties does not constitute a new transaction so we intend to proceed, a Trump Organization spokeswoman told the Guardian.

The expansion plans could see the resort grow substantially, with a new 450-room five-star hotel, timeshare complex and private housing estate. This would greatly increase the value to the Trump Organization of an investment onwhich Trump originally boasted he would spend up to 1bn.

Richard Painter, a former White House chief ethics adviser to George W Bush, said this extra investment was a perfect example of the clear conflicts of interest between Trumps newfound power as president and his familys business interests.

Hes using language which is ambiguous. It clearly illustrates that around the world, he will just simply expand around the various holdings and as they continue to expand, the conflicts of interest expand, Painter said.

Its like [the board game] Monopoly: if you have one house on Boardwalk, its not a new deal to go for three hotels on Boardwalk.

At a contentious press conference on Wednesday, the president-elect announced that his organisation would no longer pursue foreign investments as part of his controversial plans to avoid conflicts between his substantial business interests and his presidency.

In a document issued by the Trump team later that day, the president-elects lawyers Morgan, Lewis & Bockius wrote that his new pledge prohibits without exception new foreign deals during the duration of President-Elect Trumps Presidency.

Trump and his legal adviser Sheri Dillon said control of his property, hotels and golfing empire which includes two golf resorts in Scotland and one in Ireland would pass to his sons Eric and Donald Jr, and Trump executive Allen Weisslberg, before his inauguration as president on Friday 20 January.

There is speculation that Eric Trump will fly to Scotland next week, as that transfer of power takes place.

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Trump International Golf Links, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Photograph: Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

Crucially, President-elect Trump has not agreed to sell or transfer his shares in the golf resorts, which means he retains ultimate ownership and stands to benefit from increases in the value of those investments. He owns 100% of the shares in the Aberdeenshire course, which has consistently made heavy losses. He has personally loaned it nearly 40m, and it lost 1.1m last year.

The so-called white paper released by Trumps legal advisers on Wednesday, setting out the new management arrangements and announcing a new trust to be run by his sons and Weisselberg, also said the agreement prohibits the Trump Organization from entering into any new transaction or contract with a foreign country, agency [or] any state or local government or any agency or instrumentality thereof, other than normal and customary arrangements already undertaken before the president-elects election.

Trumps legal advisers claim this structure will prevent Trump from breaching foreign bribery rules because any profits earned by allowing foreign dignitaries and leaders to stay at his two Scottish hotels, and his large Irish golf resort and hotel at Doonbeg there, would be passed to the US Treasury.

Walter M Shaub, director of the US Office of Government Ethics, said Trumps plan doesnt meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and every president in the past four decades has met.

Painter added that this structure was not legally enforceable. This is meaningless language, because what is the definition of a new deal? When youre a real estate developer, you are constantly entering into new contracts, expanding existing facilities, refinancing leases.

The phrase new deal is subject to such wide range of interpretation that it can easily be worked around, he said.

Trumps executives in Scotland argue that his new agreement to halt overseas investment cannot affect the Trump International Golf Course Scotland in Aberdeenshire course, which lies 10 miles north of Aberdeen, since its expansion plans predate Trumps election victory on 9 November. A spokesperson for the Trump transition team did not immediately return a request for comment.

The expansion proposals are partly derived from the resorts masterplan, which was approved against fierce opposition from environmentalists by the Scottish government in 2008.

The largest of his two Scottish hotels is the 149-room five-star hotel at Turnberry, which Trump bought with its associated Open championship course in 2014. He has since spent some 60m developing the resort, adding a new ballroom, a 3,500-a-night presidential suite and an ostentatious fountain.

Aberdeenshire councils planning department has recently approved plans to expand Trumps boutique hotel at the resort north of Aberdeen, which he bought in 2006, and is processing a live planning application for the second golf course.

On 2 November, a week before Trump stunned his opponents by winning the presidency, it gave listed building consent to extend the resorts boutique hotel, a converted early Victorian country house called Macleod House in memory of the president-elects Scotland-born mother Mary Macleod, to include a banqueting hall and six new bedrooms.

On 22 December, the council published a further official report on water management plans for the second 18-hole golf course, which is also being named in honour of Trumps mother. The course was a central part of the 2008 masterplan and this application has been in the planning system since September 2015.

The boutique hotel was not included in the masterplan approved by Scottish ministers in 2008 but it has been in use as a hotel for several years. Trumps critics in Aberdeenshire argue that its expansion raises substantial questions about the future of Trumps ultimate plans for the resort.

The Trump Organization had tried to dilute the original masterplan proposals last year by setting out plans for a new 850-home private housing estate and 1,900 leisure accommodation units, thought to be timeshares. Those plans were incorporated in Aberdeenshires draft local plan, although the council said he would also have to build a new primary school and affordable homes for local residents in return for planning consent.

But in December government planning inspectors threw that proposal out and insisted the Trump Organization stuck to the original 2008 plan which requires it to first build the 450-bed luxury hotel, and associated sports facilities, as a prerequisite for approval to build highly profitable private homes.

They said that if he built a new housing estate, he must also provide hundreds of affordable homes, the new school, community facilities and pay for a new roundabout, alongside robust environmental checks during construction.

David Milne, a local resident and vocal critic of the resort, said the decision to press ahead with expanding the boutique hotel suggested the Trump Organization had dropped plans for a five-star hotel at the resort.

I would question whether or not theres any valid reason why the plans are compatible, Milne said. If youre going to be required to do a 450-room hotel, why are you messing around with adding a six-bedroom extension to a boutique hotel?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/14/trump-scotland-golf-resort-conflicts-of-interest


The solar-powered town: a dream for the environment or a wildlife nightmare?

Babcock Ranch, the brainchild of ex-NFL player Syd Kitson, aims to be a model of sustainability but campaigners fear it will be tragic for endangered panther

Florida real estate has a bad habit of reflecting the boom-and-bust cycles of the US economy but Babcock Ranch, a new development opening early next year and designed to be the worlds first solar-powered town, is hoping it can provide the Sunshine state with a model for sustainable living.

That, at least, is the hope of Syd Kitson, a former offensive guard with the Green Bay Packers turned real estate developer, who is behind an ambitious project that Kitson describes as the countrys most sustainable, most innovative and health-focused new town in the US.

Bordered by the Babcock Ranch preserve and the 65,000-acre Cecil M Webb wildlife management area, Babcock Ranch is at the centre of south-west Floridas newest growth corridor, just 20 minutes east of downtown Fort Myers.

Kitson and his backers bought the estate for more than $500m in 2006 from the heirs of Edward Vose Babcock, a former mayor of Pittsburgh. The developer sold 73,000 acres to the state, creating the preserve, and designated 18,000 acres to the development and 9,000 acres to parkland.

At its completion, Babcock is expected to grow to 19,500 homes, with a downtown with commercial space and extensive infrastructure, including a 75-megawatt solar facility generating electricity for the town, self-driving cars, groves of oak and natural plants for landscaping, community and kitchen gardens, a farm-to-table restaurant, a charter school and an extensive network of lakes and irrigation designed to reduce the developments environmental impact.

Environmentalists
Environmentalists claim the project threatens the habitat of the Florida panther. Photograph: Alamy

I want to prove that development and preservation can work hand in hand, says Kitson. You see the carelessness of new developments in terms of energy consumption, care for the environment, how you think about energy, technology, transportation, theres a responsibility on us to prove it can be done differently.

But can it? Florida is expecting population growth of 6 million by 2030. Many of the states natural resources are under pressure from environmental degradation, including from sea level rise and overuse of ground water. Babcock is 20ft above sea level, and built on land that had been disturbed by rock mining.

Kitsons plan was to make Babcock sustainable from the outset. Gone are energy-draining McMansions and water-demanding lawns. The houses are designed smaller in scale, with dining rooms eliminated, and built in traditional Floridian ranch style with front and back porches.

Were looking at the average house performing 10-20% better than Florida energy code, says Dr Jennifer Languell, a green practices adviser on the project. Ultimately, however, theres no way to get around the demand for air conditioning in Floridas environment.

We can create airflow through the house, but the bottom line is we have to address the humidity and the only way to get the moisture out is to mechanically remove it.

Kitson says he toured large-scale communities to see how sustainability could be incorporated into real estate developments, including Serenbe on the edge of Atlanta; he travelled as far as Abu Dhabi in the process. Kitson says surveys he commissioned revealed that people want to be part of something that is sustainable, and want to know that where theyre going to live is not only not harmful to the environment but actually helps it.

Kitson says his determination was to create a sustainable community that functioned as a complete community. Its about a well-rounded good life, he says, not about being locked away from the world. Its kind of like going back to the way things used to be.

But how much of that is feasible? Egrets and a large alligator moving through a channel in the Babcock preserve suggest that the 10-year delay in starting the development has been beneficial to indigenous species. Kitsons environmental projects include placing a pollinating garden around the solar field to attracting bees and beetles to help the environment and sustainability; the Babcock plans envisage landscaping that can be beautiful but not thirsty.

One expectation is that by using a network of driverless cars, Babcock residents will ultimately scale back on car ownership, bring a familys auto needs down from two cars to one, allowing land that would be used for multi-car garages to be reassigned.

Still, the development of land in south-west Florida is controversial. Babcock lies close to one of the last habitats of Floridas dwindling panther population. Wildlife groups say the Babcock development risks cutting off the big cats passage between the two parcels of land large enough to support a population.

A 2006 report by the Fish and Wildlife Service found there would be no direct effect in the form of mortality or injury of the Florida panther resulting from this project. But it is feared that additional habitat loss from development of land around Babcock, and injury to the animals from traffic and illegal hunting, will further reduce the viability of the population.

The Florida panther is an endangered species and this development is locking them into a small area, says Matthew Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association. Roadkill and habitat loss is just destroying the population because it has nowhere to expand into.

Schwartz says the town of Babcock Ranch is going smack into what the Fish and Wildlife Service identified as a possible expansion area. Thats tragic not only for the panther, but for black bears, eastern indigo snakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers and a whole range of species living under its umbrella.

The environmentalist says the threat to wildlife is not simply the development of Babcock itself, but the development of surrounding areas.

They say theyre only using land that was previously disturbed but other private lands nearby will also be developed once people start moving in. People will want movie theaters and shopping centres, all the things that are part of urban sprawl. This project is making undeveloped habitats around it much more vulnerable.

The developers didnt need to come into undeveloped habitat to start a solar project there are plenty of communities they could have retrofitted with solar, Schwartz adds.

When Babcock opens to the public early next year, it will be greeted as a new model town. How far it can serve as a model for a more sustainable future remains open to question.

Its an experiment, says Kitson. Ive spent half my life hiking, camping, being part of nature. A lot more people are thinking about how theyre living and how theyre affecting their environment. We have a unique opportunity to create a place in a way that hasnt been done before. If we can get it right, we think its going to set a standard.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/25/solar-powered-town-babcock-ranch-environmentalist-panther


$50m Trump-branded development relied on immigrant visa funds

Critics say Trump Bay Street, now leasing apartments at $3,100 a month in New Jersey, is a showcase for the misuse of a controversial immigrant visa program

The first residential Trump-branded development to open since Donald Trumps election victory last month opened for business in Jersey City, New Jersey, this week.

The gleaming Trump Bay Street complex, a luxury rental project completed under the direction of Jared Kushner, son-in-law and would-be White House adviser to the president-elect, sits across the Hudson river, minutes from Manhattans financial district by train or ferry.

The project was built by the Kushner familys Kushner Co operation, which boasts of completing more than $7bn in acquisitions under Jared Kushner, its CEO, since 2007.

The 50-storey building is not lacking in Trumpian grandiosity. Renters are promised a top-hat-wearing concierge and furnishings chosen by the personal decorator for Ivanka Trump, Kushners wife, in conjunction with the home furnishing superbrand Restoration Hardware.

But critics say Trump Bay Street, which uses the Trump name under licenceand is now leasing apartments starting at $3,100 a month, is also a showcase for something else: the misuse of an controversial immigrant visa program originally designed to promote economic investment to disadvantaged areas through the sale of visas that can ultimately be converted to citizenship.

Kushners development, with its chefs, dining tables and elaborate health and sports facilities, was completed with upward of $50m raised through EB-5 financing, according to a slide presentation by US Immigration Fund.

The EB-5 program is popular with Chinese nationals with $500,000 or more to invest in US development projects. In 2014, the most recent year for which records are available, the US issued 10,692 of these visas 85% to people from China, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

But Trump Bay could soon become a focal point not only of efforts to reform EB-5 but also of the incoming Trump administrations unresolved family business conflicts.

EB-5 is an extremely complicated, corruption-prone way to bring foreign investment into the US, says David North, a Fellow of the Center for Immigration Studies, and in this case it is part and parcel of the conflict of interest issues that are flying around the incoming administration.

North estimates that more than 60% of all EB-5 investment in the US comes into Manhattan and surrounding areas while the majority of applications originate in China.

In recent months, the EB-5 program has been the subject of bipartisan criticism in Washington, with opponents including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, vowing to end the system when it comes up for renewal in Congress this month.

On the Republican side, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has described the program as riddled with corruption and national security vulnerabilities.

In August, a report issued by the Government Accountability Office said it could not be sure that the money used for EB-5 was not coming from the drug trade, human trafficking or other criminal activities.

Critics of the system say not only is the $500,000 investment threshold too low but the funds the program raises frequently go toward luxury developments in New York or Miami and not, as originally stipulated, to disadvantaged areas as the scheme originally intended.

A New York University studyfound that EB-5 investment was largely financing luxury developments, including a Chinese-style casino in Las Vegas, a Waldorf Astoria hotel in Beverly Hills and the redevelopment of the Hudson rail yards in Manhattan.

Its hard for smaller states and cities to compete with the glitzy hotels and luxurious condo projects, Grassley argued at a congressional hearing.

But supporters, including the Democrats incoming Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, claim EB-5 has pumped almost $9bn into the economy and created more than 35,000 jobs since it was created in 1990.

The future of the EB-5 program could now be coloured by Donald Trumps campaign promises to crack down on immigration.

In September, Congress passed a resolution keeping the program alive to 9 December. Legislators will now have to agree on a reform for the program or let it expire.

But some believe Trump will not simply back maintaining EB-5 but expanding it.

His strong stance is against illegal immigration, said the former New York governor George Pataki at a forum in Shanghai soon after Trumps election in November. And EB-5 is a legal immigration program. He understands the need for capital, the need for investment.

With Congress being lobbied to extend EB-5 indefinitely, one of the options open to the president-elect could be to back raising the investment bar and introducing reforms that ensure investment capital flows to disadvantaged areas at the expense of New York or other wealthy areas.

But North, for one, was not holding his breath for that.

The way the program works now is as an asset transfer program for rich Chinese investors to line the pockets of rich New York developers. The administration could make the program less useful to the rich of New York and more useful for the rest of us. Theyre unlikely to do that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/03/trump-bay-street-new-jersey-relied-on-immigrant-visa-funds


Qatar wins approval to turn US embassy in London into hotel

Westminster council accepts plan to build 137-room hotel in Grade II-listed building in Grosvenor Square

The Qatari royal familys property company has won approval to turn the US embassy in London into a luxury hotel.

Westminster council agreed Qatari Diar Real Estates plan for the Grade II-listed building in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, on Tuesday. The nine floors, three of which are underground, will include up to 137 hotel rooms, shops, restaurants and bars.

The US state department agreed to sell the building to Qatari Diar in 2009 to fund a new embassy in the Nine Elms regeneration project south of the Thames. Estimates put the Grosvenor Square sites value at 500m before it was made a listed building, which would have reduced the value because of restrictions on development.

Qatari Diar, part of the Qatari Investment Authority, has snapped up several high-profile London properties including the former Chelsea barracks, the former Olympic athletes village and most of Canary Wharf. Qatari investment interests also own Harrods and substantial stakes in Heathrow airport, Sainsburys, Barclays Bank and IAG, the parent company of British Airways.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/16/qatar-wins-approval-to-turn-american-embassy-into-luxury-hotel


Virtual realty: can a computer game turn you into an evil property developer?

Delaying repairs to save money and dehumanising your tenants … Adam Forrest becomes a virtual landlord and learns some interesting and depressing lessons

Building my first high-rise tower wasnt too difficult. I threw up some studio apartments, hooked them up with power and phone lines, arranged for a rubbish collection, and welcomed my first tenants. I packed the people in, stacked the units, and the profits soon began to pile up nicely.

Its fun being a virtual landlord. Ive been playing Project Highrise, a PC and Mac real estate management simulation, since the games release in September. It gives cash-strapped renters like me a chance to indulge the wild fantasy of owning property. It also offers members of Generation Rent some insight into how real-world landlords and larger developers actually do business.

Despite its cutesy appearance, the game is surprisingly detailed and utterly unsentimental. You begin the game by managing the costs of building infrastructure, and trying to avoid taking on too much bank debt before your tenants can provide a steady revenue stream. Before too long, youre hiring consultants to lobby city hall for a metro station and wondering whether prestige artwork in the hallway might attract higher-paying residents.

In becoming a digital Donald Trump, I learned some interesting, if slightly depressing lessons. For one thing, its costly to lose tenants. You dont want a day to go by without any rent; and you dont want to have to reach into your pocket to refurbish an empty flat to make it rentable again. So its best to keep all current tenants happy, if you can. But fixing up occupied flats that have turned grimy is also expensive, so its worth trying to hold out as long as possible without doing repairs.

Project
Project Highrise Before too long, after filling six or seven floors, I forgot about them as individuals. Photograph: SomaSim

I also learned how easy it is to dehumanise your tenants. At first, each new tower resident was an intriguing little person I cared about. I customised their names so I could remember their characteristics. Phyllis, who didnt seem to go out much, became Phyllis the Quiet One. Mildred, who always complained about the smell of the rubbish bins on her floor, became Smell-sensitive Mildred. Dave was simply Tank Top Dave.

But before too long, after filling six or seven floors, I forgot about them as individuals. They were simply rent payers; inhabitants of my units. And if they werent happy about something, they became a profit-draining pain.

We did a lot of research about how real-world things function, says Matthew Viglione, designer of Project Highrise, which is made by Chicago-based SomaSim. We talked to building developers and owners in Chicago about how much they plan for, how much they react, how needy certain tenants are, and how much you want residential [tenants] versus commercial [tenants]. We did walking tours of various skyscrapers, and said, Yes, we want that element in the game.

Project Highrise runs a series of urban development challenges in which the player is put in charge of buildings in crisis, based loosely on repurposed and rejuvenated downtown Chicago skyscrapers like the Marquette Building.

I tried one challenge called neighbourhood revitalisation, which tests your ability to revive a particularly run-down building and restore it to profit-making glory. Shamefully, I found it cost effective to evict low paying cafes and cheap liquor stores and bring in some higher paying creatives graphic design studios, architectural practices and talent agencies. Perhaps I was only following the gentrification model Ive absorbed from real-life London.

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A screengrab of game play from Project Highrise. Photograph: SomaSim

Project Highrises programmer, Robert Zubek, says the game was not based on any one model of change and it is possible to adopt a number of different strategies to find reliable, long-term profit.

If you imagine a game where your tower is grimy and run down, you dont actually have to fix it, Zubek explains. You can just lower the rent just enough for people to be less unhappy, so that they dont move out. So you can play this slumlord kind of game. It is still dehumanising, because ultimately youre having to treat your tenants as financial resources.

In this respect, the game reflects life all too well. If continually watching the bottom line seems a little grim, there is at least the consolation of playing with the form of your fantasy tower. Would-be architects can tinker with the shape of construction, although SomaSims designers admit to being strongly influenced by the simple, clean modernism of Chicagos Mies van der Rohe for the games basic structural elements.

Its a style that travels well, explains Viglione. And the interior design, the colour palette and furniture were borrowed from the 1960s. Theres something very simple, international and appealing about it. I think the optimism of that era was fantastic.

Intriguingly, some of SomaSims early ideas were too awkward to incorporate into the finished game. One concept the team considered, before it was finally deemed too complex, was offering virtual tenants the chance to sign up to long-term tenancy contracts.

We did consider introducing leases where residents could agree to be locked into long-term leases, says Zubek. But we had a hard time making that easy for the player to understand it just made it harder to enjoy the game. You want to give the player a lot of power so they have the agency to do things.

After six weeks of playing Project Highrise, squeezing tiny tenants living in my laptop tower, I found myself envisioning a different kind of video game: a fantasy world which flipped everything on its head, and put the tenant in control.

In this alternative game (Project Housing Crisis?) wealthy property magnates would be able to vicariously experience the life of an impoverished renter, attempting to dodge rent hikes and the threat of eviction while saving up for a deposit. You never know, it might even make our cities kinder, more human places.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/nov/09/virtual-realty-computer-game-evil-property-developer


Airbnb faces worldwide opposition. It plans a movement to rise up in its defence

The room-rental website, now worth $30bn, faces a critical year as city authorities clamp down

In the back room of a pub in Kentish Town, a group of middle-class Londoners are perched on velvet-covered stools, eating hummus and talking about property. On the wall, above a pile of empty beer kegs, a slide presentation is in progress. A video of Airbnbs recent advert shows smiling hosts opening their front doors and declaring their support for Sadiq Khans post-Brexit London is open campaign.

The audience of Airbnb hosts are there after receiving individual invitations from the company to a home sharers meet-up a concept largely unfamiliar to the slightly bemused crowd. Jonathan, an enthusiastic Californian Airbnb employee, who was recently seconded to London to set up the clubs, is happy to explain: Homesharing clubs are simply a way of organising this into something that has a unified voice then actually takes actions as a collective, he says, in a less than clear answer.

More simply, homesharing clubs are advocacy groups made up of Airbnb hosts loose, informal lobbying groups that push the companys agenda to politicians. The clubs are part of a what is fast becoming a concerted fightback by Airbnb, the website founded in 2008 when three college friends rented out air mattresses in their San Francisco flat as a way of making money, to become one of the biggest online travel brands in the world.

But its phenomenal growth is proving to be its greatest liability. Authorities in cities around the world fear the impact it is having on their communities and are now seeking to arrest Airbnbs near unfettered expansion.

The latest in a series of attempts around the world to curb its growth came earlier this month when New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that will fine tenants or landlords who let out unoccupied flatsfor less than 30 days.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, the owners of one flat have recently been prohibited from using it as an Airbnb let without planning permission, raising the prospect of copycat actions elsewhere.

In Berlin, people who let more than half of their flat short-term without obtaining permission from the city council now risk a fine of 100,000. And in London, a 90-day rule was introduced last year under which no property can be rented out on Airbnb, or any similar service, for more than three months a year without planning permission.

So how is Airbnb responding? In New York the company has filed a lawsuit in the US federal court. But at a wider level the company is now supporting efforts to prevent these types of actions from taking place in the first place. And the best way to do this, Airbnb thinks, is to get its millions of hosts to rise up on its behalf.

Last year the company announced plans for 2016 to create homesharing clubs in 100 cities around the world. The aim, it said, was to form a powerful people-to-people based political advocacy bloc.

The bulk of the clubs are in North America, with a couple in Australia, South America and Asia, and an increasing number in Europe. In Britain, however, the number of clubs is negligible, even though there are more than 40,000 listings on Airbnb. The company is concentrating its efforts on building this UK base. Meetings, such as the one at the Abbey Tavern in Kentish Town, have been happening all over London as Airbnb seeks to build a grassroots campaign to fight the threat of greater regulation and more restrictive policies.

The hosts at the Kentish Town meeting are told that, earlier this year in Berlin, Airbnb dropped the ball after the citys ruling on short-term lets the suggestion being that it did not want this to happen again elsewhere. As a result of that ruling, the Berlin Home Sharers Club was created and started lobbying to try to change what it saw to be an unfair policy. In London, the 90-day rule may itself not be onerous compared to other cities, but there are growing calls for further regulations .

Airbnbs Jonathan steers clear of telling the group that they should lobby for change. On the one hand, would Airbnb like to see homesharing groups set up all over Europe? Absolutely, he says. Would it share in their interests? Absolutely. But whether those sharing clubs decide that their only interest is to share electricians and plumbers or to take political action is completely up to them, he says.

The next slide focuses on Barcelona, a city where, in 2014, Airbnb was fined 30,000 for breaching tourism laws. Later, another slide listing write to your MP as a suggested activity is shown. Writing letters to local newspapers and selected officials is obviously something that we would want to see concerned hosts do, but only if it applies to them and if theyre motivated to do so, Jonathan says.

Chris Lehane, Airbnbs head of global policy and communications, said the clubs act as a voice against the powerful.

These folks absolutely should have the capacity to go out there and represent themselves, and weve been clear that we want to provide that support and provide some of the infrastructure, he said. This can be an incredibly effective advocacy tool. I think weve been pretty transparent and open about that.

The networks of host groups, which in effect lobby on behalf of the company, are an illustration of how far Airbnb has grown since its inception in 2007. Back then, founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia could not afford the rent on their San Francisco flat and so put three airbeds on the floor and charged $80 a piece for their first guests.

Even by the rapid standards of growth in the tech industry, the company has expanded very quickly. It is now valued at $30bn, and claims two million property listings in 191 countries. That valuation puts the worth of the Californian firm at more than Hilton Hotels.

Wouter Geerts, an analyst for Euromonitor International, says this rapid growth has led to the corporatisation of Airbnb, with more listings from other hospitality companies and people with multiple properties. That might be hotels or estate agents, serviced apartment providers. They all look at Airbnb and think actually what is stopping us putting these properties on Airbnb as well and making extra money?. And of course there are more and more stories about landlords that push out long-term tenants because they can make more money through Airbnb, he said.

One of the most frequent criticisms of Airbnb has come from the hospitality industry, which has complained of the differences in regulation that hoteliers have to operate under, compared to Airbnb. But the organisation that acts as the voice of this industry in the UK says it is not just about them. Many councils in London have expressed their concerns recently, says Ufi Ibrahim, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association. Much of that is because the sharing economy and in particular we are talking about the unlawful professional landlords, the pseudo-landlords operating illegally has put a huge strain on rental prices.

Increasing levels of hostility to Airbnb have also started to come from the neighbours of those who let their homes through the website. Last month a property court in London ruled that homeowners whose leases say that their homes can be used only as a private residence cannot rent out their properties as short-term lets. The case came after the neighbours of Slovakian interior designer Iveta Nemcova informed the freeholder of the building that she was listing her flat in north London on Airbnb. As a result, Airbnb hosts have been warned that they could be in breach of the terms of their mortgages and building insurance policies.

One homeowner who spoke to the Observer said that the ground-floor flat in her building had been rented out on Airbnb by a tenant without the knowledge of the owner. As a result, the house insurance of the whole building was potentially invalidated.

In London, Westminster City Council is investigating 1,200 properties alleged to be let in excess of the 90-night limit. Enforcement notices have so far only been issued against two. In practical terms it is a real challenge for us to gather evidence to prove that individuals are letting properties for over 90 nights, a council spokesman said.

The scrutiny that Airbnb faces from both users and policymakers around the world comes after the sites runaway growth. John ONeill, director of the Centre for Hospitality Real Estate Strategy at Pennsylvania State University, estimates that the number of hosts has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%. With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example.

The exact effects of this growth on the hotel industry are unclear. The British Hospitality Association said it would be unfair to say there had been an impact on the demand for its members services as a result of Airbnb and instead the association focuses its criticism on the effect on housing. Airbnb says that its growth has been a reflection of how people live, and describes the attacks from the hotel industry as disappointing but not surprising, rejecting claims that it has a negative effect on the housing market.

Homesharing puts money into the pockets of regular people and spreads guests and benefits to more communities and businesses, the company said in a statement. Countless cities around the world have introduced clear home-sharing rules, and we will continue to be good partners to policymakers and work together on progressive measures to promote responsible homesharing. The vast majority of hosts follow the rules, it said.

Where the Airbnb debate goes next, after such a period of rapid growth, is unclear. Some hotel companies, instead of continuing to fight Airbnb, have chosen to join it. The larger hotel chains are moving away from trying to combat Airbnb. Initially there were some kneejerk reactions of we have to lobby against this, we dont exactly know whats happening, they are not regulated well. Most of the companies have moved on from that now and they have started to realise certain potentials that it brings, said Geerts. There is this movement of looking at short-term rentals not as a negative, but more as a positive, and seeing the changing demands of consumers.

This was illustrated in April when French hotels group Accor, said to be Europes largest hotelier by room numbers, paid 118m to acquire Onefinestay, which offers short-term lets on expensive homes.

ONeill estimates that there are 70 lobbyists working for Airbnb in the US, trying to get favourable legislation passed to benefit the company. Most hoteliers I speak with have accepted Airbnbs existence and growth. Their concerns have more to do with levelling the playing field between hotels and Airbnb operators, because Airbnb has so many unfair competitive advantages relative to hotels, he said.

Others have said that regulators need to be fair in how they set out the rules that Airbnb and other similar companies must adhere to. Robert Vaughan, an economist with accountancy firm PwC, said there was a huge variation in those affected from someone renting out their sofa, to landlords with multiple properties and there is a difficulty in applying the same rules to all of them.

ONeill says that while Airbnb may continue to grow, it will not have the free rein it had previously. I dont think there will be a free-for-all of unregulated growth as there has been in the past, he said.

Back at the meeting in Kentish Town, the night ends with a positive response to the homesharing clubs idea. We need to write a letter, suggests one host. We should meet every three months, suggests another. As the meeting draws to a close, nearly everyone agrees on the need for a club. Jonathan jumps in again: I do want to stress that there are other sorts of flavours to home-sharing clubs, he says, launching into a description of a collective bedsheet-washing initiative, but few are listening. As the meeting ends, the group are asked to put their hands up if they want a local club. Nearly every hand goes up.

The Observer reporter who attended the Kentish Town meeting is an Airbnb host

Growing concern around the world

BARCELONA

Authorities in the Catalan capital recently stepped up their campaign against homes illegally rented out to tourists using homesharing websites. Hundreds of listings were ordered to be removed, and Airbnb and another online rental firm, Homeaway, faced fines of 60,000 each.

Homeowners who want to rent out properties to tourists must apply for a licence, and a team of 20 inspectors has been set up to find those who do not adhere to the rules. The citys mayor, Ada Colau, who took office in 2015, stopped the granting of new tourist licences for homes and hotels. She has blamed the rise in Airbnb popularity for growing tensions between residents and rowdy tourists.

The number of people using Airbnb in Barcelona tripled to 900,000 in the three years to 2015.

REYKJAVIK

The 1,600 short-term property lets in Icelands capital have to operate under strict rules introduced in June. The legislation allows residents to let their property for 90 days a year before they must pay business tax. The move comes as Icelands population of 332,000 is set to welcome 1.6 million visitors this year a 29% increase on last year drawn by the glaciers, fjords, lava fields, hot springs, hiking trails and midnight sun.

The move is one of a series aimed at controlling the rapid rise in visitor numbers, including Game of Thrones fans travelling to the filming locations of the television drama. One report estimated there was a 124% increase in Airbnb rentals in one year as residents cashed in on the popularity of the country, with more than 100 flats available on the capitals main street alone.

MOSCOW

Airbnb said last year that the Russian capital was one of its fastest-growing markets, fuelled by high inflation and low incomes. Activity doubled in one year, driven by an increase of single rooms in apartments, which were being listed for short-terms lets in an attempt by many homeowners to make ends meet, given the countrys economic problems.

The growing interest in Moscow on Airbnb brought it into the top 10 most popular cities by bookings on the website at a time when there was no sign of legislative regulation to restrict use of the service. The sharp increase came at the same time as falling wages, which were down 8.8% in the first half of last year. The average price of a private room for a night in the city is 27, and 45 for an entire home, according to the site.

LISBON

The city has bucked the trend of some of its European neighbours, and instead worked to make it easier for short-term rentals to operate. Hosts are required to register their properties as short-term rentals but there is no limit on the number of nights per year that they can operate.

Mayor Fernando Medina has said people should not be scared of the new tourism dynamic and wants the city to be able to take in more tourists, in turn reducing the number of empty buildings in Lisbon. Tourism is seen as an important part of Portugals economic recovery. Airbnb listings in the greater Lisbon area have almost tripled in the past three years.

SAN FRANCISCO

Although the city is home to Airbnbs HQ, it also operates strict rules for hosts, who have to register with authorities. If Airbnb advertises an unregistered property it can be fined $1,000 a day for each listing. One action group has posted wanted flyers. The crime? Airbnbing our community and destroying affordable housing for immigrant, minority, and low-income families. Resident groups have campaigned against Airbnb and there have been reports of tenants being evicted so landlords can list on the site. Last year Airbnb successfully campaigned against Proposition F, or the Airbnb initiative, planned legislation that would have reduced the number of days owners can rent their properties. Airbnbs victory was helped by its grassroots homesharing club, which voted in large numbers against the law.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/29/airbnb-backlash-customers-fight-back-london


Meet Donald Trump’s biggest donor (he also loves to build walls)

Property developer Geoffrey Palmer has made his fortune building luxury fortresses in LA microcosms of Trumps vision for a sealed, affluent America

Even on balmy days in downtown Los Angeles, Americas second-biggest metropolis, the sidewalks around the Da Vinci luxury apartment complex are deserted.

You can tramp around the entire perimeter of the 75,000 sq ft, seven-storey complex, which promises a unique lifestyle in the heart of Americas most dynamic city and encounter not a soul.

The medieval brick buttresses which ring the complex, combined with the absence of shade or anywhere to sit, plus the forbidding black-tinted glass doors, all locked, suggest the absence of people of outside people is a design feature.

By his own admission, the builder, a tycoon named Geoffrey Palmer, is in the fortress business. He has erected half-a-dozen similar faux-Italianate citadels across LA, all facing inward, acting as bulwarks against outsiders.

Da
Da Vinci apartment complex in Los Angeles. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

The complexes have made Palmer the citys biggest developer and may help explain why he has just become Donald Trumps biggest donor, giving $2m to a pro-Trump group known as Rebuilding America Now, according to Federal Election Commission data. Palmer, estimated to be worth $3bn, is not well known in donor circles and has not previously made donations of that size, according to Bloomberg, which first reported the donation.

Why now, and why to Trump?

Palmer declined an interview request for this article, saying in a brief email: We dont do interviews.

Having made his fortune walling off chunks of LA to insulate his tenants from undesirable locals, perhaps it is logical to fund a Republican presidential candidate who wants to deport 11 million undocumented people and wall off the USs southern border to insulate Americans from supposed disease-carrying thieves and rapists.

Like Trump, Palmer enjoys his wealth. The headline on an Architectural Digest profile of his Beverly Hills estate, a $16m pile which boasts Louis XIV Boulle commodes, was Affinity for opulence.

Like Trump, he rewrites history: he claims Italians settled LA before the Spanish.

Also like Trump, Palmer has a reputation as a bulldozer who smashes through obstacles and does things his way. His company owns about 10,000 apartments in Los Angeles County, a third of them downtown. Admirers call Palmer a visionary who led downtowns revival.

Critics call him an ersatz monster who destroys heritage and displaces the poor. Such is the loathing some cheered when an arsonist burned down Da Vinci, then half-built, in 2014, causing $100m in damage.

Investigators say the alleged arsonist, Abdulwali, wanted revenge for police shootings of African Americans. Little is known about Abdulwali, who is due to go on trial later this year, but that did not stop Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger, branding the arson fire jihad committed by a Muslim convert.

The first phase of the complex, which has 526 apartments, opened in 2015. The second phase opened in April and is already mostly occupied.

Street
Street view of the Da Vinci apartments and skybridge. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Palmer discovered profit in safety, or perceived safety, in the wake of the 1992 LA riots, putting him ahead of a political curve which made make America safe again a slogan at this weeks Republican convention in Cleveland.

Step inside any of the Renaissance Collection complexes Da Vinci, Medici, Lorenzo, Visconti, Piero, Orsini and a blanket of security and comfort enfolds you, keeping the city outside at bay. They are arguably microcosms of Trumps would-be America: sealed, affluent strongholds.

Weve had no major incidents. Its very secure, said a Da Vinci leasing office agent as she showed a prospective tenant around this week. We have convenience cameras all over. And convenience guards who patrol on the hour.

A lobby of white tiles, cream walls and piped classical music led to courtyards with fountains and rooms with recessed lighting, Italian marble vanities and double-paned windows.

A skybridge over Temple street connects two wings of the complex, allowing residents to remain in the Da Vinci bubble and walk over any pedestrians, including homeless ones, who may appear on the sidewalks below.

Street
Street view from the Da Vinci complex skybridge. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

The website and brochure, illustrated with a castle logo, underline security by highlighting the complexs electronic door entry, closed-circuit camera system and 24-hour doorman.

Those who can afford to live here a single bedroom unit starts from around $2,240 a month enjoy bountiful amenities, including a business centre, an ATM, a cinema, a basketball court, swimming pools, gyms and jacuzzis.

With so many security layers Palmers buildings can be difficult to get into but once youre in its very welcoming. You understand why theyre filled up, said David Abel, publisher of the Planning Report, an urban planning trade publication.

The property magnate pioneered his citadel model in the wake of the Rodney King riots, which left 55 people dead and $1bn in property damage, and continued with the same design even as the riots faded into history and downtown became a gentrified hub for business, arts and entertainment.

Twenty years on, the whole experience in downtown LA is the difference between night and day, said Abel. Yet he continues to build the same fortress-type complexes. Every one of [his] projects outwardly has no connection to the street. Its a unique model. The residents are focused internally.

Palmer himself has reportedly referred to his complexes as fortress-like, but he also says they possess timeless beauty and award-winning classical designs.

Impact on street life can be dramatic. While the rest of LA hummed during afternoon rush hour this week there were only fleeting signs of human presence on sidewalks near Da Vinci, which fills an entire block.

Rappers
Rappers use empty streets to shoot video in front of Da Vinci. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

On Fremont avenue some youths used the empty cityscape to shoot a rap video. On Dewap road, Albert, 55, a homeless man who declined to give a last name, complained of an urban desert. Theres no life here, no way to tell what season it is. You dont see people, just cars going in and out.

The blog LA Curbed has branded Palmer the citys worst developer. His squat, nearly-identical fortresses, with embarrassing names … arent just ugly (although they are very ugly), theyre vacuums designed to suck the life out of a neighborhood that has worked so hard to become lively in the past decade.

Housing advocates bristle that Palmer has twice overturned city rules about including low income units in his complexes. We think that Palmers developments are exactly the kind that add to, not alleviate, the citys displacement and housing crisis, said Walt Senterfitt of the LA Tenants Union.

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a non-profit, is fighting to change Palmers Lorenzo complex, said Joe Donlin, the groups director of equitable development. Architecture has an impact on the community in terms of how people feel. They see a building and can think, Im not welcome here.

Albert,
Albert, a homeless man, dislikes the empty streets around the Da Vinci complex. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Palmer started his career developing land tracts in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys in the 1970s.

Notoriety followed. Employees of his company, GH Palmer Associates, unlawfully contributed funds to a political action committee and to an LA city council member, prompting a $30,000 fine, according to LA Magazine.

While clearing land for the Orsini complex downtown Palmers workers demolished an 1880s Queen Anne cottage, the last original building on Bunker Hill. It was supposed to be moved but workers said they had to destroy it after a bulldozer accidentally backed into it. Palmer paid $200,000 to settle the suit.

That pales beside a $20m lawsuit the city filed earlier this year for not having an adequate fire protection plan for the Da Vinci. The blaze was so intense it melted signs on the 110 freeway.

Abel, publisher of The Planning Report, said Palmers generosity towards Trump reflected a willingness to gamble and follow instinct.

Hes an iconoclast and libertarian in his approach. He bet on downtown when no one else was betting on downtown. The tycoon had a pragmatic relationship with LAs Democratic-dominated city authorities, said Abel, but in backing Trump he possibly had some scores to settle. He doesnt like being muscled by liberals and activists who have ideas about what he should do.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/22/donald-trump-donor-geoffrey-palmer-los-angeles-property


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