Europe's Slump Puts Brakes on Lisbon's Building Boom

ALONG Avenida Liberdade, Lisbon's tree-lined answer to Paris's Avenue des Champs Elysees, turn-of-the-century buildings stand empty, their ornate doorways and lower-floor windows often sealed with cinder blocks and cement.

The empty buildings, incongruous on an otherwise majestic and well-maintained grand boulevard, are not the sign of economic collapse, however. Rather, the eery emptiness is a result of the heated real estate speculation and development that swept this city as Portugal merged into the European Community.

Like London, Brussels, and Madrid before it, Lisbon in the 1990s has experienced an explosion in real estate buying and selling, in demolition of the old and construction of new.

But the boom has slowed considerably in recent months as the European economy in general has entered a downturn. Some recent arrivals to the Lisbon market now find themselves holding properties they paid too much for; prospects for redeveloping the most expensive among them at a profit any time soon have dimmed.

At the same time, the period of intense building activity has awakened Lisbon's residents to a new interest in their city's planning and evolution. Mayor Jorge Sampaio braved the ire of developers by saying "enough" to the rapid recasting of the historical city's face, placing a temporary moratorium on the demolitions and new projects planned for Avenida Liberdade.

Ironically, the moratorium may have saved Lisbon's center - and its developers - from a severe office glut.

"His action froze 22 projects totaling about 1 million square feet in office space planned just for Avenida Liberdade," says Joaquim Caeiro Chambel of Lisbon's P&I property investment counseling. "When you take into consideration that annual demand for the whole city last year was [about 400,000 square feet], and that demand since is down and vacancy rates up, we can say with hindsight that it was probably a good thing to happen."

The real estate boom can be traced clearly to Portugal's entry into the EC in 1986. As economic activity expanded, foreign investors figured office and housing markets spelled big profits.

"The Swedes were the first to come," Mr. Caeiro says, "but they were quickly followed by others, primarily French, British, and the Spanish. They were all drawn by demand, and the zero-percent vacancy rates of the late '80s."

Foreign investors bet that Avenida Liberdade, already the site of a few luxury hotels and corporate headquarters, would be transformed into a junior version of Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana, whose sleek corporate towers symbolize Spain's integration into the EC.

Buildings were purchased, and because rent-control laws had kept Lisbon rents frozen - sometimes at World War II levels - new owners unwilling to pay the necessary upkeep simply evicted renters and boarded up the buildings.

It was at this point, as Avenida Liberdade was emptied of its traditional inhabitants and demolitions began, that Lisbon awoke to its urban heritage.

"The rush of activity set off a public discussion quite new to Lisbon," says Leonel de Sousa Fadigas, a professor of architecture and assistant to one of Lisbon's city councilors.

Mr. Fadigas says Lisbon is preparing to reopen Avenida Liberdade for redevelopment. But this will be done with new height limits, strict protection of the most significant buildings, and pressure to incorporate turn-of-the-century facades in new construction.

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