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Deniz Öz
Dec 30 2018

The unknown story of Ataköy’s community parks

In May 2013, a small group of protesters gathered in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the government’s cutting down the few trees there to build a shopping mall and mosque. Following the excessive use of force by police against the protestors, the public rose up in support and by evening, thousands of people had gathered in Taksim to protest the increasing authoritarianism of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as the loss of Istanbul’s green spaces, which are rapidly disappearing in favour of mega-projects like the one planned for Gezi Park.

The Gezi protests lasted for months and spread across the country, resulting in several deaths and thousands of injuries and arrests. These arrests related to the Gezi protests continue today, but so does the resistance to paving over public green spaces to build shopping malls and luxury hotels.

During the general election campaigns in 2018, the plan for Istanbul’s Community Parks was announced by President Erdoğan, and they were also included in the 100-day action plan following the elections. These parks are touted by the government as green areas, but civil society organizations, trade associations, and local people have long been fighting the ongoing paving over of Istanbul and the rest of Turkey.

One of these parks that are planned to be opened soon is in Istanbul’s Bakırköy district—the Ataköy Community Park.

As a result of the resistance put up by the people of Ataköy, all construction permits for the historic Baruthane site have been revoked. However, they are frustrated because the government announced plans for the site saying “We have opened the Community Park to the public,” as though the people’s struggle never happened.

The 60-thousand square metre site is home to the Ottoman-era Baruthane (formerly a gunpowder magazine). The story of how this land was opened up to investment and development stretches back to 2010, when the Emlak Bank-owned site was turned over to TOKİ, Turkey’s state housing authority.

In 2010, TOKİ put the land up for tender under the “restore and manage” model, and the construction firm Çelebican rented it on a 49-year contract for a price of 6 million Turkish lira ($1,115,800) a year. Çelebican started developing its project, called Blumar; Blumar was planned as seven blocks, four of which were nearly 80 metres tall, effectively blocking public access to the seaside.

When the plan was first announced, local residents and a variety of civil society and professional organizations opened several lawsuits against the project, claiming it would pave over Ataköy’s last remaining green area and open the area to rentiers.

One of these groups opposing the project is the Ataköy Zone 1 Protection and Beautification Association. Ahval spoke with a representative of the organization:

“TOKİ tried to sell the coastline part and parcel using a variety of sales techniques. We were against this area even being put up for tender in the first place. When they realized they couldn’t just sell it, they started developing new marketing approaches, like rent-sharing and revenue-sharing methods. This was how the land for the Community Park was rented out for 49 years. Çelebican, the company they rented it to, employed some former TOKİ directors—it was hand-delivered to them, basically.”

The representative also tells us that Baruthane was home to some 1,050 trees, including monument trees. “They came in the middle of the night and cut down all the trees, even the really old ones, but now they are saying, ‘We built the Community Park.’ We documented all of this and submitted it to the prosecutor’s office because according to the law, it’s a crime to cut down monument trees.”

There used to be six conservation committees in charge of the green area around Baruthane. The same representative claims that the committees all opposed these types of projects, so a new conservation committee was formed overnight.

“This new committee took over all of the existing ones and gave permission for the construction, but six months later, the new committee was disbanded. We asked them, within the framework of the Freedom of Information Act, whether they had given permission to build, but they told us they hadn’t. Then we got more involved, and the construction was stopped soon after.”

One Ataköy resident opened a case against TOKİ and Çelebican. It emerged during the case that there was never even a rental contract between TOKİ and Çelebican.

The same resident, along with the Ataköy Zone 1 Protection and Beautification Association, met with the Bakırköy Municipality to propose a plan to turn the unused area into a botanical garden. The municipality was in favour of the idea.

Bakırköy Municipal Mayor Bülent Kerimoğlu says that Baruthane is the last public access point to the Ataköy seaside. He also tells us that the municipality’s legal struggle to open the area as a Community Park has received the support of the Bakırköy public. “After I started my term as municipal mayor in 2014, we began the difficult legal process of getting the construction plans cancelled, with a lot of support from local residents.”

Kerimoğlu points out a trend in Turkey of decreasing agricultural, livestock, and industrial production and the growing “concrete and asphalt” economy. “Mega-projects are growing each day, but these destroy ecosystems and block the sea breeze from the people. Without the Bakırköy Municipality’s legal fight and the support of the public, perhaps this project would have been completed. But the government creating the perception that they built the park for the people is wrong—it ignores the entire process we went through and gives them a political win.”

The Istanbul Metropolitan branch of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects is one of the many organizations fighting to keep Baruthane as a green area. A representative of the group, Mustafa Fazlıoğlu, describes some of their legal struggles.

“Starting at the beginning of 2007, the Chamber of Architects, along with the Bakırköy public, filed a lot of different lawsuits. So did several trade associations and other members of the public. These lawsuits aim to cancel projects, cancel sales, and establish coastline borders.”

Fazlıoğlu tells us about the decision to halt the Baruthane project, saying, “It has been confirmed by the Council of State that no construction projects may be built there.” He is also sceptical of the government taking credit for halting the construction.

“As for protecting registered Ottoman-era sites, everyone who worked on these cases brought our struggles into the public eye—this whole issue really is about historical and public spaces. But then we look back on how difficult this all was, and we can see that public spaces are still being turned into piles of concrete.”