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Sao Paulo, screaming vacancy

Anyone who takes a walk through Sao Paulo’s oldest neighbourhooud Sé on a weekday during daytime will experience a city that probably resembles something between Lisbon and New York. Crowded streets lined by European style monumental buildings and skyscrapers. After closing time of the shops and offices  the streets are dead. Nobody lives in Sé. At the same time there are many empty buildings in Sé and plenty of people who would want to live closer to their jobs and shops and even have the money for it.

Bad city planning and clear cutting facilities followed by hyper inflation killed life in the city center. The loss of real estate value made the old buildings too expensive to maintain. Many tall buildings became useless at once when elevators failed, leaving only the ground floor in use. With the economic growth of the last decade it appeared more attractive to invest in new areas and ask the government for new infrastructure than to do relatively expensive refurbishing of outdated buildings. Rumours of possible upgrading projects, currently there are about 50 running in the city centre, put the brakes on private investments. Property owners prefer to wait and see if these upgradings bring back some of the value lost in the past decades. Moreover, there is a lot of fragmented ownership.

A few years ago COHAB started a program for transforming vacant buildings in the centre into social housing. Transforming old buildings is expensive but calculations pointed out that it’s still 15% to 30% cheaper than expanding the infrastructure and facilities in new residential areas. COHAB inventorised the vacant buildings and made a selection based on simple rules. Small is expensive, big creates uncontrollable communities and tall makes dependent on elevators. COHAB found 54 buildings, mostly hotels and offices, together suitable for about 2500 residential units for lower incomes.

The combination of Sao Paulo’s size and congestion creates particular circumstances. The clogged up transport network has resulted in extreme specialization of businesses within reasonable traveling time from their suppliers or clients. The massive scale of the city makes each of these specializations grow out to neighbourhoods. The seemingly endless series of wedding dress shops in Brás is followed by an almost equally impressive row of mannequin stores and a sewing machine street. Even the improbable combination of parking garage and interior light store is repeated numerous times within the street Consolaçao.

Entrepreneurs know the local conditions. When these change their businesses are adapted swiftly, inventively and initially with low investments. The neighbourhood network and the flexibility of the entrepreneurs are valuable ingredients to achieve fast changes in neighbourhoods. Their limited investment capacity is a drawback. Not every function and not every intervention in existing buildings is possible without considerable investments.

Vacancy in the heart of such a crowded metropolis, which so much ingenuity and flexibility and a fast growing economy, it excites. A large group of Paulistans, the many employees of the offices in Sé, the well payed middle class and particularly the youngest amongst them wouldn’t want anything more than to give up their daily two to three hour commute time to live closer to the jobs, shops and nightlife. There are about 150 unused buildings left on the COHAB list, of which one can only hope that COHAB shares it with investors to address this market of young professionals. Add to this the empty lots in neighbouring district Brás, on which more integral development is possible. Living, working and leisure in one. That makes you long for crowd sourcing for ideas, competitions for plans, setting a few good examples in motion, connecting them and putting the new spots in the spotlights. The rest is automatic.

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