Waiting for the next move

11 September 2013

By Metehan Sonbahar in Istanbul

The secretive attempt to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park, the last green, public space in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, has rocked the country and the situation now is stalemate.

Since protests began at the first sign of demolition in May, 2.5 million people joined protests in 79 cities (out of 81 cities in Turkey), and 4,000 people were injured, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.

More than 3,500 people were taken into custody, 121 people were arrested, and five protestors and one police officer lost their lives, according to Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation.

But what’s the status of the project? To recap, on 6 June, amid nationwide chaos, Istanbul’s 6th Administrative Court ordered a temporary suspension of the development in Gezi Park. (For background on the development and why it roused public anger, click here.)

But the Ministry of Culture and Tourism appealed and on 22 July the Regional Administrative Court cancelled that suspension on the grounds that the decision was not in compliance with law or procedure.

What did this mean for the project? No one knows yet, but the press split into two camps. One believed this decision would allow the project to go ahead, and that the government would re-start demolition.

The other held that the project would stay suspended and that a higher body, the State Council, would need to decide because an earlier ruling rejecting the zoning plans by yet another court, the 1st Administrative Court, was still in force.

The long term political impact of redeveloping Gezi Park cannot be accurately measured by the government, so it will most likely wait for the legal outcomes before risking more explosive public reactions.

But legally, the issue has become extremely complicated.

There are several lawsuits pending in various courts against both the new zoning plans and against the demolition of the park. Two we know of are being brought by 1) the Architects and Urban Planners Association and 2) the Association of Taksim Gezi Parkı Preservation and Urban Planning.

The unifying argument is that Gezi Park is the last green, public space left in Taksim Square and cannot be demolished for the purpose of building a private shopping mall that is a pastiche of the former military barracks. 

The nationwide protests have caused the matter to balloon outward from a technical one (zoning and planning) into a major sociological and political meta-issue that could damage the government.

It even soured Turkey’s international relations when members of the European Parliament tabled a motion to condemn Turkey for state violence against the protesters.

This drew an angry response from Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan: "I do not recognize any decision the European Parliament takes on us," he is reported to have told party members in Ankara.

What may surprise people in other countries is the fact that we don’t even know who the developer is. The concept design was prepared by the architect of the Municipality, but the identity of the developer remains a mystery.

All we know at this point is that the Turkish courts have never dealt with an issue like this before, and the outcome is impossible to predict.

Metehan Sonbahar is senior construction consultant at Akinci Law Office in Istanbul.

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