July 6, 2014

Municipal order to halt construction sparks reactions

The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) recently has stopped the construction of an education complex on privately owned land in the Gaziosmanpaşa district on the pretext that the land will be used as a green area and a gathering spot in the event of an earthquake, triggering public reaction to the decision.

In 2004 the İBB declared an area of land of approximately 7,000 square meters in İstanbul's Gaziosmanpaşa district as suitable to construct an education complex. Fetih Eğitim İşletmeleri (Fetih Educational Operations) purchased the land through a tender in July of 2009. The institution paid TL 5.2 million for the land and began constructing a school there in 2012 -- known as Fatih College. The construction of the school is near to completion.

On April 21 of this year, municipal police assigned by the İBB sealed the building, without citing any reason. On June 6, the İBB took action to turn the land on which the education complex was being built into green area and attempted to seize the land. The municipality's Public Works Commission recently declared the land a green area and ordered construction of the education complex to halt. For land to be turned into a green area, the İBB needs the approval of the İstanbul Waterworks Authority (İSKİ), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Transportation Coordination Center (UKOME) and the Earthquake and Soil Inspection Directorate (DZİM). In the case of Fatih College, however, the İBB did not consult the opinions of any of those institutions.

On Saturday Fatih College applied to an administrative court in İstanbul, asking the court to declare an injunction on the İBB decision. Fikret Duran, the college's lawyer, said the college would also file a lawsuit for damages against some İBB officials due to the financial loss the municipality's decision has caused to the college.

According to Durak, the İBB's decision to turn the area of land on which Fatih College is being built into a green area is arbitrary and unlawful.

Fetih Eğitim İşletmeleri and the Fatih College are close to the faith-based Hizmet movement, which is inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused the Hizmet movement of being behind a massive corruption investigation that he claims is a coup attempt intended to overthrow his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, although the prime minister has not been able to produce any evidence to justify his claims.

In May, Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly asked his AK Party supporters not to send their children to schools affiliated with the Hizmet movement. “We will not even give water to them [Hizmet members],” he vowed.

More recently, the prime minister has ordered officials at municipalities run by the AK Party to seize land and buildings belonging to Hizmet, by any method.

Controversy over nearby towers

The head of the İstanbul Chamber of Urban Planners (ŞPO), Tayfun Kahraman, reacted to the İBB's decision against Fatih College by saying he does not believe the decision is well intentioned. He questioned why the municipality initially decided the land in question was proper for the construction of an education complex and later changed its mind and declared it to be a green area.

Kahraman also stated that on land very close to that on which Fatih College's building is being built there are five towers, known as the Venezia Project. The 30-story towers will contain 2,500 residences when completed. The İBB has not spoken or acted against the luxury project or designated its land a green area.

“While the construction of huge projects are ongoing, I do not consider the İBB's decision to turn land that was given official permission for the construction of an education complex into a green area as a well-intentioned decision,” the ŞPO head added.

Eyüp Muhçu, head of Turkey's Architects' Chamber, said the İBB's decision against Fatih College violates both legal and urbanization principles. Architect Korhan Gümüş agreed, saying a municipality's decision to stop construction on an ongoing project even though the project is licensed and has required permissions from the municipality and the city council and then turn the land of that project into green area cannot be explained in law.

In June, the İBB removed a signboard of the Fem prep school in İstanbul's Mecidiyeköy district, which helps students prepare for Turkey's national university entrance exam. The municipality claimed that the school had violated the municipality's advertising regulations. The school, however, said the İBB had approved the signboard, for which all taxes were already paid. It also said the real reason behind the İBB's removal decision is because Fem is affiliated with the Hizmet movement. The school filed a complaint against the İBB with the İstanbul Prosecutor's Office, arguing that its signboard had been removed for no apparent reason.

Municipal police teams also removed the sign of the Anafen prep school that is in the same building in Mecidiyeköy as the Fem school. Signage belonging to some other businesses were also removed. But 117 other signboards in the Mecideyköy Square remain untouched.

Shortly afterwards, the Başakşehir Municipality in İstanbul ordered the removal of billboard advertising featuring the success of a college affiliated with Hizmet on the Undergraduate Placement Examination (LYS) and in the Turkish Olympiad.

More recently, the signboard of the Canik Başarı University in Samsun was removed, along with many other signboards, before the prime minister's public address in the province on July 4.

Prime Minister Erdoğan's AK Party government has grown increasingly authoritarian, with the prime minister accusing all of his government's opponents of attempting to overthrow him. Erdoğan has made clear that he will not tolerate dissent, saying everybody has to choose a side, or “risk elimination.” The government has been criticized for forgiving taxes owed by government-controlled media, but clamping down on publications that publish different opinions.

Reactions from locals

The İBB's decision against Fatih College has drawn the ire of locals, too.

Ramazan Genç told Today's Zaman that he cannot understand why the municipality has made such a decision at a time when construction of the college was nearing completion. “They were building a school. Many students would have received education there,” he said in disappointment.

Ayşe Üzüm reacted to the İBB's decision to stop the construction of a school while not doing the same for towers that are being constructed on nearby land. “We, as residents of this neighborhood [Gaziosmanpaşa], want the school [Fatih College] to be built and opened for education. Why don't municipality officials decide to stop the construction of those [Venezia] towers, too, if this area is supposed to be a green area?” she asked.

Another local, Rıza Çalık, described the İstanbul municipality's decision against Fatih College as “hurtful and disappointing.” “The construction of many floors of towers is still continuing, but the construction of the school has been stopped. It is clear that the AK Party government is seeking to make some people richer so as to guarantee its existence and dominance,” Çalık remarked.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 06 July 2014