Ferries approaching Karaköy from the Anatolian side of the city are met with a construction landscape. (Credit: Şeriban Alkış)

By 6pm, as Istanbul rush hour reaches its peak, the office block where security guard Burhan Özen works has emptied out. Sitting in his booth at the entrance, Özen is getting ready for the night shift. Soon he will lock the gate, brew a pot of tea and then watch the horizon from the top of the building.  

“The view used to be better. I’d get up here and my God, Sarayburnu and the old town on one side, spanning all the way behind the bridge. Now, only one half of the bridge is visible. The rest has disappeared,” 59 year-old Özen told Inside Turkey.

Özen’s view of the Bosphorous Bridge is partly obscured by the new Istanbul Modern art gallery, currently under construction as part of the larger Galataport development project. Spanning the historic waterfront district of Karaköy, known in ancient times as Galata, the mega-construction project has already been criticised for driving local residents away through the increased cost of living, as well as for ruining the cityscape. 

Galataport map landscape. (Credit: Galataport İstanbul)

Karaköy, which sits on the Bosphorous, the channel connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and the Golden Horn, an inlet on Istanbul’s European side, has historically been seen as the city’s gateway to the outside world. The Byzantine-era Galata Tower, one of the city’s best-known symbols, overlooks the water from the top of a small hill. 

These days, a ferry approaching Karaköy is met with the site of a 400,000 square metre building site for a tourist complex that will include a cruise ship port, along with hotels, restaurants, shops and car parks. 

The project has already led to the destruction of the Karaköy passenger terminal, one of the first modern buildings in the area, along with the Package Post Office, an iron-framed building that dated from the early days of the Turkish Republic and considered a historical monument.

Nusretiye Mosque commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud the Second is no longer visible from the shore. (Credit: Şeriban Alkış)

İlber Ortaylı, a prominent Turkish historian, criticised the redevelopment in a newspaper article in April, claiming that it has “closed off” Istanbul’s waterfront from Galata to Ortaköy, a neighbourhood further north along the Bosphorous. Ortaylı also wrote that the new buildings are overshadowing the Tophane neighbourhood, which sits next to Karaköy and contains many important Ottoman-era monuments, such as the Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque complex, designed by the renowned architect Mimar Sinan in the 16th century. 

The Istanbul Architects Chamber and the Istanbul Urban Planner’s Chamber have opposed the Galataport project since it was first proposed in 2002. Their main objections are that it represents the privatisation of hitherto public space along the waterfront and that it will lead to the gentrification of the surrounding district. 

Galataport is Turkey’s largest urban crime, said architect of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, Mücella Yapıcı. (Credit: Şeriban Alkış)

“We weren’t always in the public eye, but we’ve been acting to oppose this project since the very beginning,” said Mücella Yapıcı of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, dubbing the Galataport project “the biggest urban crime in the country”.

The project has its origins in the neoliberal economic reforms that were rolled out in Turkey after the 1980 military coup, which led ultimately to the privatisation of many of Istanbul’s public spaces during the 2000s. 

The Tophane-Karaköy district was made into an architecturally protected area in 1993, but was redesignated as a tourist zone during now-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s time as Istanbul mayor a few years later. The area for the Galataport site was privatised in 2002, the year that Erdoğan was elected prime minister of Turkey as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

The project was initially held up by laws intended to protect Istanbul’s waterfront. A legal amendment in 2005, however, allowed the construction of a cruise ship terminal.  

The current state of the port after numerous delays to the opening. (Credit: Şeriban Alkış)

“This amendment was the biggest legal and urban crime in Turkey because it allowed not only Galataport, but was a death sentence for all of Turkey’s shorelines,” Yapıcı said. 

Another obstacle came in 2006, when the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners and the Istanbul Chamber of Architects won a lawsuit to stop a proposed development by shipping magnates Mehmet Kutman and Sammy Ofer from going ahead. 

In 2010, however, the project was given a new lease of life when Turkish voters chose to amend the country’s constitution in a referendum, switching to a presidential system of government and permitting the state to revise certain laws. A second tender process saw a winning bid of 702 million US dollars from the Turkish conglomerate Doğuş Holding. When this was also struck down by a court in 2014, Erdoğan publicly accused the judges of “treason”.

The start of the project zone that spans 12 kilometers along the Karaköy shoreline. (Credit: Şeriban Alkış)

This presidential intervention finally prompted construction to begin on Galataport, starting with the demolition of existing buildings – and, according to Yapıcı, the wider redevelopment of the city.

“You know how a spark can set a whole forest on fire? That first spark was Galataport. They ruined all of Istanbul. We really did everything we could, we tried so hard but they generated private profit by privatising public spaces,” she said.

The first cruise ship was scheduled to dock at Galataport in April 2020, but the pandemic delayed the opening until October this year. Construction operators repurposed empty parts of the site, which they had expected to be filled by commercial businesses by the time of opening, for entertainment and publicity purposes.

The Turkish version of the reality TV series Survivor held its season finale on the lot in July 2020. The site has also been used for catwalk shows, with Galataport an official sponsor of Istanbul fashion week. Meanwhile, the renowned automobile event OneLifeRally started its world rally of modified luxury vehicles at the former site of the Package Post Office.

According to Murat Tülek, a researcher in urban studies at Kadir Has University, such efforts  do not mean that Galatport will be accessible as a public space. 

“There will be security at the entrance,” he told Inside Turkey. “Will you be allowed in with a beer? This is not what public space means.” 

Tuncay Tekiner had to move his shop of 45 years because of increasing rent prices. (Credit: Şeriban Alkış)

The crisis of the cruise ship industry, in the wake of the pandemic, raises questions about the long-term economic future of the site, Tülek continued, even if it has already led to rising property prices in surrounding neighbourhoods. 

“The transformation and gentrification of Karaköy can really be traced through the gradual increase in properties’ current values. The highest values in the 90s were on the west side of Karaköy Square … [but] 2018 saw a complete reversal of this situation,” he said. “The current highest values are located on the west side of Karaköy Square and Asmalı Mescit, on the streets adjacent to Galataport.” 

A Karaköy resident himself, Tülek sees signs of gentrification in the fact that the neighbourhood’s traditional small shops have been transformed into cafés. 

“We will probably never be able to afford a place in Galata if we leave our current home. It’s not just us, I don’t think [even] a small kebab shop would be able to survive there after Galataport opens,” he said.

The Tekiner family migrated from Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia to Istanbul three generations ago. For years Galata Rıhtım Köftecisi, their meatball shop, served local workers, students and teachers on the street where the Galataport gates are now located. Five years ago, they were forced to move to a neighbouring street because of rising rents. Construction of a hotel on their former site began before the shop had even set up in its new location. 

Tuncay Tekiner, the 55 year-old owner of the meatball shop, said that he has tried to keep the business going in the hope that Galataport will bring new customers – although he’s not convinced it will benefit him. 

“Everybody was closed because of the pandemic, but paid rent out of pocket because Galataport is coming. Ships will bring in tourists once Galataport opens, the tourists will stroll around and we will make money. This is everyone’s shared dream,” he said. “But there will be plenty of restaurants in the harbor anyways, why would a tourist leave the glitz and the glam for simple cold dishes and meatballs I make for students and workers?”

He sighs as he serves up a plateful of food to a client. “Maybe one day tourists will travel here just to eat this meal. Do you think we’ll get a share?”