A banner on the pavement displays an artist’s interpretation of a forthcoming block of flats. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Since 2008, the port city of Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast has attracted visitors with the bright lights of tourism, trade, and gambling. Soaring tourism statistics in the popular casino town has brought with it a construction boom — one that seemingly has no end in sight.
Rampant construction on vacant patches of land punctuates the city of 160,000. The echoes of jackhammering and grinding ricochet off the multi-story high-rise buildings that continue to sprout into Batumi’s skyline.
At the ground floors of these buildings, lie gridlocked streets where traffic must negotiate its ways amidst construction sites that spill over into Batumi’s pavements and roads.
‘The construction boom underway in Batumi mirrors a global trend in real estate speculation that relies on luxury development and entertainment to attract investment’, says Suzanne Harris-Brandts, an architect and PhD Candidate in Urban Studies at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
A digger scrapes earth away on a construction site in a residential district in Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Smoke from diesel engines fills the air above a building site behind the Black Sea Mall. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Cranes and skyscrapers punctuate a typical Batumi skyline around a stadium under construction, viewed from an abandoned building site. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Building materials are stored on rare vacant spots of land. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
The construction industry has been a source of income for many residents of Batumi. Unfortunately, it’s tentative work at best, as many projects are not completed due to developers not fulfilling their construction obligations or pulling out of projects prematurely. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A discarded pair of builders’ gloves lies on the pavement. The remnants of projects of this construction boom litter the city. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Between 2008 and 2013, Batumi was targeted for urban development and re-branding under the orders of former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM government, explains Harris-Brandts. ‘The government undertook many new construction projects and incentivised additional development by private-sector actors.’
The storeys of eerily empty flats throughout the city suggest the demand for real estate is far from the plentiful supply.
These vacancies result from both local and global forces, explains Suzanne Harris-Brandts. ‘From developers not fulfilling their construction obligations or pulling out of projects prematurely — perhaps due to market volatility — to so-called ‘ghost apartments’ that are not abandoned or unsold, but have chronically-absent homeowners, typically from overseas.’
‘To some degree, empty buildings also reflect a lack of government regulation and planning foresight’, explains Harris-Brandts, adding that poor architectural design has contributed to the emergence of a new landscape of mass building vacancies in Batumi.
There tend to be three types of building vacancies in Batumi, she elaborates:
‘There are buildings frozen with partially-completed construction; buildings whose exteriors have been completed but whose developers are unable to finish or sell their interior spaces; and buildings that have reached full construction completion and have sold many units, but to absentee homeowners. The latter are the so-called “ghost apartments” ’.
Window frames — imported from neighbouring Turkey, the border of which is 17 kilometres away — lie ready for installation. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Safety guidelines are displayed outside a construction site. Batumi has recorded the most accidents on construction sites in Georgia for 2018 so far. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A worker without safety gear is lifted up a building set to become a medical centre. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A digger lies on the promenade of the Batumi Beachfront. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Children skate on the beachfront skatepark at dusk. The majority of flats in the buildings behind them are vacant. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A vast, unmanned hole at a busy intersection bottlenecks the traffic. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A woman walks down the once-busy Javakhishvili Street, now rendered closed by several stagnant construction sites. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A building lies unfinished in the centre of Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Grass grows in the waterlogged ground-level storey of an unfinished block of flats. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Workers carry materials on a site designated to become the Adjara Multi-Profile Medical Centre. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A man walks past one of many posters displaying forthcoming buildings throughout Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Life under construction
Harris-Brandts describes how the arrival of new construction sites may be linked to optimism and the promise of an alternative future for residents of Batumi. ‘On a less positive front, new-construction building vacancies can detract from the social lives of cities by diluting resident interactions and erasing existing communities.’
‘Still, the residents of Batumi have been innovative and resilient in adapting to chronically-vacant buildings; second-hand goods or fresh produce are sometimes informally sold out of unfinished ground floors and vacant Old City shop-fronts have at times been used as short-term fashion showrooms or exhibition spaces.’
Unregulated construction and poorly enforced safety restrictions can be hazardous to those working on construction sites. Batumi recorded the most accidents on construction sites in Georgia in 2018. The Georgian Trade Unions Confederation has reported that the majority of the 14 deaths and 16 severe injuries sustained during the year were in Batumi.
The official tourism portal of Adjara reported a 23% increase in the number of tourists coming to the region in 2018. The construction boom — spearheaded by tourism — shows no signs of busting.
A makeshift barrier surrounds a building site in central Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
During the winter months, beach bars are disassembled or destroyed and then rebuilt in time for the tourist season. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Traffic in Batumi is at the mercy of roadworks. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Heavy rains have filled building sites with water, disrupting further construction. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Cranes have become an integral part in the ever-evolving skyline of Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A carwash business in Javakhishvili Street has closed, as incomplete roadworks have diverted traffic away. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A fire extinguisher lies within reach of a construction site. Batumi’s construction safety history is dubious. Most of the deaths and accidents on building sites in Georgia happen here. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
An advertisement for Eclipse Casino plays on a screen alongside two skyscrapers still under construction. Gambling is a drawcard for many tourists to Batumi, especially those from neighbouring Turkey, where gambling is illegal. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
A small office for the Orbi Group — Georgia’s largest construction and development holding company — lies on the famous pebble beach of Batumi for beachgoers to drop by and browse properties. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
Although Batumi’s Alphabet Tower has become an iconic building and a notable spot for sightseers, it remains incomplete. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
The sun sets on Batumi’s seaside skyline, perennially under construction. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.