What If You (Mostly) Built A Ridiculously Ambitious City And Nobody Came?

The abandoned and incomplete apartment buildings of Seseña

UNTIL the recent years of Spain’s economic catastrophe, Spaniards mostly knew Seseña as the scene of a decisive battle in the country’s brutal civil war of 1936-39, during which the Molotov cocktail first found deployment in modern combat.

The Battle of Seseña came early in that conflict, but it defined its eventual outcome. With aid from Hitler and Mussolini, Franco’s forces had quickly taken key towns on the central Spanish plain, including Seseña, and were poised to take Madrid just 40km north. Franco’s men encountered Republican forces here, repelled them and pushed on to lay brutal seige to the capital for three years.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Today, Seseña again finds itself determining Spain’s survival, this time laying seige to its economy in a battle no less grave in its potential to cripple this proud nation.

For a symbol of all that ails Spain — and Europe too — look no further than the Residencial Francisco Hernando Seseña. This folly has it all: excess, waste, hubris, misery and scandal.

In 2002, the first sods were turned at Seseña, on what was the biggest residential complex ever undertaken by a private developer in Europe. It was essentially a EUR9 billion bank-financed plan to construct a new city, a working-class utopia of 14,000 large, affordable apartments piled into 280 blocks.

The developer was Francisco Hernando, better known to Spaniards as El Pocero, or The Drain Man. That’s the polite nickname many have for Hernando. Barely literate and from a dirt-poor family, he got his start — and a less flattering moniker — unblocking sewers. He likes to tell journalists that he didn’t have a proper shower until he was 22, which perhaps explains the smell that surrounds Seseña.

Hernando’s company Onde 2000 would complete barely a third of the promised apartments — though his builders have managed to finish the pompous statues of his clan still sprinkled around the complex, some now daubed with unflattering graffiti.

There is no feature of Residencial Francisco Hernando that demolition wouldn’t fix.

Today, four years of a crisis on, the apartment blocks are nothing but squat brown chunks of brick punctuating a massive abandoned construction site. Tumbleweeds somersault down broad avenues named, as if like a cruel joke, after famous artists, which run into dead ends. The promised swimming pools are dry, the sporting fields browned over in the baking 40-degree summer heat.

The towers where a few apartments were completed are forlornly plastered with ‘for sale’ signs or, even more pathetically, with ‘for rent’ signs. Planned shops and supermarkets are shuttered. Even the real estate agents are boarded up.

As for Hernando, the last Seseña residents heard of the 70-year-old Señor Sewers, he had re-launched in the West African dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea, the former Spanish colony regarded as the one of the world’s most corrupt nations.

It’s not just at Seseña where vanity and hubris ended in tears and white elephants. A few hours’ drive further south, the city of Ciudad Real boasts a EUR1 billion airport that doesn’t have planes. Built before the crisis, it opened midst much fanfare in 2008 as the economy began to collapse, only to close this year when the handful of flights stopped flying there.

Its fate was that it was financed and owned by Caja Castilla La Mancha — one of the first of the Spanish savings banks to collapse in 2009 — and built in a town populated by overreaching city fathers with close developer friends, and all anxious for their share.

Today, the management company of the Aeropuerto Don Quijote — no windmill-tilting irony intended is in receivership.

Across Spain there are a million vacant dwellings like those at Seseña and myriad white elephants like the airport at Ciudad Real, and that’s the core of the crisis facing the country. Financially, there’s a double whammy effect evident in Seseña. The project was bank-financed and begun in the very years, over 2003-04, that the market began to peak. The project was in trouble even before Spain’s property market began collapsing, and then it got worse. A few apartments were sold, mostly with 100 per cent mortgages, but today they are notionally worth 50 to 75 per cent less than what punters paid for them — notionally, because there is no market to sell into. With unemployment here at around 50 per cent, residents who can’t meet pre-crisis mortgage terms, or any terms at all, are being evicted.

Today, some 100 to 150 billion euros are being earmarked to bail out Spain’s banks, but even this may not be enough. The central Banco de España measures Spaniards’ private debt at more than one trillion euros, with mortgages accounting for about 60 per cent of that. And few banks have written down their bad debt portfolios to fully account for what has been, on average, a halving of property values since 2008.

Last month, as the Olympic Games were staged in London, I wandered down one of the main streets of Residencial Francisco Hernando, and through the wasteland that is the Ciudad Real airport.

In Seseña, the occasional Spanish flag hung patriotically from one of the buildings, and at one second-floor apartment a man who  identified himself as “Jose” appeared on his balcony and called down, surprised to see another human being in the neighbourhood. He was bare-chested and trying to catch a breeze amidst the heat, he said, explaining that his air conditioning wasn’t working because the electricity grid was down. When he learned he was talking to media, his wife appeared alongside him and pleaded with us to “expose all the corruption in our country”.

At Ciudad Real, the sprawling airport complex has rusting passenger air bridges that connect to nowhere, an empty and locked terminal and a runway that was built to handle the world’s biggest planes now closed to traffic, except that of scurrying rabbits. The only jobs evident are that of an occasional cleaner pushing a bucket, and a hyper-sensitive security guard shooing onlookers from public access roads.

The World Bank recently declared Europe to be a “lifestyle superpower, with arguably the highest quality of life in human history”. Perhaps it was referring to Paris’s chic sixth arrondissement. Had these wise sages expended some shoe leather on visiting Seseña and Ciudad Real, their conclusions might have been decidedly different.

And rather closer to the reality of today’s Europe, as it begins the difficult rise from its mire.

Read more Eric Ellis stories on the Australian lawyer leading Julian Assange’s charge to avoid extradition; the quaint hamlets and towns turning to right-wing politics in recession-struck France; and a step-by-step primer on the ongoing Greek sovereign-debt crisis.


Letters to the Editor (2)

The pain in Spain came mainly from the drain.

From andrew

20 September 2012

Not to mention the airport at Castellón that has never received a single commercial flight, which cost 150 million euros.

From John

19 September 2012