Post-Olympics, Beijing skyline glitters, but there's no gold

"Empty," says Jack Rodman, an expert in distressed real estate, as he points from the window of his 40th-floor office toward a silver-skinned prism rising out of the Beijing skyline.

"Beautiful building, but not a single tenant.

"Completely empty.

"Empty."

So goes the refrain as his finger skips from building to building, each flashier than the next, and few of them more than barely occupied.

Beijing went through a building boom before the 2008 Summer Olympics that filled a staid communist capital with angular architectural feats that grace the covers of glossy design magazines.

Now, six months after the Games ended, the city continues to dazzle by night, with neon and floodlights dancing across the skyline. By day, though, it is obvious that many are "see-through" buildings, to use the term coined during the Texas real estate bust of the 1980s.

By Rodman's calculations, 500 million square feet of commercial real estate has been developed in Beijing since 2006, more than all the office space in Manhattan. And that doesn't include huge projects developed by the government. He says 100 million square feet of office space is vacant -- a 14-year supply if it filled up at the same rate as in the best years, 2004 through '06, when about 7 million square feet a year was leased.

"The scale of development was unprecedented anywhere in the world," said Rodman, a Los Angeles native who lives in Beijing, running a firm called Global Distressed Solutions. "It defied logic. It just doesn't make sense."

Construction cranes jut into the skyline, but increasingly they are fixed in place, awaiting fresh financing before work resumes.

Boarded fences advertise coming attractions -- "an iconic landmark" or "international wonderland" -- that are in varying states of half-completion. A retail strip in one development advertised as "La Vibrant shopping street" is empty.

In a country where protests are rare, migrant workers stand in front of several construction projects, voicing their grievances.

"Our boss ran away with the money and he is nowhere to be found," said Li Zirong, a migrant worker from Shaanxi province, who was a supervisor on a stunning building with windows shaped like portholes.

What makes this boom-and-bust cycle different from those in the West is that there is no private ownership of land in China, making local governments de facto partners in the real estate industry, which earn huge fees from leasing and transferring land.

Huang Yasheng, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, traces the blame for the bust to the Chinese Communist Party and its reluctance to allow a true market economy.

"The lack of land reform fed into the real estate bubble and now it's coming back to haunt them," said Huang, author of "Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics," published last year. "There should have been more checks and balances on the ability of the government to acquire land."

The government spent $43 billion for the Olympics, nearly three times as much as any other host city. But many of the venues proved too big, too expensive and more photogenic than practical.

The National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, has only one event scheduled for this year: a performance of the opera "Turandot" on Aug. 8, the one-year anniversary of the Olympic opening ceremony. China's leading soccer club backed out of a deal to play there, saying it would be an embarrassment to use a 91,000-seat stadium for games that ordinarily attract only 10,000 spectators.

The venue, which costs $9 million a year to maintain, is expected to be turned into a shopping mall in several years, its owners announced last month.

A baseball stadium that opened last spring with an exhibition game between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, is being demolished. Its owner says it also will use the land for a shopping mall.

Among the major Olympic venues, only the National Aquatics Center, nicknamed the Water Cube, has had a productive afterlife. It's used for sound-and-light shows, with dancing fountains in the swimming lanes where Michael Phelps won his gold medals.

All around the Olympic complex, there are cavernous empty buildings, such as the main press center for the Games, that still await tenants.

A shopping arcade that stretches for a quarter of a mile across the street from the complex is empty, the storefronts papered over with signs reading "famous stores corridor."

"They wanted to build 'the world's biggest this' and 'the world's biggest that,' but these buildings have almost zero long-term economic benefit," economist Huang said.

Moreover, the makeover of Beijing for the Olympics led to an estimated 1.5 million residents being evicted from their homes, according to the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions.

In this vibrant capital city of 17 million, there is an insatiable demand for housing, yet prices remain far out of reach of most residents. American-style free-standing homes are being advertised for more than $1 million in gated communities with names like Versailles, Provence, Arcadia and Riviera. Within the Fourth Ring Road, a beltway that defines the central part of the city, two- and three-bedroom apartments are offered for $800,000 in compounds named Central Park and Riverside.

"These are like New York prices, but we are Chinese. We don't have that kind of money," said Zhang Huizhan, a 55-year-old businessman who owns a Chinese furniture factory. He has been looking for five years for an apartment for him and his wife within their budget of $150,000.

The average salary in Beijing is less than $6,000 a year.

Louis Kuijs, a senior economist at the World Bank in Beijing, said a lack of government supervision of the real estate industry tempted developers to build only for the luxury market and to ignore the mass market.

"If you think demand is endless for anything you build and you have just 200 square meters of land, you will build high-end apartments to make the highest profit," Kuijs said.

To its credit, the government recognized in 2007 that the real estate market was headed toward a bubble, economists say. In an attempt to make real estate more affordable, restrictions were introduced on ownership of second homes and on foreign home buyers. But the measures came too late, accelerating the crash of an already weakening market.

The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics reported this month that housing sales in the city dropped 40% last year. Chinese economists have predicted that housing prices will drop 15% to 20% in Beijing this year. Shanghai has experienced a similar decline.

"You can look at this perhaps as a healthy correction in the market," Kuijs said.

In the longer term, he said, "China's urbanization and overall development is going to lead to a very large additional demand for housing in the city."

Before that happens, the situation could get worse. Most of the real estate has been financed by Chinese banks, which have avoided writing down the loans. Eventually, they will be forced to, and that probably will have a ripple effect throughout the economy.

"At the end, somebody is going to have to pay the piper," real estate expert Rodman said.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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