When we think of cities that provide refuge for the wealthy, we tend to think of London, New York, Paris and perhaps Vancouver. Vancouver has just imposed a 15% tax on properties bought by foreign buyers. This might get challenged in court, might cool down the market, or might actually drive up prices with the tax just being a cost of doing business. We’ll see.
The real leader in this sweepstakes is surely London. On my most recent trip there, I was told London’s secret by a young American friend who’d lived in the UK for many years. He noted that as long as wealthy people from Asia and Arab countries want a refuge or even break from life at home, London will be a successful city. No doubt.
Vancouver seems to be for only the moderately well off—those who can buy a property for more than a million dollars and let it sit until they decide whether to live in it, visit, or let their kids live there.
And into this mix has quietly crept Los Angeles. Remember–the other city on the west coast, hours closer to wealthy Asians than New York is? Almost a full page in the Financial Times has reported on a trend in LA—buying up lots and building gigantic homes. Writer Hugo Cox documents what may be the world’s most expensive home, at a half a billion dollars. With 100,000 square feet it is also the largest. That’s the size of the White House, one-fifth the size of the Pentagon, about 36 tennis courts, and on go the comparisons.
The square feet are taken up by four swimming pools, a commercial size movie theatre and, one supposes, lots of big rooms. Meanwhile nine homes have been demolished to provide space for infill housing—fewer homes though. There will be just three at about 60,000 square feet each.
It’s hard to put this opulence in context. But here’s some context. In living memory, Charles Bronfman of Seagram’s and baseball’s Expos decided to build himself a mansion on the top of Mount Royal in Montreal. At the time it was the most expensive residence in Canada. No two windows are the same shape. Walls and ceilings intersect at odd angles through the six bathrooms, wine cellar, projection hall, and other rooms. It has waterfalls, a swimming pool complex, and great landscaping. The account I’m reading of this home is in Peter C. Newman’s book Bronfman Dynasty The Rothschilds of the New World. There must be typos in it because he indicates the home is 15,000 square feet and cost (in today’s Canadian dollars) about 12.5 million dollars.
Meanwhile another writer has documented the world’s fastest growing urban form—not the mega home, but the mega slum. Mike Davis is a lefty, writing in the New Left Review. He notes the world is now mainly urban. Davis refers to megacities with 8 million or more people and even “hypercities” with more than 20 million. Soon, Asia may have ten or so hypercities, including Jakarta and Dhaka (25 million), with Karachi a little larger. Shanghai may soon be at 27 million and Mumbai at 33 million people. So-called second-tier cities will account for three-quarters of growth. According to the UN “there is little or no planning to accommodate these people or provide them with services.”
Growth and density often goes with sophistication and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. But Davis says much of our current urban world is “rushing backwards to the age of Dickens.”
Two tales of cities, indeed.