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Brazil Slump Risks Leaving Taxpayers With Olympic Real Estate Bill

Construction cranes are seen at the "Porto Maravilha," or "Marvelous Port," project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 23, 2015.
Construction cranes are seen at the "Porto Maravilha," or "Marvelous Port," project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 23, 2015.

The highway has been torn down, tunnels dug, and the walkways and gardens laid in Rio de Janeiro's new business district.

But the dozens of office towers needed to make the 8 billion real ($2 billion) renovation viable are missing.

The transformation of a derelict port district before the 2016 Olympic Games is a flagship development that wasn't supposed to cost Brazilian taxpayers a thing.

Less than a year before the Olympics, however, a real-estate meltdown in Rio has killed appetite for new skyscrapers and left a public fund - which paid upfront for infrastructure betting it could profit by selling building rights - shouldering the burden of the 8 billion real cost.

Of over 20 corporate developments planned, many with multiple towers, the vast majority have not broken ground.

They include the Trump Towers, a set of five high-rises gilded by a branding agreement with U.S. property mogul and presidential candidate Donald Trump. That project was announced in 2012 as the largest corporate development in any major emerging nation, but it too is still on the drawing board.

The few high-rises that are taking shape are spread thinly across the 3-km (2-mile) stretch of waterfront. When, or if, the others will be built is increasingly uncertain.

‘Worse than we imagined’

"The reality is worse than we imagined," says Vitor Hugo Pinto, manager of the port fund for the FGTS, a massive public investment vehicle financed by payroll deductions and managed by Caixa Economica Federal, one of Brazil's big state-owned banks.

The "Porto Maravilha," or "Marvelous Port," project was first drawn up in the heady days of 2011 when oil-rich Rio was riding high on a commodities boom and local authorities were pushing to give business heft to a city better known for beaches and ribald Carnival celebrations.

Porto Maravilha, they said, would create a public legacy on par with the makeover of Barcelona's waterfront for the 1992 Olympics.

It would also be a "can't-lose" commercial proposition in a city so eager to avoid white elephants that many Olympic venues will be temporary.

But oil prices have crashed along with those of other commodity exports that had fueled Brazil's boom and drove some Rio real estate valuations to New York or London levels.

Instead of an economic bonanza as the backdrop for the Olympics, which start next August, they will likely play out amid continued recession.

"The business plan has had to be revised," says Pedro de Seixas Correa, real estate professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a business school. "Two years ago no one thought Brazil would be in recession."

Slow development

To be sure, Porto Maravilha may still make money. The public spaces completed, like an airy square flanked by a new art gallery and futuristic museum, have already transformed a once abandoned and dangerous part of the city.

Real estate experts argue the current rut is cyclical and point to successful dockland developments, like London's Canary Wharf, that suffered setbacks before rebounding.

The FGTS, for its part, has a little more than 20 years to make a profit. It believes over that period it can meet its target return of 6.5 percent a year above inflation in accumulated compound interest.

The fund, which invests on behalf of Brazil's unemployment coffers in sectors like infrastructure and real estate, aims to profit from the sale of building rights, partnerships with developers and the eventual sale of stakes in tower blocks.

When it won the 2011 auction to develop Porto Maravilha, the fund bought building rights to the area from the city for 3.5 billion reais. As part of the deal, and in exchange for reselling the rights to developers, FGTS agreed to invest another 4.5 billion reais over 15 years.

So far, that money has paid to demolish a gritty highway that cut through the neighborhood, drill three tunnels to replace it, and build the square and museum. By June, 75 percent of the work FGTS is responsible for had been completed, it said.

But the fund has only resold about 9 percent of the building rights so far. A price at an auction of rights in 2012 suggests FGTS has recouped just 650 million reais.

Fund manager Pinto says he has preliminary agreements with developers for a greater number of building rights, about a third of the total, but they are not accounted as "sold" until building begins.

"Obviously the economic environment has slowed some of the projects," he said.

‘That stupid thing’

Two of the five "Trump Towers" were supposed to be ready by the Olympics, but ground has not been broken and Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, is skeptical.

"That stupid thing isn't going up," Paes said recently, reflecting a loss of patience since he announced the project three years ago as he sat beside Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr.

A spokesperson for the New York-based Trump Organization said the project is still in "the design and planning phases."

One of the project's developers, MRP International, declined to comment. The other, Even Construtora e Incorporadora, did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump has put his name to the project but is not investing in it and has no risk of losing any money.

"The project is a reality, the timeline will just be a bit longer," Pinto said.

With commercial interest sluggish, FGTS and City Hall are exploring whether there is greater appetite for building housing blocks instead. Though residential prices are falling in real terms, they haven't fallen as much as office space.

More housing could also improve security in an area that is deserted at night and can be dangerous.

But given the downturn, and a projected glut from housing planned in the boom years but hitting the market now, demand may be tepid. Developers behind Ilha Pura, a vast complex across town which will house athletes during the Olympics, have sold less than 10 percent of 3,600 apartments. They declined to say what their target had been for this stage.

At Porto Maravilha's main square on a recent afternoon, light-rail tracks, another Olympic project, were being laid toward the planned business district. There was not a single tower in sight.

Pinto remains patient though.

"The question we ask ourselves is not 'Will the port turn out okay?' but 'How long will it take?'"

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