Moscow's flagship $12 billion financial district is a half-empty disaster

Putin press conferenceREUTERS/Maxim ZmeyevRussian President Vladimir Putin reacts during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, December 18, 2014.

Moscow’s financial district is a little like the Russian government’s international stature. On the surface, gleaming and new. Perhaps even a little intimidating.

But scratch just below the surface and it’s mostly empty, with a lot of money wasted.

The Moskva City complex contains Europe’s tallest building, Mercury City Tower. London’s Shard comes in second place, but Moskva City also contains the rest of the top 5 tallest. It’s just a shame that most of them are half-empty.

There’s a great report in CityMetric on this: Real estate consultancy Blackwood says that a dismal 45% of the district is vacant, up from a third just a few months ago when the New York Times wrote about it.

That’s not the worst of it. They’re still building offices, so the vacancy rate doesn’t seem likely to go down any time soon.

At the end of last year the NYT called the district “a $US12 billion reminder of the nation’s economic woes“.

It’s a gleaming sight, but how many lights are actually on?

Russia’s economic crisis is hitting its financial centre hard. Banks have been particularly damaged by the crumbling ruble and the sudden slump in oil prices.

And that slump is coming at the worst possible time, when there are more buildings being completed than ever. Six are meant to be completed this year, followed by another two in 2016.

The government first started planning the district in the early 1990s, when Russian was just emerging from the Soviet system, but the first building wasn’t finished until 2001.

Last year the NYT’s report listed the other firms moving in, suggesting that the area is barely even a financial centre any more: 58% of new entrants aren’t financial firms.

City, the management company for the development in the neighbourhood, says financial services companies are no longer the majority of its new tenants. Of the new Russian occupants signing leases this year, 58 per cent were nonfinancial companies as well as local small and midsize businesses, like High Level Hostel, according to the management company.

New buildings are also being repurposed at the development stage. One low-rise will become a 6,000-seat movie theatre.

In finished towers, various nonfinancial ventures are renting space. One company sells Cambodian citizenship to Russians wanting a second passport. A culinary school and restaurant are opening.

Maybe there’s time for Moskva City yet. After all, in 1991 – 10 years after it began – Canary Wharf didn’t look like such a great project. The usually-reliably-conservative Times called it “an ill-conceived act of Tory social engineering“.

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