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Is it time to buy into Baku (…and say bye to Dubai)?

Baku, the capitol city of Azerbaijan, has undergone an amazing architectural transformation of late. The upshot of this change is that real estate investors and global city connoisseurs from around the world are turning their attention to the ambitious cosmopolitan upstart on the Caspian. In the frenzy to develop, it might seem as if Baku has borrowed a page from Dubai′s glittering architectural opportunities to live and invest abroad—but when it comes to comparing these two newly minted metropolises, Baku and Dubai are not exactly on an equal playing field.

When Dubai had its big development boom—thanks to a change in policy that allowed non-UAE investors to own property there—it was built to be an oasis in middle of the desert. The developers and the wealthy foreign investors who jumped on board were starting from a veritable tabula rasa. With a blank slate and no practical limitations on imagination, their plans for Dubai were grand to a fault. The schemes, while arguably stunning, were rushed and did not include much consideration for the long-term practicality or sustainability of the city. After the market crashed, that lack of foresight was keenly felt.

Unlike with Dubai, Baku′s developers are not starting from scratch. Rather, they must paint over the city′s past—specifically, the blocky communist architecture leftover from the Soviet Union. Though it may seem like a drawback, this is where Baku actually has the advantage over Dubai. City planners are forced to reimage what exists, recreating the city on a more practical level. What′s more, Baku has the gift of hindsight. The city′s movers and shakers have the good fortune of learning from the recent cycle of boom and bust that has left Dubai reeling. This not to say that Baku′s city planners are not after the "stun" factor. (A quick browse through the website for Baku′s new "White City" proves that.) The effort to break free of the City′s Arab and Soviet past—part of a countrywide urge to define their national identity—has certainly compelled developers to go for strong architectural choices. Zaha Hadid′s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center is the perfect example of this push for cultural definition, not only as a place to literally house the culture of the country, but as a new cultural landmark in-and-of itself.

With these differences in mind, here′s a quick look at how the "White City" Baku′s most tantalizingly boldfaced investment opportunity stacks up against what made Dubai so captivating before the late-aughties building bust.

1. HUSTLE AND BUSTLE When creating a new global development, it′s important to have enough worldly inhabitants to make it truly cosmopolitan. How do Baku and Dubai compare in urbane hustle and bustle?

Dubai: More than 40 different real estate developments broke ground during Dubai′s heyday. Even one of the more modest endeavors, the Dubai Marina, an evocation of the French Riviera on the Persian Gulf was planned to house 40,000 people.

Baku White City: Designed by a global consortium of architects and planners led by London′s Foster and Partners this new city quarter will be home to 50,000 residents with enough space to accommodate 80,000.

Conclusion: Although boomtown Dubai paved the way for a much bigger populace than is planned for Baku White City, the global crisis left many of Dubai′s gated communities little more than ghost towns. Chalk this one up for Baku, whose more modest though still big ambitions may prove to be foresighted.

2. GRANDOUR Emerging global cities offer super-sized building dreams to prospective investors. How do Baku and Dubai compare in sheer heft?

Dubai: Dubai was built out five million square feet of architecture and urban development— much of it in areas formerly underwater. New Dubai cityscapes include the Palm Jumeirah, an enormous, manmade island sprawling across 1,383 acres (four times larger than London′s Hyde Park). Finally Dubai seared itself onto the consciousness of architectural globetrotters (and rewrote the design record books) with the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building on Earth.

Baku White City: A post-industrial wasteland will be transformed into a glittering addition to the city, covering 600 acres bigger than the entire city-state of Monaco. Threaded through blocks and blocks of buildings, styled as a mix of old-school Paris and the latest in contemporary architecture, will be 96 acres of landscape. And, to ensure a skyline that remains etched in its visitor′s memories, Baku is proposing a 213 foot tall observation wheel (taller than the “"Roue de Paris" and Chicago′s Ferris Wheel) not to mention, the world′s tallest flag.

Conclusion: Dubai is bigger than Baku in every way. But even its signature island Jumeirah is literally sinking into the sea (taking speculator′s hopes of profits down with it). On the other hand, Baku′s plans to build its new real estate dreams with an ecological clean-up of a former industrial zone is cutting edge thinking, making development sustainable and attracting dollars from forward-thinking investors.
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