The town that wasn't meant to be
Valdeluz should have had 30,000 inhabitants but has only a tenth of that
Residents are making the best of things in wake of property boom turned to bust
It could have been something else. It could have been a bustling town with scores of stores at street level, over 30,000 residents living in apartments with community pools and padel tennis courts, thousands of workers in suits commuting by fast rail to Madrid in just 15 minutes, and restful weekends spent improving one's golf handicap.
Ciudad Valdeluz, located some five kilometers from Guadalajara and stuck in the middle of nowhere, was designed to be all that and more, but the property bust put an end to the heady plans.
The 1.12-billion-euro project rested on the promise that direct fast-rail shuttles to Madrid would be built. It was the perfect advertisement for the 9,000 homes that the property giant Reyal Urbis meant to erect when it laid the first stone in 2004.
Reyal Urbis has now filed for pre-bankruptcy after racking up 4.5 billion euros in debts, and only around 3,000 people live in Valdeluz.
Of the four housing phases included in the original project, only one was ever built. The Public Works Ministry never supplied the shuttles, the regular fast-rail station is underutilized, and the residential estate is dotted with empty plots and a few unfinished buildings.
Hardly a soul was to be seen on a recent, rainy morning. "Those of us who bought (our properties) at the beginning might definitely have a broken-dream feeling," says Arantza Ibarra, the owner of a pharmacy that is one of the few businesses in Valdeluz. "The heated pool in my building is closed because there was no money for its upkeep, and we'll be paying the mortgage for a long time. But on the other hand it's a quiet place to live," she says.
They bought their properties when prices were high, and they have since seen them fall sharply. The streets are full of "For Sale" signs with post-bubble price tags. A two-bedroom apartment that used to go for around 200,000 euros is now down to about 70,000 euros.
"Some apartments have gone down between 60 and 70 percent," says Beatriz Blázquez, a resident of Valdeluz and manager of a real estate agency located on one of the main streets.
20 euros to Madrid
- According to the city of Yebes, there are around 2,305 residents in the village, of which over 82 percent live in Valdeluz. The real number of residents is closer to 3,000 according to the city council.
- The Public Works Ministry never got round to building the special shuttle service to Madrid. In order to get to Madrid by train, it is necessary to take the regular AVE fast-rail, which costs 20 euros on average.
- There is no health center, just a small outpatient clinic with one doctor and one nurse on duty. There is also only one private school, which is partly subsidized by the state.
Ever since the real estate bubble burst, many national and international media outlets have been to Valdeluz to portray it as a perfect example of wastefulness and bad planning. "Ghost town" is the most common description in some of those news stories, but residents reject it.
"They play sinister music, show you the empty streets. Alright, so this would be better with more entertainment, more transportation, a completely subsidized school [...] but those of us who are here have to start living and we're starting to get things done," says Dennis Krijt, a 39-year-old Venezuelan who owns Café Capri, one of three food and drink establishments on the estate. The café has become a meeting place for the residents of Valdeluz. There are chats in English, lectures on how to use the Thermomix, and live bands. Valdeluz may not be the city it was meant to be, but its residents are trying to make it a nice place in which to live.
Most of them use the car. There are few buses serving this spot, and demanding fast-rail shuttles to Madrid in these times of crisis sounds like wishful thinking.
At noon, the AVE train station with its cracks and peeling walls looks like one of those old fairground attractions left to rot on the outskirts of many villages. Three people get off the train from Barcelona. They are headed for Guadalajara. Until recently there was a regional bus service, but it was scrapped early this month and now the only way to reach the city is by taxi or private car.
"Nobody comes here," says Paul Rojas, a taxi driver who has just dropped off a client at the station. "This is disastrous. Everyone knows it makes no sense. The station should have been built in Guadalajara."
The Public Works Ministry justified the decision to build the station in Valdeluz by invoking technical reasons relating to the geographical characteristics of the area. It was a controversial decision because the re-zoned land happened to be very near land owned in Chiloeches by relatives of the husband of Esperanza Aguirre, the former regional premier of Madrid.
Valdeluz added some 3,000 residents to Yebes, a municipality of a little over 250 people. To get there, it is necessary to cross another village, Horche, for a 10-kilometer trek in total. The mayor of Yebes-Valdeluz and former president of the Valdeluz Neighborhood Association, Joaquín Ormazábal, notes this peculiarity to explain that Valdeluz should not be considered a city but a PAU, projects that create entire neighborhoods with all the necessary infrastructure and services out of re-zoned land.
"It might be that the initial dream is broken, but now we have to realize the dream of the people who came to live here," he says at Café Capri. A few children who came to a town council meeting suggested a change in the roundabout that welcomes visitors to Valdeluz. Instead of using the word "Ciudad" (city), he should change it for "Cuida" (take care of). The mayor liked the idea. If there is no city, then it cannot be a ghost city.
It is possible to drive back to Madrid on the R-2, a turnpike that is also deserted, an apt ending for this tour.