ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Spain, like much of the rest of the world, is suffering the aftermath of a huge real estate bubble. There are close to one million vacant homes and offices in Spain. And European leaders are now worried that Spain might need a bailout of the kind worked out for Ireland in the fall.
Our Planet Money team's Chana Joffe-Walt found a writer in Madrid who can point to one spot that tells the entire story of Spain's boom and the bust.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: You can see the spot from 30 miles away. Any direction, 30 miles away you look at Madrid and it's this expansive, flat city, in a valley surrounded by mountains. And then you look north and there they are - four shiny, new skyscrapers.
Ms. PATRICIA GOSALVEZ (Architecture Critic): Like UFOs, like rockets. It's like some aliens have landed at one of the ends of the city.
JOFFE-WALT: Patricia Gosalvez's writes about architecture in Madrid. And it's true - the four towers stand out. Stand tall and very glassy, all by themselves in that spot. Less than 10 years ago, this spot was soccer fields. Madrid's soccer team, Real Madrid, practiced here.
In 2001, though, things began to change in Spain. And the team did something hundreds of thousands of Spaniards would do in the following years. They looked at their land, they looked at all the new homes and resorts and office buildings shooting up everywhere, they looked back at their land and said, forget it, let's sell.
Ms. GOSALVEZ: The Real Madrid football club, by selling its training area, got 480 million euros. So they basically cleaned the debt and got enough money to hire more super-fantastic footballers.
JOFFE-WALT: While regular Spanish people were buying homes and second homes, civil servants with some family land were selling the land, factory workers became real estate developers. The soccer team bought four of the world's best soccer players, including David Beckham. Just Beckham cost close to $46 million.
These were flashy, pricey players who'd won games, sold jerseys, made movies and cell phone ringtones. They were known in Madrid as the Galacticos. Meanwhile, on the old Real Madrid playfields, Gosalvez, the architecture writer, says the aliens began to rise.
Ms. GOSALVEZ: In the first tower, we have allegedly the fastest elevator in Spain. It's a panoramic glass elevator. On your way up, you see the whole city.
JOFFE-WALT: Not to be outdone by the first tower, the second tower installed its own superlative: a two-story panoramic restaurant.
Ms. GOSALVEZ: That is one of the highest, if not the highest, restaurants in Spain.
JOFFE-WALT: And the third tower, 50 floors up...
Ms. GOSALVEZ: That's the highest vertical European garden. It has over 20,000 plants.
JOFFE-WALT: The fourth went with a chapel, of course the highest chapel in Spain.
The owners of the four skyscrapers could spend on vertical gardens and fast elevators because they were making lots of money from the real estate boom. Those four owners - two construction companies, an insurance company and a savings bank.
But as the towers rose in Madrid, people weren't thinking about the owners.
Ms. GOSALVEZ: At a point it was rumored that the four towers would be called with names of football players, like tower Reynaldo, tower Beckham or whatever.
JOFFE-WALT: That never happened. The four buildings were completed in 2007, 2008, then 2009. The year it was clear. It was all over. People were not renting office space. Unemployment went up to 20 percent. Construction companies went going bankrupt. And all those loans banks handed out, they were clearly not all coming back. The four towers are currently 75 percent unoccupied.
Ms. GOSALVEZ: They are a metaphor of the boom and how big we thought and how little we achieved through it.
JOFFE-WALT: You can add these four buildings, or at least 75 percent of them, to the one million vacant properties in Spain. And next year, more will be added to that. The question no one knows the answer to right now is how many. And the answer to that question matters because it's a difference between a problem that remains in this spot, slowly gets better or one that spreads to the rest of the Europe.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.
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