Little more than a hole in the wall, Joaquim Gonçalves’s barbearia, or barbershop, is in São Paulo’s Pinheiros neighbourhood. When Gonçalves started working here in 1954, the roads around the shop were not even sealed. But today Pinheiros and Vila Madalena alongside it are regarded as two of São Paulo’s hippest neighbourhoods and the developers are moving in.
The narrow two-storey corner building which houses the Barbearia do Joaquim along with a renowned samba bar, Ó do Borodogó, and a cabinet maker was nearly razed four years ago and turned into a temporary car park as developers slowly bought up the surrounding blocks to build a high-rise residential tower.
But Gonçalves’s landlord for family reasons decided not to sell, leaving the barbearia as an island of character beside the multi-floor concrete behemoth that eventually shot up next door.
“I went to talk about renting over there if this was demolished,” he says, pointing to a garage built into the wall of a cemetery on the other side of the road. “If he had rented it [to me], I would have gone but if not, I would have retired.”
Gonçalves’s story is repeated across São Paulo’s most popular inner-city neighbourhoods, despite Brazil suffering a severe economic recession.
The boom is thanks to new zoning laws that have earmarked areas near major roads or public transport for more intense development.
The changes to the São Paulo city master plan, passed in 2016, now allow buildings with a floor area up to four times that of the underlying block, compared with two times previously. Height limits that had once been restricted to about eight floors were relaxed.
“Even though [we] are in a recession, people have seen this as an opportunity, so they have raced to buy these lots,” says Otavio Zarvos, founder of Idea!Zarvos, known for developing cutting-edge buildings in Vila Madalena.
The “verticalisation” of Pinheiros and São Paulo is nothing new. In the decade ending 2007, Pinheiros had the second-highest number of new launches of apartments in the city, with nearly 25,000 sold. In the decade to 2016, this fell to just under 20,000, but is expected to rebound with the changes to the city master plan.
Overall, São Paulo is continuing to reach for the skies, with the number of apartments launched during the decade ending 2016 growing 23 per cent over the previous 10 years to 305,505 units, according to the city government.
The challenge for many of the inner city neighbourhoods, however, is how to avoid overbuilding. Famous for their bars, restaurants, quaint old houses and village atmosphere, areas such as Pinheiros, Vila Madalena and upmarket Jardins are most at risk, critics say.
The trend starts — oddly enough — with the proliferation of car parks. When developers buy old houses or other buildings, they prefer to demolish them immediately. Under city law, this reduces the municipal taxes or rates they must pay, developers say.
The builders then lay some asphalt on the empty lot to create a car park. These car parks can remain for years and form a tax-free revenue base for some of the less scrupulous operators, according to one former employee of a developer.
When the residential towers are eventually completed, these too can “kill” the atmosphere of a street because they are surrounded by high security walls — as was the case with the building near Gonçalves’s barber shop. Where once there were small shops and houses, the block is now deserted of pedestrians, particularly at night, creating a greater sense of insecurity in a city already worried about crime. This problem is partly cultural, making it hard to solve with zoning laws, says João Sette Whitaker Ferreira, who is a professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of São Paulo.
“The mentality of the middle and upper middle classes in Brazil is a mentality of the Wild West” when it came to security, Whitaker says. The property industry exploited this. “They use security to sell buildings that are ever taller . . . that bit by bit end up killing the streets and public space.”
But Zarvos says the problem could be overcome by incorporating shops or cafés and small gardens or benches at the street level.
In Pinheiros, Sotheby’s International Realty is selling a three-bedroom penthouse for R$5.3m ($1.3m). The apartment has nearly 3,700 sq ft of space and a terrace with views over the neighbourhood’s other high-rise buildings.
“I think today the neighbourhood of Vila Madalena is much healthier than it was 15 or 20 years ago,” says Zarvos. “At night, it was crowded with people and when you went out in the morning, the street was filthy.”
- São Paulo’s GDP is the largest of any city in the southern hemisphere
- The drive from São Paulo international airport to Pinheiros takes around 40 minutes, and the drive to Brazil’s east coast takes just under 2 hours
- Taxes and legal fees can be around 3 to 4 per cent of the sale price of a property
What you can buy for . . .
$500,000 A three-bedroom house in Morumbi
$1m A four-bedroom house in Alto de Pinheiros
$5m A four-bedroom penthouse with indoor pool overlooking Ibirapuera Park
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com
Joe Leahy is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief
* This article has been amended since original publication to correct the credit for the picture of Joaquim Gonçalves
Get alerts on South American prime property when a new story is published