Digging Deep To Build The Tallest Hotel In Iran

Feb 5, 2016
Originally published on February 5, 2016 3:28 pm

Ebrahim Pourfaraj wants to build the biggest hotel in all of Iran.

He's already started his project in the far north Tehran, a wealthy zone where the city climbs up the slopes of the snow-capped Alborz Mountains.

You get out of the car, carefully stepping over the little mountain stream that flows in a channel beside the curb. After stepping through a construction trailer, you emerge on a steel-mesh platform looking over the edge of an enormous hole.

The sheer scale is amazing. Construction crews have dug a hole in a hillside, about 240 feet deep. Workers ride an orange elevator to the bottom, where we saw their tiny figures building sub-sub-sub-sub-sub basement floors.

Pourfaraj says no commercial construction site in Iran has ever gone this deep. Even through the dark sunglasses, you could read the pride on his face.

Concrete walls keep the sides of the hole from collapsing — which is a good thing, since huge existing apartment buildings stand right on the lip.

There's no place for offices or a construction camp, so they've been built on the walls of the giant hole. Construction trailers, reachable by catwalks, hang there like an abstract picture on a wall, orange, blue, red and white. I've never seen anything quite like that.

A Moment Of Hope

International sanctions against Iran were lifted just last month as part of the nuclear deal between the country and six world powers. It has created the hope, but certainly not the guarantee, that Iran's anemic economy will open up to the world and thrive, attracting investors and businesses that have long been locked out.

Pourfaraj used to run Tehran's Hilton Hotel decades ago, back when there was a Tehran Hilton. The name was changed shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Later, he went into the tourism business. Now he's building this hotel, hoping to capitalize on this moment of relative openness.

He knows he'd better get it right because some of the shareholders in his project look down on the hole from their apartments next door.

"Every day they look down to see if there is progress," says Pourfaraj, whose blueprint calls for a hotel that will rise 53 stories above ground.

It will include many retail stores and a presidential suite. Actually, 42 presidential suites, ready in case Tehran hosts some conference that attracts world leaders.

Pourfaraj says he plans to finish within two years.

Judging from the hole I saw, he must have started long before the implementation of the nuclear deal that opened a path for investment from overseas.

His initial plan called for a relatively slow pace of construction, financed by Iranian investors. Now he would like to build more rapidly - "if I have the money," he says with a laugh that indicates how big an "if" that could be.

Pourfaraj and his partners would rather not borrow from Iranian banks, which have been buffeted by the country's economic problems. He would prefer to attract outside investment. He's talking with people from Britain, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Malaysia, and more.

He even asked jokingly if I'd like to invest.

Does he ever have nightmares that this will just remain a big hole in the ground? The hotel builder shrugs off this possibility.

Without foreign investors, he'd have to slow down the project, and find some other financing. Maybe borrow from Iranian banks after all. Maybe rent out the retail space on the lower floors while the upper ones are still under construction.

An old saying holds that if you want to get out of a hole, first stop digging. Ebrahim Pourfaraj has already dug his hole. His only choice now is to keep building.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And we've been hearing a lot recently about Iran, a country that's agreed to not develop nuclear weapons. The payoff of that decision could well be an improved economy.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, our colleague Steve Inskeep is there in Iran, and his story begins with lunch in a fancy restaurant in Tehran.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The decor of this place suggests the palace of Versailles. There's ornate gold trim on the walls and the ceiling and paintings of women on the ceiling

KELLY: ...Corner sat a group of businessmen, some of them clearly not from Iran.

INSKEEP: You know they're not from here because some of them are wearing ties, which, of course, would be common in the West but is not politically acceptable here.

KELLY: When asked, the men said only that they were from Europe. Their Iranian host called the visitors his friends. But it's no secret that Western business travelers are visiting Iran, exploring opportunities now that many economic sanctions have been lifted. Elsewhere in Tehran, Steve met an Iranian who's seeking foreign investors. He's eager for them to share in his very big dream.

INSKEEP: The man wants to build the biggest hotel in all of Iran. He's already started, and drove with us to see it. It's in far north Tehran, a wealthy zone where the city climbs up the slopes of the snowcapped Alborz Mountains. Open a doorway, step through a construction trailer, and you emerge on a steel mesh platform looking over the edge of an enormous hole.

The sheer scale of this is amazing.

Construction crews dug the hole in a hillside about 240 feet deep. They ride an orange elevator to the bottom, where we saw their tiny figures building sub-sub-sub-basement floors. The man who brought us here says no commercial construction site in Iran has ever gone this deep. His name is Ebrahim Pourfaraj.

(Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "This," he says, "is a record for Iran."

Gray concrete walls keep the sides of the hole from collapsing, which is a good thing, since huge existing apartment buildings stand right on the lip.

And I see there's no place for a construction camp - for offices and so forth - and so you've actually put them on the walls of the giant hole. I've never seen anything quite like that.

Construction trailers, reachable only by catwalks, hang there like an abstract painting on a wall - rectangles of orange, blue, red and white. The man behind this project used to run Tehran's Hilton hotel. That was decades ago, back when there was a Tehran Hilton. The name changed in the early days of the Islamic Republic. Later, Pourfaraj went into the tourism business. Now, he is building this hotel, hoping to capitalize on this moment of relative openness. He knows he'd better get it right because some of the shareholders in his project look down on the hole from their apartments next door.

: (Through interpreter) And every day they look to see, you know, how actually this progress.

INSKEEP: When it goes up, they're going to start complaining and say, why are you blocking my view with this building?

He projects a hotel with a 10-story garage underground and 53 floors above ground. It would include many retail stores. It would have a presidential suite - actually, 42 presidential suites - ready if Tehran hosts some conference that attracts world leaders. Pourfaraj says he plans to finish within two years.

(Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "If we have the money," he says. And his laughter shows how big an if that is. Pourfaraj and his partners would rather not borrow from Iranian banks, many of which have lately melted down. He would prefer to attract outside investment. He's talking with people from Britain, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Malaysia and more. He even asked if I'd like to invest - though, of course, he was joking.

One other question occurs to me. This is such a huge undertaking. You're not sure that you will be able to finance it. Do you ever have nightmares that this will just remain a big hole in the ground?

: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: The hotel-builder shrugs off this possibility. Without foreign investors, he says, he'd just slow down the project and find some other financing. Maybe he'd borrow from Iranian banks after all. Maybe, he says, he would rent out the lower retail floors while the upper hotel rooms are still under construction. An old saying holds that if you want to get out of a hole, first stop digging. Ebrahim Pourfaraj has already dug his hole, so his only choice now is to keep building.

KELLY: That's our Steve Inskeep. He's reporting all this week from Tehran, and you'll hear those reports right here on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.