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The World's Most Stubborn Real Estate Holdouts

In the face of development, some steadfast souls refuse to budge.

A photo of Edith Macefield's small home in Seattle, sandwiched between a hulking shopping mall complex
The fate of the late Edith Macefield's Seattle house—sandwiched in the middle of a shopping mall—is uncertain. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Everyone loves an underdog story—and real estate holdouts, such as Edith Macefield’s house in Seattle, are revered examples. Macefield was an elderly resident who refused to sell to developers who wanted to build a shopping mall where her home stood; they ended up constructing the mall around three sides of the house.

Meanwhile, China’s construction boom has given rise to “nail houses,” homes that remain in the middle of construction sites, roads, and new housing developments after their owners rebuff government efforts to remove them.  

Macefield died in 2008, and it’s unclear what will become of her home. In China, nail house owners often ultimately vacate, particularly because authorities have the power to cut off their electricity and water.

But some holdouts seem to hang on. Here are five that are standing their ground.

The Gate Tower Building, Osaka

This 16-story office building looks like any other in Osaka’s dense downtown save for one thing: There’s a highway passing through it. In 1983, the government made plans to expand the Osaka section of the Hanshin Expressway, but discovered a problem: They needed a parcel of land for an exit ramp, and the owners were not interested in selling. The family had run a charcoal and lumber company there since the 19th century; while those buildings were deteriorating, they wanted to build a new, modern office tower. The two parties settled in for negotiations—five years of them. They finally came to an agreement: The government would grant the owners the permits necessary to build their tower—but only if it could run its highway through part of it. Today, the Hanshin Expressway is listed as the “tenant” of the building’s 5th, 6th, and 7th floors, and office workers toil in the rest of the heavily soundproofed building.

The Polderhuis, Rotterdam   

Rotterdam's preserved Polderhuis, a 1930 home, sits inside a 1990s shopping mall. (Courtesy of Rivièra Maison)

When developers came to build a shopping mall in northeastern Rotterdam in the 1990s, they decided to protect a historic home there. The brick manse had been built in 1930, and served as accommodation for those who ran the area’s polder, or tract of land reclaimed from the sea. The mall was built so that it contains the Polder House, or Polderhuis, and today the home sits in the middle of an upscale home furnishings store called Rivièra Maison, which displays its wares in the various rooms for customers to peruse. An enormous window allows the house to be seen from the highway that parallels the mall. Rivièra Maison CEO Henk Teunissen notes in a promotional video that Polderhuis has been kept in its original 1930 state. “You can find metal pivoting windows, lead glass windows, and old wooden beams,” he says.

Narita Airport Farms, Tokyo

Farms can be seen abutting the runways of Narita Airport in this Google Maps screenshot.

The farmers who continue to grow vegetables on the site of Narita Airport first had to fight for their land in the 1960s, when the Japanese government announced it would build there, and would be buying out around 1,200 farmers to do so. While some sold quickly, many resisted—and a protest movement was born when leftist students took on the cause. The result, according to the Japan Times, was “some of the most violent protests in the history of Japanese activism.” Six people died in the clashes between protestors and the police in the 1970s, and the opening of the airport was delayed until 1978—and even then, it only had one runway, versus the five originally planned. Today, Narita has two runways, and officials are making noises about a third—which means about 200 properties in the surrounding area will need to go, including some farms. Negotiations on compensation for farmers “might take a long time,” conceded Koh Takagi of Narita International Airport Corporation to the South China Morning Post.

Macy’s, New York City

The Macy’s shopping bag on 34th and Broadway in New York City hides a holdout building. (Marty Lederhandler/AP)

If you look closely at the corner of 34th and Broadway in New York City, you might notice something a little off. Macy’s, the ginormous department store that has taken up an entire city block there since 1902, does not form a complete rectangle. Instead, the retail behemoth has a corner notch in which a narrow, five-story building sits. Recent tenants include a Sunglass Hut and Burger King. The odd setup goes back to a 19th-century competition between Rowland H. Macy and a rival, Henry Siegel, a partner in Siegel-Cooper, a bygone store situated between 18th and 19th streets on Sixth Avenue. In the 1890s, this area was the place for shopping, and Macy’s, at its original site a few blocks away, was falling a bit behind and in the market for a trailblazing location. Rowland Macy began to acquire the land his store now occupies, but before he could purchase the small corner lot at 34th and Broadway, Siegel bought it. The story goes that Siegel hoped he could exchange the sale of it for a lease of the old Macy’s location. Macy refused, and Siegel eventually sold the building to someone else. Though Macy’s has never owned the holdout, it has advertised on its exterior since the 1940s. A billboard made to look like a huge Macy’s shopping bag is currently wrapped around the narrow structure, declaring Macy’s “the world’s largest store.”

Spiegelhalter’s Jewelry and Clock Store, London

The British architectural critic Ian Nairn called Spiegelhalter’s jewelry shop in east London “the best visual joke in [the city], a perennial triumph for the little man, the blokes who won’t conform.” In the 1920s, the small, family-owned shop, in operation since the early 19th century, refused to sell to Wickham’s Department Store, which had expanded so much that it owned all the buildings surrounding Spiegelhalter’s—and wanted to expand even more by creating a grander structure that would swallow it. The jewelry store owners wouldn’t budge, and Wickham’s had to be built around it—making it an off-kilter building, with a tower that was supposed to rise from its center positioned off to one side. Today, almost a century later and decades since either store has been in operation, developers are eyeing their remains and planning a shiny new office complex. When it became clear that their plans included demolishing Spiegelhalter’s and replacing it with a tall, glass atrium, local groups campaigned to save it. The developers now say they’ll keep Spiegelhalter’s façade intact—making it a two-time holdout.

What holdouts did we forget? Let us know in the comments.

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