The City of Athens has closed a number of smaller streets inside the commercial triangle to traffic in a bid to boost its appearance and make it friendlier to pedestrians, bicyclists and people with mobility problems. The effort has been welcomed by most businesses in the area, which are eager for a gentrification drive.
Athens’ so-called “commercial triangle,” an area between Syntagma, Monastiraki and Omonia squares, is arguably one of the most happening parts of the Greek capital right now. Every one of its narrow streets, every building, is a monument to a piece of the city’s social and economic history. It’s a mosaic in a constant state of transformation yet fundamentally unchanged. Is this really true, though? Hasn’t it been shaped by the crisis? What kind of activities are blossoming there today? What are the deeper effects of its recent popularity and does the spike in tourism-related activities there pose a risk to its traditional character?
These and many more questions are the topic of a recent study conducted by the National Center for Social Research (EKKE) in Athens’ commercial triangle during the first half of the year in cooperation with the team behind an initiative for upgrading the area spearheaded by the municipality with funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
The study is an extension of an older and much bigger research program conducted by EKKE from 2005 to 2007 on the entire historic center of Athens, a wider area encompassing its key archaeological and historical monuments and sights.
“The area, which has been the center of Athenian commercial activity since the olden days and is a colorful example of the typical Greek hodgepodge of activities, social groups and enterprises, is changing yet again, in tune with wider economic and political developments in the country,” EKKE research director Ioanna Tsinganou, who supervised both the studies, tells Kathimerini.
“Traditionally, the city center was populated by small and medium-sized Greek family-owned businesses (supported by a broad base of Greek manufacturing firms) that had been around for a long time and were modest about how they conducted business, while also being outward-looking and cosmopolitan. Many of these businesses had branches in other parts of Athens and Greece, and even in cities abroad, in Japan, China, the United States and Australia. The decline of Greek industry and manufacturing also led to a decline in domestic commercial activity,” she adds.
Tsinganou explains that small-scale commerce had been on the decline since well before the crisis, as a result of competition from malls and shopping centers, as well as the penetration of international franchises. She adds that even though “the commercial triangle still retains its distinctive mixed-use character, with traditional, second- and third-generation businesses, shops that have been around for 20 to 25 years forming the majority, this is starting to change.”
The expert points to an influx in the past five years of architects, decorators, designers, civil engineers and IT consultants, which has come with obvious signs of gentrification.
In turn, “lower-income residents and freelance and self-employed professionals are leaving the area, with the void being filled by professionals offering cultural goods and services, such as artists, for example, but also a large number of hotels as a result of increased tourism and a growing number of bars, cafes and restaurants,” says Tsinganou.
“The idea of the commercial triangle is changing, as it gradually evolves into a food and entertainment hub,” she adds.
The burgeoning short-term holiday rental market has also had an effect, with one of the respondents surveyed by EKKE saying that the area has become “a hotel triangle.”
“A lot of shops have been replaced by restaurants and hotels as the owners of the buildings have no interest in the property’s commercial exploitation, because cafes, for example, pay more rent. In terms of commerce, the area is in a state of decline,” the unnamed respondent said. Nevertheless, Tsiganou says that the majority (69 percent) of the business owners surveyed in the area do not appear put out by the proliferation of eateries and bars. “The Athenians have always regarded the city center as a place full of life; most are more aggrieved by the sight of closed shops,” she says.
“That said, there is a risk of the area’s retail character being lost to tourism development. For example, the traditional haberdasheries and button shops are disappearing even though they’d have a marvelous chance of survival if the hotels in the area chose to do business with them,” she says, adding that these businesses tend to rely on the custom of older patrons who enjoy a more personal connection and see shopping as a social activity.
The survey was based on one-on-one interviews across the triangle, which is undergoing a series of pedestrianizations and interventions.
The area is home to 450 registered businesses, with the researchers interviewing 230 owners or managers of the 346 they contacted.
The EKKE study found that the majority of businesses in the area are involved in retail, with 65.7 percent of shops selling clothing, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, gift items, cultural or religious products, home- and kitchen-ware, haberdashery and so-called “seasonal” items, such as Christmas and Easter ornaments or beach products.
The next category, representing 15.7 percent of businesses, is made up of restaurants, cafes, liquor shops, convenience stores and shops selling spices, nuts and herbs, while 7 percent make and/or sell stamps, signs, hardware and paint; 5.2 percent sell office equipment and IT products, provide technical services, are gyms/physical therapy center or operate as parking garages.
Wedding and baptism shops make up 4.3 percent of businesses in the triangle.
Grime, crime lead to drop in trade
More than half of the businesspeople surveyed described turnover as being disappointing. “They can barely make ends meet. Things were actually worse in the first half of this year compared to the year before,” says Tsinganou. “They reported a marked decrease in consumption... which is being restricted to the essentials.”
Overtaxation, the previous administration’s hostile stance to business, the economic crisis and unemployment are seen as the main factors behind their poor performance. “There is no country where a business can survive value-added tax of 24 percent, social security contributions of 46 percent and 29 percent tax from the very first euro of earnings,” one respondent lamented.
According to the study, 66.6 percent of retailers in perfumes, gift items and jewelry have suffered losses, followed by 57.3 percent of those in apparel, footwear and accessories (57.3 pct). On the upside, 74.9 percent of retailers in phone accessories, electronics and convenience items are happy with business.
Two out of three respondents (63.5 percent) in the survey by the National Center for Social Research (EKKE) in Athens’ commercial triangle agreed that the area’s appearance is a real problem and is having a negative impact on businesses. This is related to a slew of factors, foremost among which are chaotic parking (75.2 pct), a lack of policing (72.2 pct), poor sanitation (67.8 pct), insufficient lighting (67.4 pct) and the abundance of empty buildings that attract illegal activities and add to the squalor (64.3 pct). Moreover, 83.5 percent of respondents said that the state authorities are oblivious to their concerns and 71.7 percent see indifference from municipal authorities as well.
“A balcony in the next-door building is about to fall down and no one cares,” said one respondent. “Chunks keep falling off the building nearby, even damaging cars, and no one has done anything about it,” said another.
The majority (75.2 pct) of respondents also lamented not being taken into account when decisions affecting them are made.
The findings, says the report, “confirm the prevalent skepticism of businesspeople toward the state that we have already seen in the literature on the one hand, while, on the other, illustrating a model of top-down imposition rather than cooperation from the public administration.” Indeed, just three in 10 business owners who moved into the area in the last five years acknowledge any effort by the state or the municipality to address their concerns.
“Crime is one of the main problems mentioned. The local police precinct was moved to a different location closer to the Acropolis and the people here are feeling very insecure. They arrange to close their shops at the same time so that they can all leave together,” says Tsinganou. “Street crime is on the rise, but I believe that the economic crisis lies at the root of the problem. It has generated uncertainty that is expressed mainly as a demand for more security, a fact that suggests an element of underdevelopment. Crime existed before the crisis as well, but shops always had business and there was less fear. Now someone can just walk past and smash the window, and shopkeepers are having trouble dealing with that.”
Nearly half (48.2 pct) of the shop owners surveyed said they only feel a little bit safe or not safe at all, while 68.7 percent admitted to witnessing some form of crime against businesses in the area, with 41.7 percent of those saying it happens quite frequently. The most common forms of street crime are pickpocketing and purse snatching, they say, though burglaries, vandalism, fights and attacks are also frequently reported. They also complain about the presence of drug users and pushers in the area’s streets, while adding that vandalism and thefts tend to spike on days when there’s a protest rally in the city center.
Efforts to upgrade the Athens triangle have been largely welcomed, though there are those in the area who complain about the disruptions caused by the construction work and the debris that they say is left lying on the streets, but also because these disruptions “came at a time when business was already slow and they were feeling the pinch,” says Tsinganou.
The revamp program, which is nearing completion, included much-needed improvements to sidewalks, the creation of paved pedestrian areas, new water and sewerage lines, fresh telecommunications cables, the addition of greenery and work to improve wheelchair access (funded via a package from the 2014-20 EU-backed Partnership Agreement, known in Greek as ESPA, for a wider overhaul of Athens).
Furthermore, funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation allowed the municipal authority to clean up dirty or graffiti-marred walls and other surfaces, spearhead an initiative to bring in artists to paint several unsightly VDSL cabinets installed by the telecoms company OTE as part of its network upgrade, purchase new sanitation equipment and trucks, install additional lighting and launch a campaign bringing residents, businesspeople, artists and agencies in the area into the drive to preserve its distinctive character.
The 2019 study, titled “Business and Professional Activity in Athens’ Commercial Triangle,” is a continuation of a larger project by the National Center for Social Research’s (EKKE) Aristeia program on entrepreneurship, risks and competition in Athens’ historic-commerical center. That study was carried between 2005 and 2007 under the supervision of EKKE’s director of research, Ioanna Tsinganou.
The recent study was also supervised by Tsinganou, along with Dimitris Kondylis, while Roe Kinti was the research coordinator.
It was conducted by 35 undergraduate and postgraduate students of social sciences at the University of Athens and Panteion University.