By Dimitris Rigopoulos
The Onassis Foundation launched an international architectural competition on March 21 for a revamp of the center of Athens. The center of the initiative will be Panepistimiou Street, around which a ring will be designed connecting landmarks of the capital’s cultural and commercial life with a promenade of archaeological sites, as well as the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum.
The area in question will cover the start of Amalias Avenue at the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Dionysiou Areopagitou pedestrian road all the way to Egyptou Square on Patission Street, taking in Omonia and Dikaiosynis squares, the latter of which is located at the entrance of the Pedion tou Areos park.
The initiative, "Re-think Athens," which will be bankrolled with European Union funding, is expected to bring a series of changes that will have a marked positive effect on the entire area.
To begin with, Panepistimiou, which connects Syntagma Square to Omonia, will not be paved with cobblestones as was foreseen in an older Environment Ministry plan, but it will be closed to traffic and laid with a tramline connecting Syntagma to Patissia, along with bicycle lanes. Traffic traversing the center will have to use Stadiou from Omonia to Syntagma and Academias from Syntagma to Omonia, even though one of the main objectives of the initiative is to discourage through traffic. Vehicles will be able to cross Panepistimiou in a few locations connecting Academias with Stadiou.
The idea is a departure from a plan drawn up by former Environment Minister Tina Birbili and the Onassis Foundation will be funding the competition, which is expected to be completed much faster than it would have if it had to go through government channels.
However, even though the initiative is being hailed as a good start to rejuvenating the Greek capital, there are those who wonder about some of the specific parameters of the plan: Is Panepistimiou worse than any other street in Athens to merit becoming the first to see a revamp? With the market in central Athens suffering as it is, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on providing motives for jump-starting economic activity and attracting permanent residents? Won’t closing off such an important traffic axis contribute to the slowdown of commercial traffic and encourage the kind of lawlessness that is already evident in much of the area?
Research team chief explains the ins and outs
Professor Panagiotis Tournikiotis of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) heads the team of researchers who have designed the central Athens revamp. He spoke to Kathimerini recently and explained what the plan entails.
Has the impact of closing Panepistimiou Street to traffic been assessed?
There will not be a ban on vehicle traffic nor are we eliminating a major artery in the city center. It is simply a different way of organizing the traffic network and a strategy for discouraging through traffic. The idea is that all roads lead to the center, but only for those who need to go there. The truth is that it will not make things easy for a driver who wants to cut across to the other side of town through the center. But cars will be allowed into most of the zone, and other kinds of traffic -- bicycles, pedestrians -- will have their own areas, alongside the vehicles, in an organized manner.
It is high time, however -- now that we have an effective public transportation system with the metro that takes us swiftly from most neighborhoods in Athens to Omonia, Syntagma and Monastiraki -- that we took advantage of the network and expanded it as fast as possible. It is also good for us to walk more or to cycle, especially in a city that is beautiful and has clement weather most of the time.
As far as the likely consequences of this intervention are concerned, the answer is simple. The proposals, which are gradually becoming decisions and will hopefully be realized soon, are based on very extensive studies. The NTUA conducted a study into this in 2010 for the Environment Ministry.
What guarantees are there that the new system will be safe?
Obviously there are risks, some of which are unpredictable. Policing the city is one of the state’s most important duties, but I personally would not like to live in a high-security environment. What is more important for the safety of citizens is the revival of activity in the city center, during the day and at night. The operational rejuvenation of the city will shed light into its darkest corners. The broader Panepistimiou and Omonia area can become lively with commercial activities during the day and leisure activities at night.
Why start with Panepistimiou, a street that is in a comparatively better state than most?
There are numerous problem areas in Athens and they stretch from Monastiraki to Kolonaki, from Exarchia to Metaxourgeio, and from Omonia to Vathis and Victoria squares, at least. We believe today that these problems are linked to the crisis only, but they are structural problems and cannot be solved all at once. The intervention being planned is aimed at reorganizing the center, which will affect all of the aforementioned areas, and will be accompanied by additional measures. Changing the way traffic moves in the city is just the first step. The initiative is expected to boost commercial and cultural activity, to prettify the urban and natural environment, to highlight the city’s historical and cultural features, and to improve the experience of being downtown for everyone.
Why not begin with financial motives for the revival of the city center, such as subsidized programs to attract more permanent residents?
What we are trying to do here is not really a revamp or gentrification. Furthermore, other than the fact that European funds for large infrastructure projects cannot be used on the kind of subsidized program that may or may not be reminiscent of past, wasteful ways, jump-starting commercial and residential activity should not be about providing financial motives. Sure, some motives are needed and these will be included in a separate initiative, but what we need first and foremost is to regain the concept of a metropolitan center, on a social, financial, symbolic, political and architectural level.
The changes on a practical level
The intervention will be centered around Panepistimiou Street and stretch from Amalias Avenue to the end of Patission, culminating with a complete makeover of Omonia Square.
Although it has been said that Panepistimiou will be paved, this is not the case, though it will be pedestrian-friendly and will include a new tramline and four crossings for cars and public transport.
The extension of the metro will mean that more people in the outer suburbs of Athens will not need to bring their cars into the city center, while the tram from Amalias Avenue to Patission will serve some of the most populous downtown neighborhoods, helping people cross from one side of the city to the other fast.
Traffic into the center from the north along Vassilissis Sofias will be channeled into Academias, which will become southbound.
Coming into the city from the south will be the same as it is today, from Pireos Street, along Stadiou and then on to Filellinon.
Aghiou Constantinou will be made northbound and will connect the western entrance to the city to Tritis Septemvriou Street. Access from Syngrou Avenue toward Kolonaki will be through Vassileos Constantinou and Vassilissis Sofias, while traffic toward the commercial triangle, Parliament and Plaka will use Amalias.
Changes to circulation will stretch from the Kallirois-Syngrou interchange to Ambelokipi and from Athinon Avenue to Patissia.
The plan also entails a public transport network for within the “ring.”