By Giorgos Lialios
The Environment Ministry and the City of Athens have launched an initiative aimed at restoring emblematic buildings in the Greek capital that have fallen into a state of disrepair by working with their owners to ascertain whether there is the will to salvage them or they should just be demolished. The cornerstone of the plan is for the state to cover the cost of reconstruction if the owner agrees to hand over the property for a certain number years. This model had been applied in the past with historical properties being ceded to the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) for commercial use, an initiative that helped save examples of traditional architecture in many parts of the country.
On Tuesday Environment Minister Yiannis Maniatis met with Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis and Vivi Batsou, the head of the Organization of Athens, a service that is slated for closure. The subject of the meeting was buildings that have fallen into a state of ruin in central Athens, a burgeoning problem considering that they now number at least 1,200.
“Abandoned buildings create a string of sanitation and safety problems. The problem is quite acute in the Municipality of Athens, especially in parts of the center,” Maniatis told Kathimerini. “Together with the municipality and the Organization of Athens we are studying an entirely new approach to the problem and hope to have some solid proposals by September.”
The first problem that they have found, said Maniatis, lies in the legislation.
“We plan to ascertain the exact ownership status and then find ways of coming up with the funds needed,” he explained. “Our aim is to create a new framework that will be applicable not just to Athens but Greece as a whole.”
According to Batsou, there are currently 1,200 buildings in the Municipality of Athens that have been listed as abandoned, a third of which are listed for preservation.
“We aim to create a process by which we can locate all the owners and make them an offer,” she said. “For example, if a building is in very bad shape we can offer incentives for demolition. Likewise, if restoration is possible, we can offer incentives to that end as well.”
What happens, however, in the very likely case that the proprietors are not interested in getting involved in costly and lengthy restorations?
“We will give them a grace period and if they fail to take steps within that time, then the municipality will move in and undertake the cost of restoration on the condition that it is allowed to use the building for a certain period of time before handing it back to the owner,” explained Batsou. “The funds may come from the Green Fund or from the new National Strategic Reference Framework EU subsidy program.”
If it does manage to get off the ground it won’t be the first time this model has been applied. In the 1970s and 80s, the GNTO conducted a series of studies and restorations of privately owned traditional residences and guest houses in various parts of the country, including Mani, Vyzitsa, Psara, Milies, Papingos and Oia, which were then ceded to the organization for utilization.
There are also additional tools available today for the transformation of traditional buildings into accommodation units. Of course in the case of Athens it is unlikely that the buildings will be turned into hotels. They will most likely be restored in such a way as to allow for multiple uses.
“We want to put together a draft for a presidential decree by September so that within the next year we can proceed with the pilot phase of the program with a small selection of abandoned buildings,” said Batsou.
The Regional Authority of Attica has been making a record of abandoned buildings since 2008 in an effort to curb the decline of the city and has ascertained that there are around 1,200 in the Municipality of Athens, the majority in the downtown area.
“Abandoned buildings are part of the broader problems of the city center,” said Deputy Regional Governor Anna Tsatsou-Papadimitriou. “The abandoned buildings can’t all be lumped together. Some are privately owned and others owned by the state. Then there are buildings that have been listed for preservation either by the Culture or the Environment Ministry and are subject to different legislative procedures. The law as it stands today does not allow the state to intervene in each of these cases,” she explained.
However, another big problem is that the owners of the majority of these 1,200 buildings have yet to be traced.
According to officials at the Regional Authority of Attica, it is nearly impossible to track down all of the owners. In some cases, for example, the owners left Greece permanently decades ago, leaving their assets behind. In others, the buildings are owned by multiple beneficiaries who more often than not contest each other’s proprietorship rights. The same sources say, however, that most owners, when traced, do heed the recommendations of the Health and Safety Service in order to bring their properties up to code. Those who do not comply face legal action.
“I can’t rent it because of the crisis. I sealed it as best I could so drug addicts or the homeless don’t use it as a squat. But I can’t work miracles nor can I act as sheriff if undesirable elements break through the barriers I have put in place. The state cannot duck its responsibilities in this matter,” the custodian of a large building in downtown Athens told Kathimerini on condition of anonymity.
According to the regional authority’s records, 96 percent of Attica’s abandoned buildings are in the Municipality of Athens. Of these, 31 percent are in the First Constituency, which includes areas such as Exarchia, Kolonaki, Plaka and Psyrri and 17 percent are in the Sixth Constituency (Kypseli, Attiki Square etc). Just 4 percent are in Pangrati and Neos Cosmos.