Syntagma spruce up points to wider turnaround for Athens
By Marcus Bensasson & Nikos Chrysoloras
The marble paving stones have been relaid in Athens’s Syntagma Square, the site of pitched battles between police and protesters during the worst of Greece’s economic crisis.
Yannis Stournaras has replaced his sixth-floor window overlooking the square. It was pierced by an errant bullet during one of the riots in 2010.
“I changed the window because I decided this era has ended,” Stournaras, the 57-year-old finance minister, said in an interview.
The cosmetic changes around the city’s central plaza signal Greece’s emergence from the crisis that made Athens the fuse to Europe’s debt bomb. Earlier this month, the country completed its first bond sale in four years, bookending a period when it was bailed out twice and completed the biggest-ever sovereign restructuring. As the country teetered on the brink of a political and economic abyss, Syntagma, bounded by the national Parliament, luxury hotels, office buildings and a McDonalds, served as the backdrop for televised reports beamed globally on the chaos.
Now, Athens Mayor George Kaminis, a 59-year-old native of New York City, is sketching out a return to normalcy in a city dubbed the most unlivable in western Europe since 2010 by Mercer, the consulting division of New York-based Marsh & McLennan Cos.
“We cannot surrender to fatalism,” said Kaminis, who was elected in 2010 as the tumult was escalating. “We have to promote Athens.”
While the city has 664,000 residents, the 3.8 million inhabitants of the greater metropolitan area make up more than a third of the country’s total and contribute more than half of its gross domestic product. The unemployment rate in the region, known as Attica, shot up to 28 percent at the end of last year from 6.8 percent at the end of 2008.
Greece’s homeless rate also surged by 25 percent to 20,000 between 2009 and 2011, with many in downtown Athens amid a proliferation of boarded-up storefronts, according to Klimaka, a nongovernmental organization. As of March last year, the vacancy rate for shops in the city center was 32 percent, according to the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce.
“Tourists don’t want to see this, they come for the sun and the Acropolis,” said Yiannis Vassiliou, 40, a bus driver who works the route between the airport and six-acre Syntagma, or Constitution, Square. “Syntagma is very clean now and that’s important because it’s what a tourist arriving from outside sees first. We can’t lose our smile, even if we’re feeling other things inside. It’s our trademark.”
For Athens, recovery depends on attracting visitors to its museums and sites such as the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the citadel of the ancient city-state where the concept of democracy originated. Businesses around Syntagma, including the 230-euro-a-night ($318) Hotel Grande Bretagne, paid for the refurbishment that began late last year.
“Investment opportunities in Athens center must be in tourism and perhaps a few service industries,” said Constantine Michalos, head of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
While 2013 was a record year for tourist arrivals in Greece, with 18 million visitors representing a 16 percent increase, the gain at Athens International Airport was just 2.5 percent, according to the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises.
Visits to the Acropolis rose 1.1 percent compared with 22 percent for archaeological sites nationwide. At the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2008 under the supervision of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, then culture minister, entries also increased less than the national average.
The museum was designed “with all technical facilities for the conservation of the invaluable Greek artifacts, where eventually the Parthenon sculptures will be reunited,” according to its website. The reference is to sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, that were taken from the temple in the early 19th century and are now in the British Museum.
Improving connections to the port of Piraeus, about six miles from central Athens, is critical to expanding tourism, says Kaminis, who has made it a priority to secure more European Union funds. So far his administration has brought in 120 million euros, he said.
“We have to create a line from Piraeus to Athens bringing people that arrive on cruises,” he said in interview at the neoclassical City Hall. “We haven’t managed to create a place for coaches to park. You see them parking and you have your heart in your mouth.”
Kaminis, who studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris, was elected in November 2010 and confronted with a city that was broke. Protesters occupying his offices forced the relocation of the 2011 municipal council vote on budget cuts to a nearby hotel. He slashed the workforce by about 40 percent since 2010, helping turn a 47 million-euro deficit into a surplus.
“Athens did not have its own crisis autonomously from the rest of the country,” Kaminis said. “Here, the national crisis was condensed.”
In July 2011, he cleared out a tent city that sprung up in Syntagma, where protesters spent months camped outside Parliament. While the campers were peaceful, their presence made it harder for police to disperse rock-throwing youths, making the damage to the square more intense. Three days of protests in two weeks that summer caused 1.1 million euros of harm with municipal workers collecting as much as 30 tons of rocks and broken marble after one 48-hour general strike.
Even at the peak of the unrest and doubts about Greece’s place among the 18 euro nations, then-Prime Minister Lucas Papademos began a competition in early 2012 supported by the Onassis philanthropic organization and Environment Ministry to rehabilitate the Athens cityscape.
Dutch firm OKRA went on to win the design for the EU-funded 92 million-euro Rethink Athens project, which will include planting trees and barring traffic from a thoroughfare linking Syntagma and Omonia Square, two kilometers to the north. The project, scheduled for completion by 2016, will also feature a tram-line extension, creating a direct link between the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum and developments along the seafront.
“All big capital cities have a big part that is pedestrianized,” said Michalos, of the Athens Chamber. “Athens doesn’t have it, and it’s about time it acquired it.”
So far, foreign investors have hugged the coastline. Chinese and Qataris are participating in a consortium led by Lamda Development SA (LAMDA), based in Maroussi, to develop the seafront site of the former Athens airport. Six miles away, Jermyn Street Real Estate, a U.K.-based investment partnership, is buying a 90 percent stake in the Astir Palace Vouliagmenis luxury resort on a peninsula 20 kilometers south of Syntagma, for 400 million euros.
The developments -- including a cultural center with a new National Library and opera house near Piraeus, a 550 million-euro project designed by Renzo Piano and funded by the philanthropic Stavros Niarchos Foundation -- could herald an architectural renaissance along the coast. At Hellenikon, the former airport, architect Norman Foster’s London-based firm will design the master plan for a stretch of land almost twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
“We don’t expect miracles, but each step is progress for the city,” said Ioannis Trohopoulos, managing director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
More humble shoots of progress are on display a few blocks from Syntagma. Tailor Made is one of the cocktail bars and coffee houses now on three sides of Agia Irini Square, an area once known for its garment works. The square, named after the neighborhood church, has become one of the most popular in Athens for those returning to the city center.
“There’s been a big change here from when we opened three years ago and there were only a couple of other places around,” said Mado Simou, 24, a waitress at Tailor Made. “Greeks will never cut down on their coffee.”