NEWS

Games force urban makeover

ATHENS – For decades, Athens has defied urban planners seeking to restore some order to a concrete maze that is home to half of Greece’s population. Now, the scale of organizing the 2004 Olympics is forcing Greece to give the city a face-lift and hopefully provide its 5 million residents with a more livable place. New and refurbished hotels, enhanced public transport and better organized facilities are some of the expected Olympic benefits. But will they really help ease the grind in a slapdash urban sprawl where even a simple commute can fray the nerves? Olympic organizers and officials say the immovable starting date for the Games may have finally forced the government to take its city planning seriously. «For all the projects, the Olympic Games bring with them discipline because they have an immovable deadline of the opening ceremony,» said 2004 transport manager Panos Protopsaltis. «That kind of deadline did not exist in my country many times.» Traffic-plagued Athens will get two new main highways, one cutting north and south, another stretching from west to south. The old marathon race route, which links Athens to its eastern coast, will be widened and repaved, easing access to the city’s burgeoning suburbs. «Traffic is a big problem. It will change with a combination of work and interventions, which are the big road projects, the very big system of railroads and the new traffic management center,» Protopsaltis said. But organizers also have to deal with another type of makeover: changing attitudes honed by years of dealing without urban planning. To make up for a lack of parking spaces, for example, Athenians regularly park their cars on sidewalks, curbs, and, occasionally, the middle of the street. While many rely on public transport, buses and trolleys are rarely on time. People instead cram into their own cars or taxis, which often carry multiple fares. «Public transport is so problematic in this monstrous city that taxis have become a type of public transport themselves,» said a commentary in Kathimerini. Officials are hoping to get people to abandon their cars and use a new fleet of buses, a suburban rail line, metro extensions and a seaside tram – all planned for 2004. «Athenians must understand that private cars should not be the rule… We must learn to use public transport much more and we are striving for them to be much more reliable,» said Nassos Alevras, a deputy culture minister responsible for 2004 preparations. Many critics charge, however, that the Games won’t give Athens a set of new clothes. Instead, it will be a tailor-made garment to be worn once during the Olympics. One oft-cited example is a planned tram connecting central Athens to extensive sports facilities in the city’s southern seaside suburbs. Critics say the project will not alleviate long-term traffic problems, but only help ferry visitors during the Olympics. «The planning of public transport… does not have as a goal serving the citizen. Its goal is do some superficial works,» said Stella Alfieri, a strong opponent of the Games and a former member of Parliament. Alfieri also claims the Games have destroyed many of the city’s few remaining open spaces «in the name of the Olympiad.» Government officials deny the charges, countering that many sports venues are being built in some of the city’s more rundown areas. «The athletic venues were chosen in specific areas in such a way as to ensure they will be used after the Olympics. Emphasis was given to areas that were more downgraded,» Alevras said. Officials have also tried to restore some of Athens’s ancient glory by clearing the city of thousands of billboards that blocked views of its monuments, including the Acropolis. The city’s main parks are being cleaned and replanted, and all Olympic venues will be landscaped. «There are several… occasions where landscaping is putting an extra value to the significant effort which has been made to regenerate areas,» said George Kazantzopoulos, the 2004 environmental manager. Olive, laurel and cypress trees – indigenous to the area – will be among the trees planted, but the mostly concrete city center will not change drastically, he added. «Athens will not become an Amazon,» Kazantzopoulos said. «Everything that will be added will be in a very positive direction.» Beauty and functionality do not come cheap. Critics have said the Games will plunge Greece in debt and claim their cost will surpass the government estimate of $4 billion. A recent loan of $1.47 billion from the European Investment Bank suggests they may not be wrong.