Nea Philadelphia up in arms over plan to build sports and commercial center

The project calls for a multiplex cinema with eight theaters, an ice rink, bowling alley, swimming pool, gymnasium, slimming center, theme restaurants, fast-food outlets and tavernas over a total 5,400 square meters. There are also plans for 8,500 square meters of shops, a 60-bed hotel, banks, pharmacies and other commercial outlets, as well as a conference center, sports museum, sporting goods store and video wall, all covering a total of 2,280 square meters. No, this is not yet another major investment in the new fashion in «entertainment parks» that has taken over in Attica in recent years. The owner is the so-called amateur soccer club AEK (Sporting Union of Constantinople) owned by Yiannis Granitsas, which needs these huge facilities so that the team can get a modern stadium. None of this would pose a problem for anyone were it not for the fact that the complex is to be built on over 3,000 square meters of what is designated as forestland in Nea Philadelphia, one of Athens’s few remaining green spaces. It will also cause irreparable harm to a historic, traditional settlement, Nea Philadelphia’s former housing for refugees. A majority of local residents have charged that the plan is damaging to the environment and contrary to provisions of the Constitution. Nea Philadelphia and AEK have been inextricably linked ever since that particular part of Attica was chosen to help give refugees from Asia Minor a new start. In 1934, when AEK was truly an amateur team, it was given the plot of land on which its stadium was later built on the condition that «this grant is to be withdrawn if the land in question… ceases to be used for the common good» for which it was intended. As the years went by, the stadium was enlarged and then refurbished but its proportions always remained in harmony with the surrounding settlement. The main problem was transport and parking for the thousands of spectators that came to the matches. When its old stadium finally reached bursting point, AEK, with support from the State and the previous municipal council, set in motion an ambitious plan to build the complex described above (hoping for considerable profits from the commercialization of sports) which would also include a soccer stadium, although 40 percent of the total area would be set aside for commercial use. Of the 2.7 hectares, only two are being made available for the stadium. The running tracks are being abolished and seating limited to 32,000 seats, in order to save space, the same reason given for constructing an underground basketball court with seating for 8,000 spectators at a depth of 9 meters, a world first that could prove to be extremely risky. The government bent over backward to facilitate the project with the necessary legislative amendments, granting the use of 3,100 square meters of forestland, and a building coefficient (ratio of open to built-up space) much denser than that given even to Olympic installations (2 as opposed to 0.60). The refugee housing area has a coefficient of 1.4. This means that a 35-story concrete monstrosity may be built in a place where the maximum permissible height is 12.5 meters, including tiled roofs. Dr Thanassis Mallios, a member of the local Citizens’ Movement, emphasized that the «Granitsas plan serves the entertainment industry and commerce.» «The effect on the natural and housing environment will be enormous. The quality of life will deteriorate. For example, the 1,500 parking places provided are insufficient and will lead to traffic chaos,» he said. Building an entertainment and sporting complex in the middle of what is a purely residential area will indeed place an extra burden on what is already a difficult traffic problem. Supporters of the project had told the Nea Philadelphia municipal council that the center would improve life in the area as it would be open 24 hours a day seven days a week. In other words, there won’t be any peace at all. Meanwhile, problems are not restricted to parking and traffic fumes. The operation of so many air-conditioning units in one building is likely to have an extremely negative effect on the microclimate. At last year’s municipal elections, the only group that supported the project was that of former Mayor Pantelis Gretzelias, who was defeated after several four-year terms in office. Most of his fellow citizens believe that the plan for the park played a decisive role in his defeat. After the elections, a committee of local residents was formed representing all sectors of the political spectrum – apart from that of Gretzelias – calling themselves the «Movement for the Quality of Life – Citizens’ Movement,» with the aim of getting the project canceled. Also pitted against the plan is the new municipal council headed by Mayor Nikos Adamopoulos, who made the issue a key part of his campaign platform. It seems the project will not go ahead without a battle, although the old stadium has been demolished and J&P Avax’s excavators are already at work. Local residents have also submitted a group protest to the Council of State. «Instead of a commercial center, we propose that only a stadium for AEK be constructed. The citizens of Nea Philadelphia are determine to protest forcefully, apart from the court action, in cooperation with AEK fans,» said Mallios. In an extrajudicial action, the organization «Friends of the Forest, Green Spaces and the Natural Environment» stated that «according to Article 14 of law 1734/1987, grants of state forests are banned.» The Forestry Service itself, in an earlier document, declared that «it is not possible to legally satisfy the request made by the amateur (soccer team) AEK,» unless the Agriculture Ministry takes such a decision by making use of a loophole for «cultural projects and events.» Unfortunately, the government has made its intentions clear. The only hope lies in the mobilization of local residents and a reaffirmation by the Council of State of what appears to be its sensitivity to environmental issues.

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