Maroussi forest under threat of development

It could only happen in Greece, where urban green space is not only not protected but is viewed by both the State and the private sector as ripe for construction. The Municipality of Maroussi, in northern Athens, and the philanthropic «Benevolent Society» (Athens Home for the Aged) are fighting over a piece of land that, in fact, does not belong to either of them. In 2000, the Maroussi Municipal Council took a unanimous decision to expropriate land that appeared to belong to the charity, in order to build an underground parking garage, sporting facilities and office space. The Benevolent Society took recourse to the Council of State against the action. Yesterday, after a delay of four years, the council began hearing the case; a decision is expected within the week. However, members of the Educational and Cultural Association of Paradeisos, in Maroussi, say the property in question does not belong either to the Home for the Aged or the municipality, as, based on a final ruling by the Land Registry, it belongs to the Greek State. Known as the Mimikopoulos Estate, the 1.5 hectares of thick forest of olive, pine, almond and cypress trees is in a suburb where open spaces are being swallowed up by construction one after the other. In 1997, the municipality wanted to dump rubble there taken from an excavation site for the construction of a gymnasium but was thwarted by widespread opposition from local residents and eventually a court ruling against it. For years now, the municipality has been turning a blind eye to the use of the forest as a parking site. Invitation to investors In 2000, in fact, the municipal council took a unanimous decision to expropriate the land – which until then was thought to belong to the Home for the Aged – in order to build a three-level underground parking garage for 1,500 cars, open-air and indoor sports and cultural venues. It put forward the argument that the choice of the particular site was governed by the fact that it «was almost the last remaining open space in the area,» that «piles of rubble had already been dumped there» as well as the fact that «it was already being used by irate drivers as a parking lot.» In order to find the money to compensate the Benevolent Society, the municipality called for bids for investment in the site, even suggesting an 18-meter-high office building. Based on existing legislation, no site can be expropriated for a use that is of a lower standard than its previous one. In this case, a green space cannot be sacrificed to build an office building. Nevertheless, a number of investors, including AEGEK-Agrotiki-Grecotel, Babis Vovos and MDC, wasted no time in indicating their interest, as the site is considered prime real estate due to its proximity to Kifissias Avenue and the Attiki Odos. The same year, however, the Benevolent Society took recourse to the Council of State to overturn the municipal council’s decision, noting that in a district which is characterized as «urban green space – open areas,» parking is prohibited and the municipal code does not provide for expropriation of land for purposes of parking. Building construction The Benevolent Society, naturally, would like to see the park used for the construction of homes as a source of revenue. Pending the Council of State’s decision, any development of the site has been frozen and investors sent home. So when, on September 14, 2003, a fire broke out on the site, fortunately without causing major damage, local residents had their suspicions, which were confirmed by the fire department’s ruling that it had been the result of arson. However, it seems that neither of the warring parties had considered the actual owner, in this case the State, which had ratified its ownership of the site with the Land Registry. Municipalities cannot expropriate State-owned land. Unfortunately, the final ownership titles had not yet been issued (they are expected to come in about four months’ time) so the Council of State cannot take them into consideration.