Ritzy Athenian suburb of Voula falling victim to rampant development and shoddy planning
The coastal suburb of Voula, south of Athens, has long been one of the most coveted neighborhoods in Attica. But rampant development in recent years is slowly turning one of the most expensive and exclusive Athenian suburbs into a congested area where giant shopping centers and office buildings crowd out homes. Homeowners who thought they had bought into something special are now faced with a situation which a Greek saying describes literally as trying «to make silken ribbons out of seaweed» – or, essentially, a raw deal. Kathimerini first described the situation in a report last week, highlighting a perennial problem in urbanizing neighborhoods: the proper balance between business and residential uses. Residents often say they want as little non-residential development as possible, while business owners – often backed by municipal officials – promote a mix of land uses in areas where space is precious. In recent years, a sort of legal ping-pong has been played between Voula homeowners and businesspeople who have set up shop in the suburb. But though many homeowners are complaining – and have taken their case to the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, Voula Mayor Giorgos Mantesis supports adding businesses to the town and says most of his citizens support him. Some modifications to the initial law governing Voula’s planning were made in 2003, when then-ministers Theodoros Pangalos and Theodoros Tsoukatos signed the amendment 3212/2003, introduced by Vasso Papandreou. The amendment was supposed to ease more businesses into Voula and essentially legalize those already built. Varying ideas In the explanatory report for the amendment, the authors noted that the planning data for Voula has changed significantly since the suburb’s establishment in 1926. The area must be more than just for homes, the report said. Some uses are spelled out in Paragraph 24 of Article 13 in the law, which states that plots facing Vouliagmenis Avenue are generally for residential use, with exceptions for businesses or shops causing minimal annoyance to neighbors. But the uses developed after the amendment was passed differ greatly from those envisioned in the amendment’s report. For example, in the case of car lots, those businesspeople who had applied for permits for homes tried to change the permits to allow them to open a business on the spot. At the same time, though the amendment envisioned the road between Vari and Koropi to have only homes, businesses have nevertheless sprouted up. Whatever the case, the amendment gives Voula’s municipal officials the right to consider each permit on a case-by-case basis – but with the input of citizens and town-planning officials who have studied the plans. Voula’s neighborhood groups have gone to the Council of State to stop some of the practices which have resulted in the construction of more businesses. The Council of State must now consider the constitutionality of the amendment. For this decision to be recognized, the entire body of the council must approve it. The decision is supposed to take place in about a year. Meanwhile, new permits continue to be issued. New businesses are cropping up everywhere – legally, according to the amendment – but without the proper infrastructure in place. Changing suburb Mantesis, the mayor, is optimistic that the council’s decision will take into account Voula’s need for a mix of business and residential development. He told Kathimerini in an earlier report that he wants land use in Voula to change. And he says Voula’s residents are behind him. That’s why they voted for him, he said, because they need shops in the neighborhoods where they live. However, such a shopping center in Voula already exists. He also said people who own property facing Vouliagmenis Avenue should not develop homes there, but conceded that town council members do own property on this stretch of road. Mantesis also noted that a presidential decree last year allowed for all seaside areas to have a mix of uses – another point in his favor. «Often, the Council of State gets stuck on the line of the law, but does not see the reality,» Mantesis said. «Today, Voula is a city and it must have activities which must take place on main arteries and not in the town-planning area.» Business reaction Even if the members of the Council of State consider the particular amendment unconstitutional, the businesses that have already gone up in Voula cannot be removed – at least easily. After Kathimerini published its initial article about development in Voula last week, a business owner in the suburb, D. Raptis, called the newspaper to complain and emphasized the following fact: If the Council of State reverses the amendment and makes the current businesses there illegal, some 400 shops will be closed and 2,000 people will be out of work. The owner of Papapolitis SA, one of the biggest retailers of sanitary wear, tiles and kitchen furniture in Greece, also contacted Kathimerini after the first article appeared. Papapolitis said that Vouliagmenis Avenue cannot support homes alone, which is why businesses are being built there.