Is the future of Elaionas greenery or cement? Proposals in draft legislation raise questions

Serious environmental questions arise from the legislative proposal for a «dual refurbishment» of the Alexandras Avenue area and Votanikos in order to build the new Panathinaikos soccer club stadium that the Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) is promoting. One clear advantage would be additional open space in Ambelokipi, but that is at the cost of tons of cement in Votanikos, a huge amount of state funding, public land handed over for decades and three huge malls, just for starters. The Elaionas area, and in particular the part of it where the new soccer ground is to be built, is in a pitiful state. It has been used for various environmentally damaging purposes, without any planning. Pathways, dumps, abandoned factories and warehouses present a picture of neglect. Although a 1995 presidential decree stipulated that a large proportion of the site (44 percent) be designated as a green space, little has been done, mainly because there was minimal state funding. Lost opportunity The vision that many town planners had of transforming Elaionas from a problematic area and source of pollution into an open green space has remained a dream. Many see the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens as a lost opportunity for Elaionas, as it would have been the perfect site for an ecological Olympic Village. It could have been refurbished and its old buildings restored or demolished, impeding the further sprawl of the city toward Parnitha. Unfortunately the state took no meaningful action to deal with the site until the Panathinaikos soccer club wanted to build its own field there to international specifications, which it could not do at its old ground on Alexandras Avenue. There was no question of using the renovated OAKA stadium (which Panathinaikos used as a base for many years) with the new ultra-costly roof designed by Calatrava. Luckily, opposition by local residents averted proposals to occupy the sites of the planned metropolitan parks at Goudi and Hellenikon. The proposal for Votanikos, following an agreement between YPEHODE, Panathinaikos and the City of Athens, entails demolition of the soccer ground on Alexandras. A single site will be created at Votanikos with spaces for a 40,000-seat soccer stadium (including a service area, accommodation and shops), an indoor basketball court, a 45,000-square-meter multipurpose municipal building, above- and below-ground car parks (which means large expanses of asphalt), and 12 hectares of greenery. Major infrastructure projects, such as road widening and flood prevention works, are needed to maintain the site. The cost, to be borne directly by the state, is estimated to be 127.6 million euros. The City of Athens is to put in another 35 million euros for expropriations. Despite the high cost, Theodoros Skylakakis, a former deputy mayor of Athens and currently the president of Dipli Anaplasi SA (which has been set up to implement the project), believes the outcome is positive. «First of all,» said Skylakakis, «it frees up the site in Ambelokipi, which lacks green spaces. By using Kountouriotika [the adjacent refugee housing blocks] we can create a significant, continuous green space. Secondly, we have persuaded the state to go ahead with creating infrastructure in a very run-down area. Third, it creates a substantial space for recreation, sport and shopping in an area that would be dominated by green spaces. Lastly, it increases the municipality’s property, which will allow it to fund activities (such as expropriations) in the Elaionas area later on.» Much will depend, especially in the last case, on how long the site is to be used by the company that undertakes to build the soccer stadium and other works, as the project is to be be self-funded. The most important thing is that private owners will be using public property for decades, and when that time is up, the area may be in need of refurbishment once again. Not only will a lot of money be spent on the area, but a huge amount of cement will also be laid there. For a start, the right to build 60,000 square meters was transferred from the Alexandras soccer ground to which another 35,000 square meters has been added. Then an exception was made for the building on the adjacent plot owned by ETMA (it was doubled from 0.8 to 1.6) so that the company would give the city 1.9 hectares of land free of charge. The result is that huge malls will spring up in the area. In addition to the big mall (the same size as the one in Maroussi) which is permitted on the ETMA site, permits will also be given for stores, insurance companies, banks, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and trade exhibitions. Similar uses will be permitted on the adjacent plot in the city’s multipurpose building (of the same size). And similar uses will be permitted on 17.5 percent (9,275 sq.m.) of the new soccer ground. In other words, this will not be the Panathinaikos soccer pitch but a huge store and sport complex. «Combining all those uses with huge malls is a problem,» said Nikos Belavilas, a lecturer in town planning at the School of Architecture. «Does every soccer ground or Olympic Games venue need a mall next door in order to be viable? It’s illogical. Whether the soccer grounds are a success is a problem for the soccer clubs, not for society or the town-planning office. The state is basically making a gift of the infrastructure to a company.» What will this intervention mean overall for the 900 run-down hectares of Elaionas? Skylakakis believes the proposed action will have a positive impact by activating the long-neglected presidential decree and getting work moving now that the area is being upgraded with new infrastructure and the construction of a project of more than local importance, such as the Panathinaikos soccer stadium. Belavilas does not agree with this view. As he pointed out, «The measures are not accompanied by any serious overall town-planning study.» He believes that real estate interests are behind the proposal.