Suburban digs for devoted urbanites

A modern apartment complex in Kerameikos, in the heart of a quiet, somewhat abandoned pedestrian street, is the type of building that 20 years ago would have been a dream home for thousands of middle-class families in Kypseli or Pangrati. What is astonishing is that no one would have looked for it in Kerameikos but in Kifissia, Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and other bastions of Athenian suburbia. The suburban dream, identified with the city’s entry to the world of consumerism and prosperity, has come full circle to land in anonymous streets and badly lit alleyways in forgotten neighborhoods as part of a new dream that appears to be as powerful as the earlier one. The colonization of the city’s historic center stretching from Omonia Square to Metaxourgeio and Gazi is not new. It has been 10 years since the trendy restaurant Mamacas opened in what was then an unknown side street of Gazi. A few courageous artists followed, setting up their studios in the neighborhood. Theaters, galleries and a few cafes and bars frequented by intellectuals drifted in after them, creating a new identity for the area. Gazi, and much later Metaxourgeio, began to evolve into a new focus for nightlife, but without new residents to bring life into the decrepit neighborhoods during daylight hours. Major change That is now changing, and fast. In June, the construction company GEK SA announced the results of a Europe-wide architectural tender for a model complex of residences and commercial premises in Myllerou Street in Metaxourgeio. The response surpassed all expectations – over 100 firms submitted entries, when architectural tenders in Greece are as rare as total eclipses of the sun. Secondly the choice of the property in question also says something. Construction firms know where to invest their money. GEK’s «experiment» is perhaps the most organized effort of its kind in the wider area, but it is not the first. In Gazi a high-tech apartment house in Vitonos Street stands out among old houses and car repair shops. Demand is so strong that contracts are signed even before the first layer of plaster is applied. «We are talking about apartments no bigger than 70-80 square meters, with one bedroom. Their great advantage is the high quality of construction, the architectural design and technological infrastructure,» said Giorgos Stamatakis of Alpha Land Development. The description of the apartments alone shows the new market for design studios is not young families. «Our customers are mostly singles and young couples who find homes in Gazi to their taste and to suit their pockets,» added Stamatakis. Prices begin at 2,500 euros per square meter, cheaper than in Kolonaki. Stamatakis said that the demand for new apartments in Gazi and Metaxourgeio chiefly came from artists and young people. «The news is spread by word of mouth; one person starts the ball rolling and it goes on from there,» he said, adding that new homes will do a lot to change the districts’ image. «The more permanent homes are built, the more these districts will feel like neighborhoods and less of a place for nightlife. There will be fewer new bars and more traditional uses of the neighborhood, adapted to the lifestyle of the new residents.» Stamatakis drew attention to the fine line between the past and present. Building new homes in entire districts west of Omonia Square is a catalyst for redefining their character but only the construction of new homes can ensure that in 10 years’ time the area could become unrecognizable. There is the view that even if Athens didn’t have districts like these they would have to be invented. A considerable sector of the population are young men and women aged 25-45 who are devoted to their careers and with few or no family obligations. Life in the suburbs is not for them. Kolonaki, meanwhile, is far too expensive for what it has to offer and no longer has its finger on the pulse. All the action has moved long ago to below Syntagma Square and now below Omonia. Moving axis If in 1990 an apartment on Kolonaki’s Patriarchou Ioakeim or Haritos streets guaranteed a privileged view of Athens’s high life, now the axis has moved southwest. The sudden attraction for neglected byways has also resulted in collateral damage. Although changes in Athens follow their own lazy rhythm, there is always the risk of rent and property prices skyrocketing, as has happened in In New York, London and Paris. Katerina Tsigaridas’s winning entry in the GEK competition proposes a complex around an inner courtyard. «We wanted to reproduce the typology of the old Athenian home in the most modern way possible while avoiding any retro references,» explained Tsigaridas. «We did not want to make something deluxe or overly pompous so as not to clash with the urban environment. We believe in continuity. We do not see the complex as a ghetto for intellectuals or the rich.» Old neighborhoods enlivened through surrounding restoration works Metaxourgeio and Kerameikos became trendy neighborhoods for many reasons, not just because Athenians simply needed another type of urban environment. The still-pending restoration of Pireos Street and the opening of the Technopolis arts center in the Gazi site of the old gasworks in the 1990s began the neighborhoods’ rebirth. Then came work on unifying the city’s archaeological sites and the conversion of the southern part of Ermou Street into a pedestrian zone, at the level of Kerameikos. An enjoyable 10-minute walk from the Thisseion metro station takes you to the gate of the old gasworks. Last year the Korean Market (a group of shacks and old houses) was demolished, freeing a one-hectare area which has since become a park. Last fall the Environment and Public Works Ministry announced the new zoning plan for the area, which considerably reduces building coefficients (from 3 to 1.8), and encourages residential rather than all heavy duty use including night clubs. The most decisive factor over the next few years will be the revolution in transport infrastructure in Attica. There has been a metro station in Metaxourgeio since 2000. The opening of the extension to line 3 in early 2007 includes a station at Gazi, to be named Votanikos.

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