Initiatives make the Greek capital more outward-looking

This is not the first challenge to the Athens town-planning model – which was turned in on itself and with its back to the sea. The foundations for change were laid ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games with the positioning of sporting facilities along the seafront from the Faliron Delta to Hellenikon and Aghios Cosmas, not to mention proposals made by forward-looking town planners since the 1960s. The center of gravity has been shifting toward the south in an unplanned way for the past 10 years, chiefly by means of new cultural infrastructure along the major arteries that lead to the sea. What could not be understood in the 1960s is now taking place out of necessity. For the past decades both roads (Pireos and Syngrou avenues) have seen a steady increase of venues for culture and entertainment, some of them very ambitious, the most notable of which are the Foundation for the Hellenic World’s cultural center on Pireos and the House of Arts and Letters being constructed on Syngrou by the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation. Powerful gesture What this expansion toward the sea needed was a powerful gesture, such as the Niarchos Foundation’s dramatic offer, which foundation board member Andreas Drakopoulos announced to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on October 27 in a letter. The establishment of new premises for the National Library and the National Opera is a vital initiative. For a start, there is the sheer scale of the project. The two buildings, covering an area of 60,000 square meters, will dominate the 24-hectare site, most of which (around 14 hectares), will be fashioned as a green area, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural and Educational Park, which will host cultural, educational and recreational events. Location By their very nature, such large-scale projects develop an unexpected dynamic, all the more so when they are implemented in areas where town-planning arrangements are still fluid, as at the Faliron Delta. In the case of the Niarchos Foundation’s initiative, the radius of influence extends to Hellenikon, since the construction at the hippodrome site will coincide with the development of the Metropolitan Park at Hellenikon. Both projects are scheduled for completion in 2013. Above all, there is the nature of the venues. These are not just any buildings but prestigious complexes of great symbolic value. The history of cities, especially in modern times, is full of examples of such that were used to implement long-range urban refurbishment projects. If a building of average size, such as the new Benaki Museum, can put Pireos Avenue on the map, one can imagine the impact of a 20-hectare culture park. Starting point At the Maximos Mansion last Friday the intentions of the foundation, previously known only to the prime minister and the government, were confirmed. Before the donation can be formalized, the government and the foundation must sign a memorandum of cooperation that stipulates each participant’s role and spheres of responsibility. «We are interested in getting those guarantees that will ensure the best possible operation of the projects,» said the foundation’s executive director, Epaminondas Farmakis. The guarantees will concern matters such as the appointment of appropriate staff, security and cleaning systems for the buildings and better public transport links. At present, the site is served only by trams and buses. Solutions must also be found for issues related to ownership status, land use and any town-planning factors that could cause foreseeable problems. The land belongs to the Economy Ministry, while the Ministry of Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) and the Athens Organization are responsible for managing it. The site has been designated as a green area in which venues for culture, recreation and entertainment are permitted. The municipality of Kallithea, in which the site lies, still plays a key role. Several months ago, YPEHODE Minister Giorgos Souflias informed Kallithea Mayor Costas Askounis about the foundation’s initiative. Though the negotiations allow room for optimism, no definitive agreement has been reached. Askounis wants to secure the maximum possible benefits for the municipality, claiming at least 3 hectares of the former hippodrome site and other space on the shore of Faliron Delta. «All the issue must be resolved by signing a detailed contract. We are in favor of a joint approach to the seafront and the hippodrome,» says the recently re-elected mayor. It will take at least a year for the cooperation memorandum to be signed, and 6-7 years to complete the construction work.

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