Slew of billboards replace trees on key Athenian roads

Over the past few days advertising billboards have sprung up along the Faliron coastline in place of the poplars that have lined these roads for the past 20 to 30 years. About 30 of these billboards have appeared on both sides of the coastal road and along Syngrou Avenue. Teams of workers erected them overnight on the eve of the local elections in October, cutting down trees that got in their way. Local residents protested to the municipalities concerned – Kallithea and Palaio Faliron – but received the reply that the coastal avenue came under the jurisdiction of the Environment and Public Works Ministry. They eventually found that no one claimed responsibility. Some people are receiving considerable revenue from outdoor advertising, even at the expense of public safety. They are acquiring permits to set up these advertisements even through the use of forged documents, sometimes with the knowledge of local authorities. They take over entire municipalities with their billboards without bothering to obtain permits, as has happened in Peristeri in western Athens. Another tactic is to put them up at bus stop shelters in collaboration with municipalities, as in Athens, with a complete lack of concern for drivers’ safety. While the billboards were being erected in Faliron, the way these groups operate was being discovered in Maroussi. The death of 25-year-old Yiannis Stavroulakis 10 months ago, after his car crashed into an illegally placed billboard on Kifissias Avenue in Maroussi, set off a chain reaction of revelations. A months-long struggle by the victim’s father, Manolis Stavroulakis, along with other families who attribute the deaths of loved ones to similar causes, uncovered a group in which municipalities, regional authorities, the Environment and Public Works Ministry and some of the outdoor advertising firms were implicated. According to Giorgos Sykamiotis, who until recently was Maroussi’s deputy mayor for finance, prior to 2002 the municipality had «some revenue» from outdoor advertising but in more recent years none at all. Yet dozens of billboards are still in place even along Maroussi’s main roads. Sykamiotis claims no outdoor advertisement has been legally erected within the municipality (that is, after a survey and approval from the town-planning authority). Sykamiotis himself has signed four orders rejecting the erection of hoardings by Keravnos, Super Technique Vision, ABETE and Euronet Outdoor. However, according to the local newspaper Amarysia, the firms went ahead and put up the advertisements anyway using forged documents with the same protocol numbers as on the rejections issued by Sykamiotis. Their representatives even turned up at the municipal accounting office to pay the fees. A municipal employee reported the violation but the matter went no further. «Only in Greece does outdoor advertising have such a bad name,» claim representatives of the advertising firms. Antonis Vlachos, an adviser to Alma-Atermon, one of the biggest in the sector, said these billboards are seen in most major cities around the world. He claims that his firm has contracts with municipalities for the billboards. The other side claims municipalities tolerate the billboards, even those erected by firms with which they have no contracts, begging the question as to where the revenue is going. Although the Municipality of Athens has not issued permits for advertisements on rooftops, three years ago its services found 200 of them. After Stavroulakis’s death, the Maroussi Town Hall said no permit had been issued for the billboard in question, but it was still there two months after the accident. The Town Planning and Architectural Inspection Committee, which is supposed to advise on the placing of billboards, has not responded to their requests (according to Municipal Council Ruling 122, April 18, 2002). So it seems that local officials put the billboards wherever they like, while Sykamiotis claims that not even the most rudimentary surveys are carried out. Meanwhile, the General Secretariat for Public Works and the National Road-Building Fund (which receives the revenue from advertisements along the national highways) has not dismantled those that have been illegally erected.

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