Zoning chaos in historic Plaka

What exactly does the state want Plaka to be? A lovely residential area in the shadow of the Acropolis? A Greek theme park for tourists, with tavernas, cafes, syrtaki dancing and tzatziki? Or something in between? The question is far from rhetorical. A war is brewing between a group of devoted Plaka residents and local authorities over the identity of Athens’s oldest neighborhood. The residents say rogue businesses out for tourist dollars are ruining Plaka, which has turned into an entertainment center since the 1970s. As demand for new restaurants and cafes has brought on a flurry of often illegal development, disgusted residents are starting to leave the storied area. But the problem of cheap entertainment sites encroaching on Plaka’s historic character has been around for a long time, say neighborhood residents who are pushing for change, despite years of stalemate. Authorities first tried to stop the rampant development of entertainment sites in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The new regulations enshrined in presidential decree 617/81 were based on the designation of Plaka as a strictly residential area, while allowing for some development of its touristic character. As of then, individual buildings were listed for preservation, pedestrian zones and traffic restrictions were established, so that Plaka is now supposed to be governed by fairly protective rules. «The effort paid off and the number of residents gradually rose again,» say Nikos and Ioannis Tsoganis, who have lived and worked in the area for 35 years. «The problems began again at the end of the 1980s, and have become very intense in the last decade.» Giorgos Mathiodakis, an executive of the European Union’s general secretariat for agriculture and coordinator of a group of Plaka residents, said the pressure to make money from tourism intensified, and the number of tourism-related businesses began to rise. «Dairy shops, pharmacies and convenience stores closed, while cafes put tables out everywhere, taking over squares and open spaces,» Mathiodakis said. «Unfortunately, the municipality, the prefecture and the related services do not carry out on-site inspections, refuse to impose administrative and penal sanctions, and in many cases turn a blind eye.» The Tsoganises and Mathiodakis say that businesses such as restaurants, tavernas and food shops operate in Plaka without any kind of permit. Some have been illegally expanded into neighboring buildings, some have permits but for different uses, and some operate legally but have illegally taken over sidewalks, terraces and squares with their tables and chairs. «What the area needs is a general re-examination of all permits to clear up the situation. And the scofflaws must be made to comply immediately or lose their permits,» Mathiodakis says. Apart from infringements of the health regulations, there are also town planning infringements such as the raising of building heights during restoration or repair and the addition of external space. But Deputy Athens Mayor Christos Akritidis insists that authorities have not forgotten Plaka. «If a member of the public believes that city services are covering up illegal acts, they should inform the municipality so it can take legal action,» Akritidis said. «As for inspections, the town planning authority always investigates complaints and never orders work stopped without cause. The Ministry of the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works is responsible for the Plaka office. There are many problems in the area because there are many listed buildings and special regulations. We examine any complaints very carefully.» Ministry issued permits before election Mathioudakis cites the example of three buildings near the Lysicrates Monument known as the Lantern of Diogenes. «The law does not permit increases in the height of buildings or any alterations to their architecture. Yet the owner of a listed building directly opposite the monument (on Vyronos Street) managed, by false or inadequate measurements, to raise it by 70 centimeters. When we complained about it to the Plaka town-planning office, the engineers who came to conduct the inspection refused to go up on the terrace to see the old part of the building, with the excuse that they didn’t have a ladder. That forced us to resort to asking professionals for a complete photo measurement (which cost us 2,500 euros) to compare with the old photographs so we could prove the infringement. «Five days before the last elections, the then minister in charge of town planning issued an exceptional permit for a dairy shop on the ground floor of the building. The owner had illegally joined together the five preexisting stores on the ground floor. The town-planning office made four to five inspections but never ascertained the full extent of the illegality. In the end, the Earthquake Reconstruction Fund and the Culture Ministry’s Ephorate of Modern Monuments noted the infringement. The original building permit was recalled and the owners are seeking approval of the illegal work from the central council for modern monuments. «Right next door, a restaurant has been illegally extended into a neighboring building and has encroached with its tables and chairs upon a small dead-end sidewalk. Opposite, where the Karaghiozis theater used to be, three buildings have been joined to make a luxury restaurant, with a permit for a dairy and convenience store. The restaurant has taken over the square with tables and chairs.» Tsoganis mentions another case. «Directly below the Acropolis, near the old university, an illegal construction housing a restaurant has been set up. We made a series of complaints to the City of Athens, we met with the deputy mayor at our request. We took every legal action but the restaurant keeps functioning as normal. We called the police to intervene while illegal building work was in process but nobody showed up. In the end, we threatened to sue and only then did the owner demolish it. A nearby restaurant with a permit to use 14 square meters for tables has taken over an entire sidewalk and terrace of 500 square meters. A well-known cafe with a permit to use 38 square meters has put out 300 tables and built a chimney so it can cook food.»

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