Chairs and tables invade last bits of public space

A few days ago, customers of a cafe in downtown Piraeus witnessed an unfortunate scene: A resident of a nearby apartment block had suffered an ischemic episode. The ambulance, which had arrived promptly, could not approach the building and convey the patient properly on a stretcher past all the tables and chairs jamming the sidewalk. Such scenes may not be common but those who work or live near the bars and cafes of all kinds that have taken over every centimeter of free space in Athens, often illegallly, have their own unpleasant experiences to recount. Squares are so crowded people can barely cross them, shopping streets have almost no stores left on them since the cafes have pushed them out. Kolonaki, Fokionos Negri Street, Thiseion, Plaka, Monastiraki, Proskopon Square, and Hymmettou, Valaoritou, Tsakalof streets and Alexandras Avenue are just some of the streets that have been transformed into outdoor cafes without any kind of organization. Wherever a pedestrian zone is created or sidewalks are widened to secure a few more meters of open space, they instantly fill to bursting point with tables and chairs. «In Greece,» say town planners, «we never had the European culture of squares. It is not by chance that we have few large, historic squares throughout Greece. So each time a new free space is created, the state seems uncomfortable about how to handle it, so it resorts to the easy solution of tables and chairs. Besides, a square full of cement isn’t suited to anything but cafes.» Entrepreneurs blame the excessive number of laws and the absence of courageous political decisions. The Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) permits tables and chairs to take up 4.5 meters of the squares under its control. The Culture Ministry allows them to take up 2.5 meters in squares it controls. But nobody can check how many spaces each cafe can legally fill. The municipality, which issues permits for chairs and tables, does not have sufficient inspectors so businesses infringe the law. Tsakalof Street, which had attracted many leading entrepreneurs and importers, was designated a shopping street in 1997 and has lost its character. Entrepreneurs had to leave when tables crowded out the street, blocked off windows, impeded pedestrians and brought in peddlers and beggars. «Little cafes line up tables and chairs along the sidewalk until it becomes impassable,» businessman Manos Pentheroudakis told Kathimerini. The same thing happened on Milioni. Initially, making the street a pedestrian zone offered considerable advantages to store owners, until the tables and chairs invaded. «The only streets that survived,» said Pentheroudakis, «are Ermou, thanks to a presidential decree issued by then YPEHODE Minister Costas Laliotis, and Voukourestiou, by chance. By contrast, on Valaoritou, even though the City of Athens issued a ruling suspending permits for tables and chairs in 2006, it has not brought compliance. Not only have the rows of tables and chairs multiplied, but so has the number of cafes, many of which do not even have legal permits.» A municipal mechanism common to all local councils is responsible for the spread of tables and chairs into squares, streets and open spaces. «The value of land in the center of Athens is so high,» a leading realtor told Kathimerini, «that it is cheaper to pay the municipality or a municipal employee who will turn a blind eye on an infringement rather than have a large store that has room for the clientele.» A very small, ground-floor store of around 50 square meters might cost 4,000 euros a month to rent, but making the cafe twice or three times as big by putting tables and chairs out front would only cost 4,000 euros a year in municipal fines. This discrepancy fosters shady dealings with city employees. Mayor: We can combine entertainment and business «I don’t want Athens to become a graveyard,» the capital’s mayor, Nikitas Kaklamanis, told Kathimerini, «but neither do I want things to go overboard. We can combine entertainment and business in this city.» He warned those who break the law (by illegal expansion or failing to pay files) that respect for the public is crucial, and that he is planning more systematic inspections. Already certain streets have been marked out (Milioni and Tsakalof), and municipal trucks will be brought in to help. Cafe and bar owners who do not obey the instructions of the municipal police will have their tables and chairs loaded onto trucks and removed.

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