The Great Hellenikon Park Sell-Out

What Hellenikon could have been, but never will
What Hellenikon could have been, but never will

The most valuable piece of real estate in the world is New York’s Central Park – precisely because it is a park in the heart of the capital of the world and would be worth an uncountable amount of money to developers who will never get their hands on the 840-acre treasure.

The most valuable piece of real estate in Greece is the 1482-acre former Hellenikon International Airport site on Athens’ coast, sitting up snug against the sea along a series of pricy neighborhoods.

It’s been abandoned since 2001 when the new Athens International Airport opened north of the city and is treated like most of the open space in Greece: ignored and neglected, although not as bad off as some former 2004 Olympic Games sites that are overrun with weeds and rubbish.

Frederick Law Olmstead, who, along with Calvert Vaux won the award to design Central Park in 1857, knew what it was worth to the city and its people. He said it was “of great importance as the first real park made in this country – a democratic development of the highest significance.”

Here’s the difference between how New York and Athens treat the invaluable worth of land: Central Park is a serene place for picnics, walking, running, bicycling, family outings, an oasis against the skyscrapers on it edges and wonderfully eccentric juxtaposition of greenery against architecture.

Where New York saw a place for perpetual beauty, Athens sees the airport as an opportunity to make a quick buck during a crushing economic crisis. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is selling off Hellenikon for development: it was supposed to be the biggest urban park in Europe but coming soon will be another vast sea of concrete and the land will be lost forever.

You’d think such a valuable piece of land would draw an army of bidders: Greece got just one, the Lambda Development company from Greece that unlawfully built the garish Athens Mall but somehow, despite violating the Constitution, wasn’t barred from competing.

Here’s where it gets curiouser: an Israeli company, Elbin Cochit, wanted to bid but backed out because it hinted the fix was in and that the country’s privatization agency, HRADF, set up a process murkier than a politician’s heart and that the draft contract terms were clouded.

The site is seven kilometers from the city’s center along prime seaside frontage and late last year a Metro station opened, making it even more attractive for investors and the greedy rich.

The plans call now for more buildings and fewer trees and less grass or green space, prompting outcries from environmentalists and mayors of several municipalities, but the government doesn’t care and is willing to lose Athens’ Central Park forever for money.

If Greece had Samaras instead of Pericles, there’d be no Acropolis or Parthenon today, just more buildings. The previous government of former Premier George Papandreou, who used to head the PASOK Anti-Socialists, was willing to sell it outright and would have put McDonald’s golden arches atop the Parthenon if some politicians and business people could have sold the naming rights and pocketed the money.

So now Greece has to consider that Hellenikon, which could have been an oasis of greenery and serenity next to the sea, will instead be filled with Athens’ identity: concrete buildings, even gussied-up to look like to the rich people and business types who will use them.

Don’t count on Lambda Development to do the right thing if it gets the award. It said its project included creating residential, recreation, sporting and cultural facilities, which would include 495 acres of park.

This is the same company that was required to build a 20-acre park next to the Athens Mall but that’s still a bus parking lot, and there’s no money to be made in planting trees.

The company, which said it planned a seven billion euro ($9.66 billion) investment, has partners, the Abu Dhabi-based company Al Maabar, China’s Fosun Group as well as unnamed European funds. Just what you want in a public tender: secret investors.

Lamda Chief Executive Odysseas Athanasiou, who still has to hope HRADF’s governing board accepts the only bid instead of trying to find competitors, said it was “a very important day for the company and for Greece, as some of the world’s biggest investment funds have decided to invest in our country, putting their confidence in Greece’s prospects into practice.”

So in a few years, when Greeks go to the beach on Athens’ coast – much of it unlawfully occupied by businesses who stole public land or paid someone off to get it and force people to pay to use a public beach – won’t have the luxury of a park there either because it will another landscape of cement with a few trees mixed it to give it a hint of legitimacy.

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, proving even a monkey can hit a dart board once in a while, said that Hellenikon is being sold off to enrich a few people and HRADF was “a clique deciding on the future of public wealth without transparency, without Parliamentary supervision and control, as if it were property they inherited from their grandfathers.”

He said that SYRIZA viewed Hellinikon – which successive Greek governments had for years promised and failed to transform into a metropolitan park and greenspace – as “a landmark of the struggles of city movements to defend public spaces.”

He pointed to a plan drawn up by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) as a “well-supported and budgeted proposal” that would avert the desecration of the site.

The government’s answer was typical and so transparent. Without mentioning the words water, pond, tree, flowers, grass, fountains, or walkway, spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said, “Once again, Tsipras is attempting to undermine the country’s exit from the crisis, threatening investors and showing no interest in the creation of thousands of jobs. We shall not allow Elliniko to become his party’s landfill.” That job already belongs to Samaras.