The Hellinikon project has become synonymous with everything that Greece desires to achieve; however, at the same time, it perfectly highlights modern Greece’s deep-rooted problems which prevent the country from beginning a new chapter in its long history.
One of the largest investments in all of Europe, the Hellinikon project aims to change not only Athens but the country as a whole.
But why has it taken so long to re-shape and re-use an old, abandoned airport, which both Athenians and the capital’s visitors could enjoy?
The Hellinikon – also spelled as Elliniko or Hellenico, which literally translates to ”the Greek”- was Athens’ first and only international airport in the twentieth century.
The place took its name from a nearby village — a suburb of Athens nowadays — called Hellinikon.
Located south of downtown Athens and west of the coastal suburb of Glyfada, the Hellinikon first began operation as an airport two years before Greece’s entrance into WWII.
From 1938 until 2001, the Hellenikon was Greece’s largest airport, and one of Europe’s few which were still operating while located inside the urban boundaries of a city.
When ”Eleftherios Venizelos,” as the new international airport of Athens was named, came to replace the Hellenikon in 2001, no plan whatsoever was in place regarding the possible redevelopment of this massive piece of land inside the capital city.
Serving as a prelude to what would follow after Athens’ Olympic Games of 2004, when most of the multi-billion euro athletic infrastructure of the city was left unused, the premises of the Hellenikon airport laid abandoned for decades.
Extensive vandalism and years of neglect left the area without a clear vision for the future. The entire area almost felt like a massive vacuum, and Athenians were desperate to determine its new identity.
The first attempts
During the 2000s, numerous proposals came into the public spotlight regarding uses for the gigantic abandoned airport.
In that has become typical for Greece, disagreements prevailed, which managed to put an end to every effort to forge a way toward a viable plan for the area.
Local residents demanded the creation of a public park, and environmental organizations claimed that the area was an open museum, while businesses saw this land as a massive opportunity for quick and easy profits.
At first, most of the suggestions that the Greek authorities were willing to discuss involved the creation of a massive park which would cover the entire area of the old airport, comprising more than six million square meters of land (2.32 square miles).
If implemented, this would have become the largest urban park in the entire world! Of course, such a massive park was neither viable nor necessary for Athens.
Thus, in the early 2010s, the first investment plans for the area which included more than just a park became public.
The final stages
The Greek government opened up international bidding in 2011 for those interested in investing in Hellinikon; however, the effort was without success.
Three years later, during the years of Antonis Samaras’ coalition government, in November of 2014, Lamda Development, owned by Greece’s Latsis family, finally signed an agreement with the Greek state.
Lamda presented a comprehensive plan which would turn the old Athenian airport into a massive complex comprised of urban development projects, involving both business and leisure activities.
Its total cost would reach a staggering €8 billion, approximately 4.5 percent of the entire GDP of the country of Greece.
Nonetheless, the new leftist government of Alexis Tsipras, which took office in January of 2015, changed the course of the investment.
Pledging to renegotiate the terms under which the investment would be made, the government made the investor change the terms of the contract of November 2014. On behalf of the Greek people, Tsipras demanded and received, better terms for the state and more free, green, open spaces in Hellinikon.
After long negotiations, a new contract was signed in the summer of 2016.
As proposed by the company, the investment intends to create the new Athenian landmarks of the 21st century.
Six new skyscrapers at Hellinikon will change the Greek capital’s skyline forever.
The six massive buildings which will be incorporated in the totally re-designed area include a multifunctional events center and observation tower, a residential tower at the marina, a residential tower along the promenade, a hotel near the mall and an office tower.
An entirely new Athenian Riviera will be created, with the transformed waterfront including a new free-access public beach with a total length of one kilometer, a world-class aquarium, and a state-of-the-art yachting marina.
A luxurious 6-star hotel, a huge metropolitan park, aviation museums, restaurants, cafes, residences, bicycle and pedestrian paths, thematic areas, and a well-connected network of public transport of tram and metro, will transform this abandoned area into Athens’ most vibrant suburb.
However, three years after the new contract was signed, nothing has changed as of yet in Hellinikon.
A massive and unprecedented mountain of bureaucratic obstacles arose in the last few years, placing one problem atop the other, and preventing any investment from actually taking place.
Tens of ministries, authorities, archaeological councils and local municipalities had to coordinate their efforts in order to prepare everything necessary before any investment could actually begin.
The New Democracy Party, the conservative opposition at the time, accused the leftist government of having ideological obsessions against the investment, with the Greek administration reassuring the public that everything had to be taken care of before the actual construction could begin.
The government of the New Democracy Party
The Hellinikon project became one of the main themes of political confrontations which took place during the national election of July 7, 2019, in Greece.
One of the most prominent pledges of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the conservative leader who won the election, was that he would ”unlock the investment during the first week of his premiership.”
More than two months after his win, construction in Hellinikon has not begun yet.
The new government now says that everything will be ready by the end of 2019, and Lamda Development will be able to begin its work in early 2020.
Did the leftist government of SYRIZA deliberately slow the investment down or did the conservative government of New Democracy pledge too much? Or are both these scenarios true?
Only time will tell.
What is sure, however, is that the Hellenikon project could, and will eventually, change the skyline of Athens forever; but in order for such a change to occur, Greece’s twin curses of bureaucracy and political rivalry must be overcome — once and for all.