ATHENS – After having been stymied by the former ruling anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA for 4 ½ years, construction on transforming Greece’s abandoned Hellenikon International Airport into an $8 billion destination of shops, a marina, casino, luxury residences and a park will begin early in 2023.
The 600 acre spot was supposed to become Europe’s biggest urban park before an economic and austerity crisis forced successive governments to turn toward more commercial use.
But when done in several years it will be the last link along the Athens seaside from the port of Pireaus where the Chinese management company COSCO is also renovating the old area, and the $800 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.
The area, said CNN in a feature, will be bigger than London’s famed Hyde Park and build up what is called the Athens Riviera and include some access to the sea where businesses have otherwise blocked off the public.
The airport was closed down in 2001 with the opening of the Eleftherios Venizelos airport named for the late Greek statesman, which is located 20.5 miles northeast of the capital.
Since then the area has sat dormant and its buildings and abandoned aircraft deteriorated on a weed-filled tarmac that has now been torn up in anticipation of the first construction work.
It will, when done, the report said, “inject new life in the area and hopes to serve Athenians as a park, a playground, and a cultural center, while also strengthening the climate resiliency of the city,” which has little green space.
“This is a generational and transformational project for Greece,” Michael Grove, landscape architect for Sasaki, the Boston-based firm responsible for the project’s design, told the news site.
Athenians were “frustrated that this was an empty piece of important public land for 20 years,” he added. Sasaki is famous for its landscape architecture and urban design, responsible for New York’s Greenacre Park, Charleston Waterfront Park, and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Green.
Not everything is being razed or demolished as the 1960’s terminal hall designed by renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, will stay standing along with the runway light poles.
More than 300,000 square feet of concrete and tarmac from former runways will be repurposed into benches and paving and other uses in what’s called “upcycling” to make the site environmentally-friendly despite its development.
“We’re using what we have on site through all this beautiful concrete – these 30-inch-thick, concrete slabs with marble aggregate the size of golf balls,” he said, adding that carbon emissions will be held down with all-electric maintenance fleet and organic fertilizers and pesticides.
Throughout the park’s grounds, only species native to Greece will be planted, including 31,000 trees from 86 species and more than 3 million plants to add as much as green as possible to hold down the heat from climate change.
THE THOUSAND YEAR SITE
“We’re essentially inverting a site that was 80 percent hardscape … to 80 percent softscape,” said Grove, replacing concrete or stone with trees and shrubs helps to absorb rainfall and create shade, which has a cooling effect.
To combat water scarcity, the park will be irrigated with treated wastewater supplied by a plant nearby, and a 3.7-acre lake – repurposed from the former Olympic canoe and kayak area – will collect and store stormwater, said CNN.
Aleksandra Kazmierczak, climate change and health expert for the European Environment Agency (EEA) told the news site that, “Green spaces are one of the really effective modes of lowering temperatures in cities. If cities are designed more like sponges that can take in excess water that can translate into economic benefits of not being flooded and not losing millions and billions of Euros in damage.”
It will also be beneficial to physical and mental health, with bikeways and walkways and an oasis in a city of grim, grey cement and concrete and its depressing effect on the psyche.
People who live in greener environments tend to be less stressed and less obese, and green space can bring down levels of noise and air pollution which can have long-term health benefits, she added.
An EEA study said Athens was at the bottom five of European Union capitals for urban tree cover as there has been little attempt to transform abandoned areas into pocket parks.
Eleni Myrivilli, Chief Heat Officer for the City of Athens said that, “For the mental health and physical health of Athenians, it’s going to be a place for respite … and rebalancing from living in a very densely populated city.”
The Ellinikon, as it will be called, may be focused on those with money but will also offer sculpture parks, sport centers, open-air theaters, food and drink venues, and a public beach, a rarity there.
There will be 50 kilometers (31 miles) of walking paths and 30 kilometers (19 miles) of cycle lanes although it was earlier indicated that there wouldn’t be a direct connection to the seaside as the area is across a major roadway.
In 2021, Greek real estate firm Lamda Development was formally awarded the contract after buying out two foreign partners and brought in Sasaki and other architects for the design.
The first phase of the park – approximately 250 acres including the central Olympic Square, on the city’s tram line, and the entire coastal front – is set to be completed by the end of 2025 or early 2026, said Grove.
He said it will be like Athens’ version of Central Park: the park will be surrounded by new and existing neighborhoods but will not be occupied by buildings and developments inside. “Looking at the history of Athens, we’re expecting this park, in some form or another, to be around for 1,000 years,” he said.