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Abandoned Hellenikon Airport Finally in Line for Delayed Development

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Abandoned Hellenikon Airport. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Christos Bonnis)

ATHENS -- The lockdown that kept Greeks at home for more than two months to slow the spread of COVID-19 also halted the early stages of starting the 8-billion euro ($9.06 billion) development of the old Hellenikon International Airport.

Many Greeks had long either forgotten the abandoned, decaying 1,530-acre site on a prime spot on the coast along the so-called Athens Riviera, the initial plans to make it Europe's largest urban park set aside for commercial development because of a long-running economic crisis.

Hellenikon was the capital's international airport, serving about 13.5 million passengers a year, including an array of celebrities, but was shut in 2001 with a new airport opening northeast of the city, some 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) away.

The plans were grand but fell apart almost as easily as did the rusting airplanes tarmacs covered with weeds, terminals filled with dust, detritus, left-behind furniture and the reminders of what once was.

The redevelopment would change all that and be the last link between plans by the Chinese company COSCO to further renovate the port of Piraeus it runs 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) west along the coast, with the $861 million Stavros Niarchos Cultural Foundation Center the hub in between.

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Abandoned Hellenikon Airport. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Christos Bonnis)

“This project is a game-changer,” Odisseas Athanassiou, Chief Executive of Greece's Lamda development company told Reuters. “It is going to change the psychology of foreign capital toward investment in Greece.”

That was in 2016 and his company has since bought out coalition partners, the Chinese company Fosun and Abu Dhabi's Eagle Hills but saw the plans stymied during the 4 ½-year reign of the former ruling anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA.

That changed when New Democracy ousted the Leftists in July 7, 2019 snap elections and new Prime Minister Kyriakis Mitsotakis said he would get it going by year's end before a battle over a casino license and the bureaucracy got in the way.

In a feature, CNN detailed what happened to Hellenikon and the promise of redevelopment that stagnated along with it, the government now saying demolition on the site will start by October.

The former airport complex was built in the late 1930s at a time when Greek aviation was in its early stages and during World War II it was used by the Nazi's Luftwaffe and became a target of Allied air raids.

Following the end of the war, Hellenikon hosted Greek, US and British forces but by the 1950s it had become Athens's main hub for commercial air travel. Significant reconstruction work followed, including expanded runways and a new control tower and terminal halls, the report noted.

It started to age and showed it and as the 2004 Olympics came into view so too did the need for a new airport, named for statesman Evangelos Venizelos, a sparking $2.1 billion project in a public-private partnership, the facility one of Europe's best.

"In the 1990s, the airport had ended up handling well above 10 million passengers (annually,)" Vasilis Tsatsaragkos, President of the Olympic Airlines Workers' Cultural Center, told CNN.

"Hellenikon was unable to meet the country's dynamically increasing tourism needs,” he added.

Hellenikon will be turned into one of Europe's largest coastal resorts, filled with luxury hotels and apartments, as well as shopping malls, a park and a casino and entertainment complex.

Some of its listed buildings that will be preserved from demolition include the former East Terminal building, designed in the 1960s by the firm of groundbreaking Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in the 1960s.

But now it still seems like a spot for an episode of The Twilight Zone, the original in black-and-white to illustrate the eeriness and emptiness of dilapidated giant halls that held bustling crowds and tourists excited to be in Greece.

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Abandoned Hellenikon Airport. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Christos Bonnis)

The main lounge is cluttered with debris from half-ruined walls and a collapsed ceiling that exposes bungles of twisted wires hanging overhead, spaces filled with trash, broken glass and discarded record books and faded tourism poster.

Outside the crumbling structures, a small fleet of decommissioned Boeing aircraft, including an imposing 747-200 alongside a Boeing 737 and Boeing 727, sit idle on the edge of the complex, the CNN story said of jets that once were the pride of Aristole Onassis' Olympic Airways.

"This was the airline that connected Greece with the whole world -- within 23 hours, Athens had 'contact' with five continents," Tsatsaragkos said.

It was renamed Olympic Airlines in 2003, ceased operations in 2009 and now is carried by the country's new major airline, Aegean, and one day when the development is over, the remains can be seen in a planned museum.

"We have collected 23,000 items documenting the history of both OA and civil aviation," said Tsatsaragkos, adding that seven aircraft will be among the future exhibits. "We keep gathering material. This museum is our big vision."