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Hellenikon Development Drawing Investors for Seaside Skyscrapers

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Τhe abandoned Hellenikon International Airport in Athens. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

ATHENS - The Greek company that will build the 1500-acre 8-billion euro ($9.65 billion) project at the former Hellenikon International Airport on Athens’ coast said domestic and foreign companies will bid to jointly build two skyscrapers near the sea front.

Lamda plans to build shopping malls and hotels under a long-term lease on the spot that has been abandoned for two  of the 1,530-acre Hellenikon airport site, where disused runways, terminals and former Olympic venues have been abandoned for two decades after shutting down in 2001 for a new airport 35 kilometers (21.8 miles) northeast of the capital Athens.

The Greek company has also been looking for partners for the construction of two landmark towers of offices and residences and more than a dozen investors submitted non-binding offers, an official not named told Reuters.

The project was stalled during the 4 ½-year reign of the former ruling anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA that has hard core elements who don’t want foreign companies in Greece.

It was picked up again when the New Democracy Conservatives easily won July 7, 2019 snap elections with then-new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis putting in back on a fast track.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, it was slowed, along with a faster recovery from a near-decade long economic and austerity crisis that brought three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($393.28 billion) that expired Aug. 20, 2018.

The site was supposed to become Europe’s biggest urban park but the economic crisis turned to a mostly commercial development with some green space amid a mix of office buildings, a marina, casino and other works.

It was unveiled in 2013 and the government today said it could create as many as 10,000 jobs during construction and attract thousands of tourists as the last link between development of the port of Piraeus and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center between them along the seafront.

It had been held up by political and local opposition and environmentalists and SYRIZA’s resistance but demolition crews in the summer of 2021 began taking down some of the buildings.

Greece named the Connecticut-based casino operator Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment as the preferred bidder to build and operate a luxury resort for 30 years although a Hong Kong developer is building a rival on Cyprus.

Lamda has also set up a joint venture to build two hotels in Hellenikon and has said it aims to start infrastructure at the site in the first half of this year but officials still need to pave the way and transfer ownership rights for part of the property.

When done, the site will be perhaps the country’s biggest attraction, ending - except for a museum - the remnants of the airport built in the 1930’s as Greek aviation picked up.

 During the World War II occupation of Greece by Axis powers, the site was used by Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe and became a target of Allied air raids, CNN reported in a feature.

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 said.

"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 said.

It closed as Greece became part of the European Union, switching to the euro from its ancient drachma and ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics and a period of prosperity before the economic crisis struck in 2010.

In 2004, parts of the disused complex were transformed into venues for the Athens Olympics, hosting baseball, fencing, kayaking and other sporting events.

But years of neglect followed and the 1,530-acre brownfield site -- once envisaged largely as a metropolitan park -- was left to decay amid disagreements over its redevelopment and Greece's descent into economic chaos in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

In 2014, a consortium of investors signed a €915 million ($1 billion) development deal, a key part of the bailout agreement between debt-saddled Greece and its international lenders but Lambda bought out two partners.

Under the deal, Hellenikon is to 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 1960’s.

The memory of both the abandoned airport and Olympic Airways will be kept in the new museum that will be housed in an earmarked building inside the redeveloped site, according to Tsatsaragkos.

"We have collected 23,000 items documenting the history of both OA and civil aviation," he says, adding that seven aircraft will be among the future exhibits.

"We keep gathering material. This museum is our big vision,” he said.