The latest plan for a big new park is greener and cleaner, but the state may still be selling its land too cheaply.

A rendering of the proposed park, showing a former airport terminal designed by Eero Saarinen,background right. Source: Lamda Development

A few years back, the redevelopment of Athens’ old airport looked set to be a major, singularly depressing scandal. A vast site of over 1,500 acres hugging the Greek capital’s coastline, Ellinikon Airport was due to be sold off to private developers for what critics said was far too little after its last plane took off in 2001. This huge development project, made by a crisis-hit government desperate for funds by any means necessary, replaced long-standing plans to create a much-needed city park. Giving up a major chunk of fairly central land that included a beachfront, the plan arguably squandered a development opportunity the likes of which Athens might never have seen again.

Now, however, Ellinikon’s future is looking a lot brighter than it has for years. Greece’s new government has renegotiated with the developers, gaining a better deal that will see more green, less concrete, better infrastructure, faster investment and a larger set of social responsibilities set for the developer. In an unusual turn of events, the Ellinikon affair is a case of a plan that went from good to bad—and then (if things go according to plan) recovered to deliver a much better deal for its host city.

The new deal was set out in a memorandum agreed last week between the Greek government and real estate company Lamda Developments. A deal that still needs to be ratified in parliament this autumn, it puts limits on exactly what can and can’t be developed at Ellinikon. Across the 1,500+ acre site, 667 acres will be given up for constructing buildings, including homes, hotels along the waterfront, a new marina, and a casino. In the original plan, these new constructions were set to cover 890 acres. This will leave more space for a park, which will now cover an impressive 2 million square meters (494 acres), making it larger than either London’s Regent’s Park or the entire Principality of Monaco. In addition to this, Ellininkon’s built-up areas will be seamed with a further 222 acres of public green space. In a city where public parks tend to be small and rare, this can only be good news.

According to the new memorandum, developers must now complete the park within five years, equipping it with 50 kilometers of foot and bike paths. Across the site, they will also have to invest much faster. The original plan saw the developers put 51 percent of their funding contribution into the pot by 2022, and spend 80 percent of their contribution within 15 years. Now they have to put in 51 percent by 2018 and complete 80 percent of their investment within 12 years. On top of this, Lamda must now also contribute a sorting center for waste recycling (to be used by surrounding neighborhoods as well) and tunnel a road beneath the park. Finally, the new plan must ensure that the park opens directly onto the seafront in several places, meaning that at least 1 kilometer of the beach area will be public access.  All this work should create 10,000 direct jobs and provide some indirect employment for up to 60,000 more.

A rendering showing how buildings and parkland could be distributed across the site. Source: Lamda Developments

That may sound like a lot of responsibilities for Lamda, but the developers are still getting a sweet deal—too sweet, according to Greece’s opposition. The Ellinikon site is surrounded by some of Athens’ wealthiest areas—plush, fairly green beachside communities away from Central Athens’ pollution, but well connected to it thanks to a speedy streetcar service. The coastline that flanks the site is currently scrappy and difficult to access, but housing, hotels and leisure facilities here could do extremely well, not least with international tourists, who already flock in the thousands to the nearby port at Piraeus to catch ferries to Greece’s islands.

For the chance to build on the site, Lamda Developments are paying €915 million ($1.03 billion)—no more than they had agreed to pay into the project initially. The state, meanwhile, will contribute €1.5 billion ($1.69 billion) while private investors will now need to be found to fill out the total remaining budget, estimated at €8 billion ($9 billion). This means that the Greek government may still be providing a subsidy for a private developer’s profits, at a rate they could have arguably still reduced without hindering the project.

Given Greece’s ongoing dire straits, the outcome at Ellinikon could have nonetheless been so much worse. Athens will be still getting a broad sweep of beachside development for the wealthy, but it will now also receive a larger park with better infrastructure, as part of a project whose job-creating benefits will filter down into the city far quicker than originally planned. Some protestors against the plan will not feel appeased, but many Athenians will be breathing a sigh of relief.

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