Courtesy of the Metropolitan Park International Competition

Desperate for cash and jobs, the city just sold off a chunk of waterfront land bigger than Central Park.

"Sell off your islands … and the Acropolis with it!" screamed the German tabloid Bild in 2010, in one of the most widely resented headlines of the Euro crisis. Four years on, the Greek government is probably the closest it will ever be to doing just that. It is selling off a chunk of Athens larger than Central Park and three times as large as Monaco, all for €915 million.

The site, bought by Chinese conglomerate Fosun on a 99-year lease, is the Greek capital's old Hellenikon airport, closed in 2001 and not fully redeveloped since. It has huge potential, not least because the deal obliges Fosun and its Greek partner Lamda Development to spend at least €1.25 billion developing it. Actual costs are likely to reach far higher, up to €7 billion, which would make this the largest single private investment in Greece's history. In a country hungry for such investment, the prospect of all this development is extremely enticing. Still, there are nagging concerns. As governments across Southern Europe shed state assets to comply with austerity programs, there are fears that the airport is being sold off much too cheap, while long-term plans for the spot are summarily junked.

A general view of the old Athens airport in the Hellenikon-Argyroupoli suburb, southwest of Athens. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

On first glance the plans – sketched rather than finalized at this point – make perfect sense. Including a long section of coastline, the old airport will be covered with new hotels, condos and sports facilities, as well as a modest new park, a coastal promenade and a small marina. 

This future fits the location. While most waterfront redevelopments sit among empty quays and ex-industrial rust, this site is bordered on one side by one of Athens's wealthiest, most coveted neighborhoods, Glyfada. Calling the area "Greece’s Beverley Hills" or "the Hellenic Hamptons" (as some have) might be a stretch, but it gives you the general idea. The airport itself is set among glossy beachside communities backed by rocky, cypress-covered hillsides and sheltered from the port at Piraeus by a headland. Partly thanks to sunset views out to the Saronic Gulf, bars and restaurants here already fill with summer crowds who have a yen for expensive cocktails and white sofas.

But while the area is hardly undiscovered by Athenians, it's still largely off the international tourist map. Athens could become an urban beach destination to the same extent that Barcelona has, provided that this coastline is developed carefully. The site's new owners have promised 50,000 badly needed jobs, and the state isn't really in a position to open this particular gift horse’s mouth to check its teeth.

Maybe it should have. While the plan is the start of one dream, it's also the end of another. Hellenikon was long supposed to be transformed into a huge city park. A design was chosen by competition in 2005, one that would create a sustainable green space that was 80 percent self-sufficient for its own water needs, thanks to a system of landscaped channels and terraces. In a city with only 2.5 square meters of green space per inhabitant (compared to 9 in London and 27 in Amsterdam), the park would have proved very popular. Development snagged, however, and following the crisis the cash-strapped state decided that they needed to make more money from the land. Now, what would have remained a fully public asset will be parceled off for private use. Locals also fear that the small beaches that fringe the site, unkempt but popular, will become fee paying, a common practice in Athens that has sparked a major urban battle already.

In 2007, residents near Hellenikon broke down the fences of nightclubs that were illegally occupying and preventing access to the beaches, a move supported in dramatic fashion by a 24-day hunger strike by the local mayor. In 2008, local authorities and citywide supporters demonstrated their enthusiasm for the park plan by entering the airport site and planting 10,000 trees. A small unofficial urban farm was set up here in 2011, and 3,300 olive trees were planted the following year. Clearly, this isn't land that nobody wants.

Given the state of Greece's public finances, the government's cancellation of the park plan might be realistic rather than villainous. What hard-pressed state would turn down the chance to cut some debt and create some jobs? The airport story nonetheless illustrates how economic downturn presses one expedient, compromised decision upon another. It shows how the "what if" questions that could assess the best long-term outcome get sidelined as a luxury no one can afford. Within the next few decades, Athens could well end up with a sparkling new beachfront pleasure pen, luring in more visitors to an underrated coastline and pumping up the local economy. Beneath the complex, however, there will always be the ghost of another Athens that could have been.

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