Investment plans vs. heritage conservation

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by Annika Backe

November 30, 2017 – Greece. Depending on your personal interests, you either think of cultural riches or the ongoing financial crisis. Controversies revolving around the investment plans for a now defunct airport, however, show that these two elements go well together.

The taxiing lane of Athen’s Ellinikon Airport which has been put out of service in 2001. Photo: Dennis David Auger / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0.

The area – past and future

It all takes place in Athens, more precisely in its southern suburb Elliniko. In 1938, the Ellinikon International Airport began operation. To serve the ever increasing number of passengers, a second terminal was built between 1966 and 1970, following the designs of Finnish architect Eeero Saarinen. Soon it became clear to see, though, that the capital of Greece needed a new, a bigger airport. In a huge privately funded building project, International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos” came into existence in 2001. 

Investors have cast an eye on the area of old Ellinikon Airport which was partly redeveloped in preparation for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Greek developer Lamda put plans for the building of a 620-hectare touristic resort in this scenic location forward. Backed by funds from China and Abu Dhabi, on its website the consortium stresses the project’s benefits for economy, environment, and society. The multi-billion building project aims to boost tourism and create plenty of new jobs. 

The project – pros and cons

One would think that this was at Greece’s liking. Since 2010, the country can only bear the state debt thanks to international help through bridge loans and euro rescue packages. Pensions are reduced, and state-owned property is privatized. 

However, the plans for the Ellinikon Airport project were delayed by official parties. After forestry officials had classified a 3.7-hectare area with eucalyptus trees, cypresses, and olive trees as worthy of protection, more and more concerns about the protection of cultural heritage have been raised: Designed by architect Saarinen, the East Terminal was not to be redeveloped in any way. The investors, on the other hand, argued that the major part of the building was not classified as a sensitive monument.

Recent developments

This is an issue that also worried Greek archaeologists. The Central Archaeological Council thus pointed out that construction work might well endanger cultural heritage and archaeological findings. 

According to a Reuters article from October 4, 2017, after prolonged negotiations the way finally seems to be cleared for the Ellinikon project. The Central Archaeological Council is said to have approved of the plans, recommending that roughly 30 hectares be recognized as an archaeological site. Even if no official decision has been reached yet, politicians have expressed their satisfaction. Lamda declared that it had included the importance of archeological findings right from the start, adding that it would begin to assess the impact of such a decision on the project’s plans. 

To read the Reuters article, click here

To learn more about the protection of cultural heritage in Greece, visit the website of the Central Archaeological Council.

Relevant information on the plans for Ellinikon Airport can be obtained from the project’s website.