Havriou, Leoharous, Chrysospiliotissis, Miltiadou, Aghiou Markou, Avramiotou, Karori, Nikiou.
These are the names of roads which, for an older generation of Athenians, are synonymous with entire worlds – ones chiefly associated with the heart of a “handmade” Athens, one of small businesses that were once at the center of daily life, because the goods that one found at the area’s countless shops were so closely connected to one’s day-to-day needs and routines.
Those were the years when one would head down to Praxitelous and Aiolou streets for electrical goods and cashmeres, to Kalamiotou for upholstery, to Vyssis for door hardware. Every street was a destination in its own right for the homemakers of yesteryear.
For today’s twenty and thirty-somethings, these same roads and alleys mean something different: an unexplored world that is beginning to draw them away from the hotspots around today’s buzzing Aghia Eirini Square.
This time, the beckoning sirens are not the small shops overflowing with buttons or door knobs, but new bars, restaurants with exotic cuisines and new hotels.
Doing things “differently”
For the outgoing Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, the “Triangle”, as we learnt to call this area in recent years, has developed into the biggest wager of his tenure. His administration aims to pass on to his successor a revamped part of Athens – which may not necessarily be the most attractive or important – but which will highlight the hidden possibilities and the boundless Mediterranean energy the center of the city can have when things are handled just “a little bit differently”.
How, in other words, through a more holistic approach, welcomed street pedestrianizations will be complemented by a series of parallel interventions regarding things like parking management; the attraction of new permanent residents; deterring mass invasions of bars and eateries; and effectively combating of the stain that is uncontrolled graffiti and tagging.
That is what has been happening since April 2017 in the “little triangle” formed between Praxitelous, Athinas and Aghias Eirinis streets (and which lies geographically within the much more recognized Commercial Triangle of the capital) at the initiative of the Municipality of Athens with the valuable support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
The initiative, of course, has not moved ahead without resistance and objections from some sectors, but the Athens Commercial Triangle Program, as it is officially named, is moving ahead, and all being well, will be completed by the end of the year.
The New Reality
Let’s take a look at what has happened so far. The majority of the roadworks have been completed; construction sites will exist only in the coming months on the streets of Nikiou and Miltiadou. In reality, aside from Voreou and Kolokotroni streets on which cars will continue to pass, the rest of the 11 hectare expanse will operate as a fully pedestrianized area.
In addition, a new square has been completed at the intersection between Vyssis, Aiolou, Nikiou, and Chrysospiliotissis streets, while at the same time a major program to improve networks and infrastructure is underway in the broader area. New grid infrastructure is being installed, building facades are being cleaned and given special anti-graffiti coatings, and a wealth of events are familiarizing Athenians and visitors with the district’s new reality.
“And what if it becomes the next Gazi?”
Of course, there is no shortage of wariness. Many believe that the regeneration will lead the Commercial Triangle to morph into something resembling the bar and restaurant-heavy districts of Psyrri and Gazi. The architect Elina Dalla, the project manager of the Triangle project fully appreciates the concerns. And she notes that the municipal council of Athens has approved prohibiting tables and chairs being placed on all of the new pedestrianized sections. The ban has worked, but it has an expiry date: the end of the current administration’s time in office.
“In Greece we are of either height or depth,” Dalla notes. “The problem isn’t a sensible number of food and drink establishments which will secure life and energy day and night, but how we will avoid the bad practices of the past.”
In any case, the truth is that to date the few new cafes and restaurants of the Triangle have demonstrated respect for the traditional character of the area, and are a far cry from being labeled cash-grab operations. The investments in new hotels and properties for short term leasing are in the same mold. “We are 5 minutes from Plaka, it was only a matter of time for it to happen,” the head of the program states. And she is right.
As for the number one problem, it is none other than illegal parking. A survey that lasted one year showed that 15 vehicles per hour on average park illegally on the boundaries of the Triangle, while illegally parked motorbikes came to 33 per hour.
On weekdays, the situation is kept under control by the men and women of the municipal police, but on the weekends long-pedestrianized streets, such as Aghiou Markou, are turned into open air parking lots. And this despite the fact that there are three metro stations nearby and a free-of-charge underground parking lot at the Varvakeio Market.
Some things don’t change. As Elina Dalla says, “the city needs time.”