A battle over the right to enjoy uninterrupted views of the Acropolis has resulted in a five-star hotel being ordered to demolish its top two floors.
Owned by Coco-Mat, a Greece-based mattress maker, the hotel — whose “breathtaking terrace” had been its selling point — opened its doors barely a year ago. Citizens enraged over the 10-story establishment blocking their own views of the citadel took the case to the nation’s highest court.
“It was a very brave decision,” Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis said of the ruling by the Greek Central Archeological Council (KAS), the country’s top advisory body on the preservation of ancient antiquities. “The Acropolis is our heart and our soul, an essential part of our cultural heritage. It’s very important that everyone can enjoy it.”
Campaigners are on a roll. This decision follows more than a year of protests against “mammoth” high rises being erected in neighborhoods at the sharp end of tourism beneath the site.
Last month, residents in Makriyianni, the district due south of the Acropolis, stepped up the fight launching an online petition, with members of the Avaaz activist network demanding that the Greek government safeguard the declared archeological zone. Within days 23,000 people had signed the appeal.
“We know of permits being considered for at least seven huge hotels,” said Irini Frezadou, a Swiss-trained architect who is spearheading the grassroots drive. “We are overjoyed that under pressure the immovable Greek state has finally acted, but it’s urgent we have new building and planning laws if the urban and cultural environment of the Acropolis is to be protected.”
Spurred by the protests Greece’s archeological council unexpectedly convened. After six hours of debate conducted via teleconference, the expert committee came to the unanimous conclusion that the edifice would have to be lowered, in the name of protecting the symbol of Western democracy.
“When the Acropolis is harmed, in essence our civilization is harmed too,” Greek Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni said. “The Acropolis is a symbol. It is not simply a monument.”
Compensation might be in the offing, but KAS had ruled, irrevocably, that the gargantuan building could be no more than 24m in height and would have to be partially torn down, Mendoni said.
At 31.5m, the hotel is by far the biggest construction in Makriyianni, outstripping the new Acropolis Museum in size.
Last week Greece’s highest court, the Council of State, also weighed in, adjudicating that structures in the area must be at most 21m tall.
Construction of multistory hotels at the base of the site will create the effect of “a wall of high rises” encircling the Acropolis, critics say.
“Makriyianni is a residential neighborhood. It was never meant for buildings of such dimensions,” Frezadou said. “The mass tourism we have witnessed may have disappeared with coronavirus, but it will be back. And if it goes unchecked it will destroy the very monument visitors have come for, the Acropolis itself.”
However, Mendoni said that the ruling had been a “very difficult decision,” adding that the hotel’s proprietors “very likely” had justice on their side — even if KAS had not formally endorsed construction after the discovery of antiquities on the site.
In 2012, in the middle of Greece’s economic crisis, a new construction code was passed, permitting bigger and taller buildings if they met “green” standards. Investors seized the opportunity, initiating a building spree in a capital that would subsequently attract record tourist arrivals.
“A lot of questions will be asked,” said Giannis Mihail, vice president of conservation group Elliniki Etairia.
An urban planner, Mihail drafted the land use laws credited with protecting Plaka, the ancient district of narrow lanes and neoclassical houses north of the Acropolis.
“From the Acropolis hill, Plaka looks much the same as it did in the time of Pericles. That cannot be said of Makriyianni, on the south side of the monument, because land use laws were never extended to the entire urban area surrounding the site,” Mihail said.
Bakoyannis, like the campaigners, said that no view should be the preserve of a privileged few.
Athens stands out from other cities precisely because the Acropolis — which is undergoing a mini facelift ahead of reopening on Monday next week — can be seen far and wide, he said.
The mayor also warned against heaping blame on businesspeople. Greece’s fragile economy is set to contract by as much as 10 percent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with investment crucial to recovery.
“It’s easy to say this bad hotel owner or that bad investor, but we also need to be very clear about the rules we set, respect the decisions of our high court and create a predictable and safe business environment,” he said.
How or when the owners of the hotel will be called to demolish the upper floors has yet to be revealed. So far they have not reacted publicly to the KAS decision, and when asked to comment, declined.
Locals have scrambled to find the money to cover legal costs. Many say that they are doing what the state should have done long ago.
However, Frezadou and her fellow activists see it as a duty to keep on going
“Our battle is not yet over,” she said. “This campaign is not against one, but every, 10-story monster in the shadow of this glorious site.”
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