The Ellinikon Park is set to redefine urban living—and will put Athens on the atlas when it comes to sustainability-focused urban regeneration
If you flew into Athens before 2001, you would have landed at the Ellinikon International Airport, a strip of tarmac bordered by the shimmering Aegean Sea to the west and the brushy hills that form the spine of the Attica Peninsula to the east. More than 20 years after being replaced by the larger, inland Athens International Airport, the former transport hub and surrounding area are undergoing an ambitious redesign that will put the Greek capital on the atlas when it comes to sustainability-focused urban regeneration.
While investors based in Asia tend to look closer to home when buying property—the Greater Bay Area and Southeast Asia being particularly popular—Greece is increasingly of interest to those looking to expand their real estate portfolio.
Developments such as The Ellinikon will contribute to that appeal. This is an €8 billion (US$8.3 billion) redevelopment project encompassing 620 hectares of land—roughly eight times the size of Beijing’s Forbidden City—located in the Elliniko suburb about 10km south of central Athens. What
was once barbed wire fences, fuel-contaminated soil and vast swathes of concrete will eventually become a new district for living and leisure. Phase one is due to be finished within five years, with full completion in approximately 20 years. It will be built around a 200 hectare park, boosting Athens’ relatively low percentage of green spaces by European standards and promoting diversity with more than 1 million plants and 31,000 new trees from 86 different tree species, irrigated using collected rainwater and recycled wastewater. An estimated 85,000 jobs will be created, adding 2.4 per cent to Greece’s gross domestic product.
“The map is about to change,” said Giannis Konstantatos, mayor of Elliniko. “This will give the area a great boost: for income, for jobs and for us to claim a place in the world of tourism.”
The development will be populated by a mix of homes, offices, schools, healthcare, sports and culture facilities, and retail, hospitality and leisure venues, including a luxury hotel, a mixed-use tower, Greece’s first skyscraper and its largest shopping centre, an athletics precinct, a casino, 50km of walking and cycling routes, and a new metro station connecting the district to the heart of the capital in 20 minutes. Parts of the old airport such as the runway are being broken up and reused onsite, while the Eero Saarinen-designed building of the former airport’s East Terminal, once symbolic of the jetset era and the gateway to Greece, will be turned into a place of cultural interest and an exhibition centre.
The project’s €2.5 billion first phase includes two hotels, shopping and dining destinations, villas and apartments, a residential high-rise, a rejuvenated 310-berth marina, a public beach, and the majority of the park. At 200m, The Riviera Tower will be Greece’s tallest building, comprising 49 storeys of one- to five-bedroom luxury residences designed by Foster + Partners, the lead architects. The building, which required special permission due to strict Greek rules regarding building height, has been designed with LEED certification in mind, as have all buildings in the Ellinikon. The apartments within will be smart, leveraging the internet of things, where appliances across the home and features like temperature and lighting are digitally integrated and controlled. There will be an estimated total of 10,000 residential units which, like the rest of the Ellinikon, are planned to be powered entirely by renewable energy.
“The Ellinikon Park is more than a large, green park. It is a new proposal that introduces a new way of life to Greece and the world; a proposal where nature, people and the most advanced applications of technology will coexist harmoniously,” Odisseas Athanasiou, the CEO of Lamda Developments, the developer behind the project, says.
The project has already drawn awkward comparisons to Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport, the site of which was enticingly slated for redevelopment into the city’s largest park with housing for 320,000 people, schools, a hospital, a stadium and a museum in the late 90s, but now, more than 20 years later, is maligned as an inaccessible and badly planned space, noted for its cruise ship terminal, limited and unaffordable housing, and a land sale that broke the city’s price records.
Although there is no universally accepted definition of “green city”, clean technology, access to green spaces that support biodiversity, and a layout that facilitates mobility are three of the main tenets of sustainable urban planning. In 2018, the United Nations set “sustainable cities and communities” as one of the 17 goals on its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to meet the challenges of the world’s population becoming increasingly urban.
Europe is the centre for sustainability-driven, large-scale urban redevelopment: the Lyon Confluence is a 150-hectare development and model for smart, energy-positive buildings, while cities like Milan and Madrid also have ambitious regeneration projects in the works, designed to reduce reliance on cars and lower urban temperatures with increased green spaces.
Outside Europe, The Sustainable City, 46 hectares of car-free residential streets and green spaces in Dubai, leverages solar power and biodome greenhouses for farming; in Asia, Wuhan has won praise for its East Lake Greenway project, which turned China’s largest urban lake into a connected, integrated and people-friendly green space using clean water management and ecological restoration. The success and benefits of these projects are likely to embolden dozens more cities to follow suit as the effects of climate change bear down upon them.
The Aegean Sea sparkles like sapphire under the bright sunshine of the late summer’s day when Tatler views the Ellinikon site, currently a mix of brownfield and construction zone scattered with disused aircraft. To paint a picture to investors, or just the curious, an old hangar has been repurposed into an “experience centre”, containing an Ellinikon scale model, a mocked-up apartment and interactive applications of smart technology. Parts of the site were repurposed for the 2004 Athens Olympics with facilities like an arena for sports such as basketball, demolished only this year. Now, there remain only hints at the district’s brief sporting history.
Lamda, Greece’s largest property developer, won a government tender for the redevelopment of the airport in 2014, and began construction when it gained control of the land in 2021. Eight years ago, the crumbling airfield made headlines across Europe when it was used as a makeshift camp by people fleeing the Middle East, in echoes of the camps of Greek Orthodox refugees the same area housed nearly a century ago following Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish war. Between 2016 and 2017, the UN Refugee Agency stepped in to rehouse the mainly Afghan families into permanent accommodation.
The project hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and Lamda, which has a track record in commercial “destination locations”, such as malls, faced suspicion from politicians and the public, and had to go back to the drawing board several times after government planners requested more public space in the designs. “When it started, it faced a lot of criticism because big deals in Greece, especially before the [debt] crisis, were criticised [on the assumption] that something suspicious was behind it,” Athanasiou said during the summer, adding that now that blueprints have been drawn up and work is underway, “People have started to see the benefits of the project, not only [on] GDP but [on] employment, the environment.” The project, Greece’s largest privately funded investment, is being paid for by loans, internal funding, a rights issue and two bond issues, one of which, a €230m green bond, was completed this summer and will fund many of the project’s sustainable elements.
Building a city from scratch is no easy feat: even with planning by the world’s best design talents, the kind of integration, nuance and rootedness that comes with a place developing gradually cannot be artificially constructed, creating that unmistakable “toy town” feeling of new developments. Even Le Corbusier failed to entrance the world with his Ville Radieuse blueprint, a “linear city” split into “zones”; the Swiss architect’s vision of utopia was designed to geometric perfection and intended to prioritise equality, but influenced the bloc-ish density of post-war high rises associated with crime and poverty in cities like Paris and Brasilia. Part of Lamda’s challenge has been to build a district which normal Greeks feel is a place for them and one they will want to visit frequently and be able to move around easily. How public spaces and amenities are balanced with the more luxurious side of the Ellinikon will be key to accomplishing this vision.
The Ellinikon is to be “a benchmark project for sustainability and smart living”, Athanasiou says. Large swathes of the parkland area are open to the public, with walkways, play areas and water features already in place. The site has been designed to follow the notion of the “the 15-minute city”, the movement within urban design that believes everyone living in a city should have access to essential services within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride, proposed by Colombian city planner Carlos Moreno in 2016 and popularised by Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo during her 2020 re-election campaign.
With Greece now enjoying a post-crisis wave of optimism and innovation, and riding high on the boost from a hot property market and a record-breaking year for its tourist industry, the Ellinikon not only represents a show of faith in Greece’s ongoing recovery and future prosperity, but presents Athenians with an opportunity to see themselves in the future of their city, long term. Athanasiou says, “We want it to be a place for Greeks to be proud of.”
Get Me to the Greek
If it felt like everyone you follow on social media visited Greece this year, well, you probably weren’t wrong. The nation’s 6,000 islands (only 227 are inhabited), rich culture and history, and 18 Unesco World Heritage Sites have long drawn visitors, and tourism is an essential component of the Greek economy. After a two-year pause due to the pandemic, Greece is due to set a record for tourism revenue in 2022, in a bounceback described as a “godsend” by Greek hospitality leaders. International arrivals at Greek airports rose by about 200 per cent during the first seven months of the year, compared to the same period in 2021, peaking at 4.1 million during July, according to economic data website Trading Economics.
The country is increasingly a hotspot for foreign investment, too; travellers arriving at Athens airport are met by adverts touting the ease
of buying Greek property, which is among the most affordable in the EU, and foreign real estate investments were up 61 per cent in the first half of 2022, comprising nearly 85 per cent of all purchases, according to Hellenic Central Bank.
Mainland Chinese are second to Europeans in total investments, and Hong Kong buyers not far behind, despite no direct flights from the city to Athens—yet. Although property taxes are relatively high, Greece offers one of the cheapest tracks to citizenship, requiring an investment of at least €250,000 in the real estate market. After half of the average property value was wiped away during the Greek government-debt crisis in the late 2010s and a full recovery is still to be seen, prices have since seen a steady increase year on year.
Athens is always the top destination for real estate investment in Greece, as it is the most liquid property market in the country with the strongest rental demand, according to Get Golden Visa, which guides investors through the buying process. Prices in the Athens Riviera, where The Ellinikon sits, are still down 10 per cent on a decade ago, but experts in the country are expecting the development to spur a surge in interest in the district, possibly pushing Athens property prices to an all-time high.
How to do Athens, Tatler Style
Where to stay: Four Seasons Astir Palace
Old-world glamour and modern-day luxury collide at the Four Seasons’ only Greek hotel, a 30-hectare, five- star resort overlooking the Athens Riviera, comprising three private beaches, a spa and fitness centre, and eight restaurants, all prioritising privacy and just 30 minutes from the airport.
Where to eat: Nolan
Buzzy, contemporary restaurant Nolan, located in central Athens, is an ultra-trendy space to be seen, with a Bib Gourmand-awarded Greek-Japanese menu reflecting the heritage of chef-owner, Sotiris Kontizas, Masterchef Greece contestant-turned-judge.
Where to shop: Plaka & Kolonaki
The winding, pedestrian-only boulevards, boutiques, cafés and pistachio-toned façades of historic Athens district Plaka make for a romantic afternoon spent shopping for everything from locally made tahini to handcrafted carpets to unusual maps of the world. Once you’ve finished buying gifts for other people, head to Voukourestiou Street in Kolonaki, home to the world’s biggest designer brands, from Louis Vuitton to Gucci.
Where to shop: Island Club & Restaurant
When the sun sets on the Riviera, Greece’s young and beautiful hop off their yachts and make their way to the exclusive Island Club for a late-night candlelit seafood dinner. As the hour grows late, the open-air club lights illuminate and the music is turned up for an evening of dancing under the stars.
What to see: National Museum of Contemporary Art
The Acropolis and Parthenon are, of course, non-negotiables, but the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) should be on every culture vulture’s itinerary. Finally completed and opened in 2020 and housed in a former brewery, the museum showcases 172 thought-provoking works by 78 Greek and foreign artists in its permanent collection.