POTHOLES, heavy traffic, broken sidewalks and roads in bad repair make getting around Athens a medal event even for the most adroit motorists and pedestrians. But city officials are now pouring millions of euros to breathe new life into this bustling capital ahead of next year's Olympic Games.
Making Athens a brand new experience and a more attractive destination was one of Mayor Dora Bakoyianni's promises during the local government elections last year. The former main opposition New Democracy MP says she is determined to spruce up the quality and aesthetics of the city - home to nearly half of Greece's 10 million inhabitants.
The Athens municipality put into action the first phase of a large-scale streetscape makeover two months ago. Authorities promise that by October as many as 277 roads - a total of 70km of asphalt - will have been repaved. A grilled no-slip floor surface will cover some 37km of high-traffic roads. Furthermore, about 65 percent of the city's sidewalks will be repaired. This is expected to cost 70 million euros.
An additional 600,000 euros will be allocated to sealing potholes. Construction crews are already combing downtown Athens streets. Workers are on the lookout for these menacing cavities scorned by motorists.
According to Deputy Athens Mayor Chronis Akritidis, the municipality's main goal is to re-establish Athens as an Olympic city. And the 2004 Games are a brilliant excuse to undertake such a major endeavour. The entire makeover venture is expected to cost a whopping 3.5 million euros. Athens borrowed some 200 million euros from a Swiss banking consortium (UBS) to fund the projects aimed at enhancing the city's look for the Olympics.
"The first phase is already underway and includes the repaving of roads and repairing sidewalks," said Akritidis. "The municipality has secured the necessary funds and everything is on track. The second phase is much more complicated and is scheduled for completion next year."
Phase two of this bold endeavour to give the city a much-needed facelift also includes the repaving of hundreds of additional kilometres of asphalt. Furthermore, it consists of plans to remodel main thoroughfares and squares that fall under the jurisdiction of the central government.
This work will be finished by June 2004 at the latest - just in time for the Games.
The facade of dozens of central buildings will also be smartened up. Rooftop billboards will be removed. This is currently underway at three main squares: Plastira, Koliatsou and Mavili.
In July, the Hellenic Property Federation (POMIDA) called on homeowners in the capital to take part in the building facelift initiative endorsed by the Athens municipality. The public works ministry will partially fund the external repainting and refurbishing of the buildings along the so-called Olympic route, which covers Vas Sofias, Vas Constantinou and Alexandras avenues, as well as Academias, Ardittou, Ippokratous and parts of Kallirois streets. Property owners along these roads have also been asked to remove television antennas and satellite dishes from rooftops.
In the meantime, back at city hall, a team of architects, civil engineers, environmentalists, urban planners and other experts are picking their brains about how to revamp this unkempt capital. Their ideas will form the basis of a pilot programme set to begin this autumn. The urban remodelling and town-planning changes will cover all seven Athens districts and will be completed in time for the Olympics.
These streetscape improvements will include fixing sidewalks, lighting and road signs. The creation of some 2,000 new parking spaces is in the pipeline. The plan also includes replacing messy rubbish bins, park benches and bus stops with new ones. Ramps for the disabled are on the agenda. These will initially be implemented along 11 streets: Anapafseos, Eftyhidou-Chremonidou, Omirou, Lykavittou, Vassiliou tou Megalou, Stournari, Kerameon, Gyzi, Filadelfias, Tripoleos and Agia Zonis.
The city council has decided to build 17 new playgrounds and one park custom-built for disabled children. Some 10,000 new trees and thousands of flowers will be planted by the municipality around the city in efforts to inject some greenery into Athens' concrete surroundings. This is something all urban planners agree is needed.
Recent town-planning surveys have found that green spaces make up just 10.3 percent of the city's total area. The largest areas of greenery are Pedio tou Areos Park (about 52.5 acres) and the National Gardens (37.5 acres). Smaller parks include Alsos Syngrou (30 acres) and Alsos Pangratiou (seven acres).