After languishing for over a decade as a wasteland of crumbling terminals and rusting airplanes, Athens’ sprawling former airport complex is set for resurrection as a glitzy coastal resort.

The 7-billion-euro plan to develop Hellenikon – a complex three times the size of Monaco – is one of Europe’s most ambitious real estate projects and stands to be a major boost for a nation limping back to growth after nearly going bankrupt.

To those with long memories, the site conjures up its 1960s jet-set heyday when shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis ran Olympic Airlines in lavish style and his partner at the time, opera diva Maria Callas, added a dash of glamour and gossip.

But those days are long gone and the project faces criticism now from the main leftist opposition and locals, both of whom fear the luxury development could turn into a concrete jungle out of reach for ordinary Greeks.

Efforts by successive governments in recent years to turn the 620-hectare (1,520 acre) plot into a profitable venture have all fallen through, including plans in 2011 to build a financial district similar to London’s Canary Wharf with Qatari backing. The Gulf state pulled out of the project last year.

Lamda Development, controlled by Greece’s powerful Latsis family and leading a consortium of Chinese and Abu-Dhabi based companies, however, has big dreams for the area since signing a 915 million euro deal for a 99-year lease in March.

Ambitious Plans

The Lamda group hopes to turn Hellenikon into a prime seaside resort with hotels, a kilometer-long beach, a marina and a park bigger than London’s Hyde Park.

“The airport closed on March 30, 2001. Thirteen years of complete abandonment have gone by since,” Lamda CEO Odysseas Athanassiou told a news conference this week where he outlined plans to turn the site into an “international destination”.

“(Athens) will become the first European capital to, essentially, have a resort within the city,” he said.

For about six decades, Hellenikon was Athens’s only airport. Built in 1938, it was used by the Luftwaffe during the wartime German occupation and later by the United States Air Force. One of its terminals was designed by Eero Saarinen, one of the pioneers of the “neo-futurist” style of the 1960s.

But the years took their toll and Athens decided to shut the run-down facility in 2001 to make way for a newer, more modern airport before the city hosted the 2004 Olympic Games.

These days the airport appears frozen in time, its once-busy terminals now littered with old boarding passes, debris from a collapsed roof and garbage. Announcement boards, somewhat eerily, still proclaim flights now long flown and forgotten.

An old Boeing 747-200 sits rusting among stray dogs and overgrown weeds off the runway.

Lamda, backed by China’s Fosun and an Abu Dhabi-based company, says it will invest more than 7 billion euros in the project, which will take some 15 to 20 years to complete once construction begins in 2016 after all legal permits are secured.

Link to Asset Sales

The deal to develop the area was crucial for Greece to meet targets set by European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders for its asset sale program.

Despite the promise of jobs and investment flowing into the economy, opposition to the plan remains high in Greece, which is just beginning to emerge from a six-year recession. Athens first launched the Hellenikon tender in 2011 but over two years were spent on settling planning issues and removing legal hurdles.

“Hellenikon is not for sale” said banners held by protesters outside the luxury hotel where Lamda outlined plans this week.

Greece’s anti-bailout opposition Syriza party, which wants to turn the plot into a free-for-all park, has repeatedly accused the country’s privatizations agency of an “unprecedented clearance sale” of state assets against the public interest.

“It’s another link in the chain of scandalous public assets sale,” Syriza lawmaker Nadia Valavani said.

Editing by Deepa Babington and Tom Heneghan.

Copyright (2014) Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

Tags: athens, greece
Photo Credit: A runway is seen at the former Athens International airport of Hellenikon June 17, 2014. Yorgos Karahalis / Reuters