Greece is Building a Sidewalk Labs-style Tech Town in Athens

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As more countries think about how to increase tourism during the pandemic, remote worker visas are a common strategy. Some cities are even doing a try-before-you-buy relocation program, like Helsinki in Finland. The Greeks are doing it a bit differently. Instead of launching a new visa, the Greek capital is trying something different. The city has started with the Hellinikon Project, a nouveau city much like Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project in Toronto.

The trying origins of the Hellinikon Project

Announced initially in 2008, Hellinikon plans suggest be a live-work-play community within Athens. The plan was to use the site of the old Hellinikon Airport. The massive 1,500 acre plot of land had sat largely abandoned for years. Greek business and government leaders wanted to build a new tourist destination that would create jobs and improve the quality of life in Athens. Admittedly, the Hellinikon Project is not intended to attract remote workers and freelancers explicitly, but the seaside paradise is certain to draw interest when it’s completed.

Lamda Development, the global developer behind the project rights, touted how the project would bring eight billion euros of investment into Greece. Further, it would create 75,000 temporary and 10,000 permanent jobs, says the official website. This is not Lambda’s first time in the ring, either. The company boasts developments all over Greece and other countries in the Mediterranean and Balkans. 

Almost immediately after its announcement, there were challenges for Hellinikon. According to the Greek Reporter, the project faced legal issues around conservation and use of lands. The project originally got the green light in 2014, but further legal challenges delayed the start even further. Other issues revolved around use of lands and public access (the Lambda website says the entire development would be open to the public). Yet another battle revolved around environmentalism and protecting the Athenian coast. The project even found its way to the Greek Supreme Court, which in 2018 ruled it could go through. After settling legal and cultural battles, COVID hit, further delaying. 

It was not until July 2020 that the project officially broke ground. 

Note: Interview / audio is in Greek

“Today is a very important day, a symbolic day,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who attended the launch of the works, said according to the Greek Reporter. “By demolishing the old useless buildings of the old airport, we are laying the foundations for the new Hellinikon. One of the largest, perhaps the largest project in the Mediterranean, will be realized in this – for 19 years abandoned – area.”

A mirror to Sidewalk Labs?

This origin story is very similar to Quayside, the Sidewalk Labs development proposed for Toronto’s east end. Toronto’s 12-acre project was supposed to be a model city. Eventually, it would would serve as the base for developing the much larger, multi-hundred acre plot of land near Toronto’s Sugar Beach. It also touted job creation, quality of life improvements, and the potential for tourism in the city. Where Hellinikon faced cultural and heritage challenges, Quayside faced privacy infringement allegations.

While Quayside did not end up going to the Canadian Supreme Court, it was held up by numerous municipal issues. After multiple municipal reviews concluded, Toronto Mayor John Tory released a statement that said “Our goal has always been to ultimately build a neighbourhood focused on innovation at Quayside that will be the envy of cities around the world and a beacon for the future. I believe this process has led to an exciting proposal for Quayside that has the potential to create new jobs and economic development opportunities, a carbon-neutral neighbourhood, and more affordable housing units. It is a real opportunity for Toronto.

Sidewalk Labs pulled out of the Quayside project in May 2020. In response, Mayor Tory reiterated his “envy of cities around the world” comment in a statement about how he would push Toronto to develop Quayside by itself. Since that announcement, no further progress has been made as of this publishing. 

The largest park in Europe at Hellinikon

While Quayside focused on affordable housing, Hellinikon went upmarket. Key features of the development include a luxury resort, casinos, luxury condos, a golf course, shopping malls, theme parks, and marinas.

While the marketing campaigns talked about the luxury of it all, there was another clear side: environmental sustainability. Perhaps due to earlier legal challenges, Lamda is forward about being environmentally friendly and just how much green space there is. 

The crown jewel in the sustainability crown is the creation of a new park. Estimated at over 700 acres, it will be bigger than Hyde Park in London and nearly the size of Central Park in New York city. 

Image of the waterfront of the hellinikon project
Source: Hellinikon Project

It seems that there is political support for the environmentalist message, as well. At the launch, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said “[The development] will be a modern, ecological, environmentally friendly project, a project that will mark the beginning of a new era for Greece as we all envision it.”

Luxury and sustainability

While the Hellinikon project focuses on luxury and entertainment, it bears striking resemblance to Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project. First, it will provide the same green space and focus on sustainability that the Sidewalk Labs landing page references. Beyond that, a focus on parks, sustainable building, and innovation ring similar in marketing messages for both projects. 

Further, both talk about increasing public access to, and beautifying, waterfront. Toronto’s Quayside area is a mix of rundown old factories, parking lots, and a bit of abandoned grassland.

In Athens, the remains of an abandoned airport shroud the waterfront. Restoration, says Lamda in its vision statement, will provide over one kilometre of public beach access.

There’s also a conservation element to Hellinikon. The project plans to use some of the historic buildings from the former Hellinikon airport, which assuaged activist concerns over heritage conservation. It’s also planning to restore disused buildings from the 2004 Athens Olympics, many of which had fallen into significant disrepair since the games. Public transit will connect the community, further increasing accessibility and livability.

One feature not talked about in the marketing materials, though: collecting data about residents. 

A new business and remote worker haven?

Greek business news website Ekathimerini reported on an interesting headline about Hellinikon: Athens is trying to build a new Monaco. According to the article, Greek parliament is tabling bills that would give significant tax incentives to British companies looking to relocate to Europe in the wake of Brexit, hoping to lure them with the same strategies that propelled Monaco to global fame. 

In specific, the article cited three laws that are up for change in the region. First, one encouraging wealthy individuals to set up tax residency in Greece. Second, amending laws to make it easier to start and maintain family offices. And third, creating enticements to relocate businesses – and employees – to Greece for tax purposes. Legislators have already tabled one bill, says Ekathimerini. If successful, it would give businesses a 50% break on employment taxes for the seven years. 

While these changes are geared more towards the ultra-wealthy than the remote worker or freelancer, there’s some hope yet. While Greece is not known for its blazing fast internet, that could change soon. A new project, set to launch in January 2021, will help bring broadband internet throughout Greece, according to investment website Greece Investor Guide. If that happens, Athens and the Hellinikon area should have full broadband access. With the timeline of the Hellinikon project hitting anywhere from five to 10 years, there’s a solid chance that the broadband project will also be complete by then. 

If everything planned indeed comes to fruition, remote workers and freelancers can rub shoulders with Europe’s business elite that have relocated to Hellinikon. That said, there are no guarantees. But now that Hellinikon has officially started demolition, it will be interesting to see if this new kind of development proves a model for the future.

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Article header image courtesy Hellinkon.