* Ambitious plan to turn old airport into coastal resort
* Jet-set hub now abandoned and overgrown with weeds
* Developer to invest 7 billion euros to revive site
By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS, June 26 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.
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 privatisations 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)