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New mayor hopes to overhaul Athens with parks, streetcars


ATHENS, Greece -- In this city of breathtaking ruins and some of the nastier urban tangles of these times, an ambitious planner has taken office, impatient to mobilize barriers and bulldozers and start changing the face of the capital.

He is the new mayor of Athens, Antonis Tritsis, an architect, engineer and town planner, trained in Chicago and the first man to come to this job with a far-reaching new master plan for the town center in more than 150 years.

"It's a matter of survival," said the mayor, who has gained a reputation for creating controversy. He said that unless Athens changes "it will be a jungle in 10 years."

If Mr. Tritsis gets his way, main avenues may become passable again and quiet electric streetcars will end the era of the belching, roaring bus.

The remains of the ancient city will cease to be ringed by asphalt and noise but will be united in a large archaeological park linking the main sites and monuments.

Which other city in Europe has a soul more than 3,000 years old? the mayor said, making that sweep across the centuries that comes easily to Greeks.

"We must reveal and recapture this historic soul," he said.

As an epicenter of Western thought, Athens may be among the oldest and most evocative of places.

Yet ever since the Turks left and the first modern king called in Bavarian architects in the 1830s to draw up a street plan, the town at the foot of the Acropolis has been straining at its leash.

The city doubled in size in the last three decades. Greater Athens today is home to almost 4 million of the nation's 10 million people.

The view from the mayor's office offered the monotonous concrete look that gives Athens more in common with the sprawl of Amman, Jordan, or Mexico City than with the brick and stone of old European cities.

The horizon was blurred by the "nefos," the nefarious brown smog that lingers whenever the wind is weak. All around sat a thicket of billboards and television aerials.

"Look at those," Mr. Tritsis said, frowning and declaring that the crass signs and the thousands of antennas would have to be replaced.

Then Mr. Tritsis, 54, sat down to explain his plans.

One calls for banning a portion of the 1 million buses and private cars from perennially jammed downtown streets. Instead, he wants to bring in streetcars.

"My pet project is a light tramway system," he said. "It's electric so it's clean, it can carry many people and it can combine with pedestrian ways."

Besides, he said, unlike a new subway, streetcars stay safely above ground -- no small advantage in a city where digging invariably draws archaeologists who may find important reasons to suspend the work.

A former environment minister, Mr. Tritsis has been prodding the government to deliver cleaner fuel and is asking Athenians to make room for trees to improve their air and relieve the stark cityscape.

With only 2.8 percent green space, Athens has less than any European capital.

In office since Jan. 1, the mayor said he was still sorting out the books.

He has been talking to garbage workers and gardeners and, of course, bankers and business executives to raise money.

He is not the first mayor pledging to clean up the capital.

In the land of the ancient city-state, today's metropolis has virtually no power and no income. An administrator said Athens does not even get to keep its parking fines.

The Culture Ministry jumps in if plans are made in the vicinity of one of the dozens of ancient monuments.

Some residents here suggest that getting anything done is a feat for any mayor in Greece's antagonistic political climate, where rivals readily thwart each other's projects.

Yet he said he believed that by rehabilitating the past he can enhance the present.

An archaeological park in the center will provide a breathing space, he believes, and bring in visitors.

He said he wanted to link all the sites from Classic to Roman to Byzantine Greece.

That means an area embracing the temple of Zeus, the towering Acropolis, reaching through the Roman market, Monasteraki and the Agora as far as the Academy of Plato.

It means closing roads and building new plazas and pedestrian ways.

Associates describe the tenacious planner as the main engine behind the transformation of Plaka, the old and rundown zone below the Acropolis. It is now cleaned up, restored and brimming with restaurants.

When Mr. Tritsis was minister of environment and planning, one friend recalled, people told him taming Plaka would be impossible.

But enlisting the police, he saw to it that in one night 93 places were shut.

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