By Constantinos Psillides
RACING TO complete the beleaguered Eleftheria Square project has become something of a hobby for the Nicosia municipality. This time, the completion date is set for June 2016, a full 18 months after work starts on January 14.
While there is obvious relief at the prospect of the project finally being completed, municipality officials are looking over their shoulders, terrified of the smallest thing going wrong. The project has tested the patience of one of its major funders – the general directorate for European Programmes, Coordination and Development patience – to its absolute maximum, and even a minor delay now could jeopardise millions of euros in payments.
The directorate is financing the project to the tune of €25.5 million – 85 per cent of the total estimated cost – and has been hearing delay excuses for the past two years. The original deadline expired in March 2013, but a one year extension was granted after the original contractor appeared willing to complete the project. That deadline passed and the project was hardly started. Another extension was given, this time up to December 2015, accompanied by a warning from the directorate that this would be the last one. That too was certainly going to be missed after the original contractor pulled out of the project prompting a messy legal dispute with the municipality.
A new contract with a new contractor for part of the project was signed just before Christmas with a fresh completion date set for 64 weeks after work starts on January 14, or June 2016.
According to Nicosia mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis, the municipality has now managed to secure its third extension from the directorate.
But since this is the Eleftheria Square project, there was bound to be a fly in the ointment. Following the original construction fiasco, the municipality decided to split the project into two parts and invite two separate tenders, one for the square and the surrounding area and one for the revamping of nearby Omirou street and the construction of an underground parking lot. While the tender process for the square went smoothly, the Omirou deal did not.
The Omirou project was estimated to cost €6,350,000 but the lowest bid submitted was two million euros over the estimation. The tender process was quickly heading to a dead-end so the matter was referred to the Tenders Review Authority. The contractor who submitted the lowest bid – A. Panayides – argued that the municipality added €1,225,000 to the estimate the evaluation firm handed in, pointing out that when this is factored in their bid was only slightly over the original estimation. The authority ruled in favour of the contractor and on December 18 the municipality awarded the tender to the contractor.
“Repeating the tender process would effectively lead to scrapping the project, due to the time restraints,” the municipality said, a day after the tender was awarded.
Unfortunately for the municipality, it is not the only player in this game. Republic Treasurer Rena Georgiou was reportedly furious over the municipality’s intention to award the tender, pointing out that a 30 per cent deviation from the original estimation was unacceptable.
Approval from the treasurer’s office is essential for the project to receive European funding.
The municipality dismissed those reports in their December 19 press release, saying that they have been coordinating with the treasurer’s and the auditor general’s offices from the beginning of the process, despite a difference of opinion on the matter. “The municipality’s foremost concern is investing in projects to revamp the town,” the municipality explained.
While Georgiou has kept quiet on the matter, the municipality appears confident that the project will be green-lighted. Developments on the matter are expected within the next two weeks.
But pending a decision by the treasurer, the only finalised contract is that of Eleftheria Square and its surrounding area, and it is on this section that work will start on January 14.
The Eleftheria Square project was always hanging from a thread. When the first contracts were signed, back in December 2011 – when Eleni Mavrou was mayor – it was triumphantly announced that the project will be finished by March 2013.
When the fanfare died down and the confetti disappeared, it became evident that completing the project in 2013 would not require just diggers and manual labour but also rosaries and a prayer book.
The contractor who won the tender in 2011, Miltiades Neofytou Civil Engineering Contractors & Developers Ltd, finally gave up on the works after repeated delays drove building costs up and led to a legal dispute with the municipality.
The reasons for the delays are numerous, among them work carried out by the Antiquities Department on the Venetian wall, but uppermost is the dispute between the contractor, the municipality and the London-based architectural office of Zaha Hadid, the famous Iraqi-British architect who designed the square.
Architect and contractor disagreed often on the project with the most widely reported example being that they had argued for nine months over the colour of the concrete to be used in the erection of the bridge’s support structures.
Following a public disagreement, the contractor finally bowed out of the project in 2014. The company had previously requested a 522 days extension and €3 million in compensation
Faced with the possibility of not finishing the project on time and losing the EU funds, the municipality settled with the contractor, paying the company €530,000.
In December, following a new tender process, the contract for Eleftheria Square proper was awarded to LOIS Builders, at the price of €13.5 million. The deal includes completing the bridge/square and its support beams, fixing the Venetian wall adjacent to the square, installing elevators, street light and furniture, stores and public restrooms.
But while the municipality frantically tries to salvage the project at the eleventh hour, there are those who would be more than happy to watch it burn in flames. Anna Marangou, noted archaeologist and art historian who was a strong candidate for the town’s mayoral post in 2006, has always been a vocal opponent of the Eleftheria’s Square. Marangou leads the “Citizen Movement Against the Eleftheria’s Square Project” and warns that the construction will have devastating effects on the old town.
“The Venetian Wall is an unparallel monument and it’s being drowned by a sea of cement thrown casually in front of it. That’s completely unacceptable. They are mimicking similar projects done in Dubai but forget that Cyprus has neither sand nor the financial capability to match Dubai,” Marangou told the Sunday Mail.
The art historian warned that going ahead with the project will be detrimental to the town’s character.
“It is just out of place. It’s overly complicated and will end costing us millions. What the town needed was revamping the Venetian Wall so it could be exhibited properly and a simple bridge to connect the two sides. Nothing more. The monstrosity they are to erect will be ideal for a town in the middle of the desert. Not downtown Nicosia,” she said.