PLANS by the Nicosia municipality to drastically reconstruct the city’s declining commercial centre, Makarios Avenue and its adjacent streets, has raised questions over the project’s potential impact on already struggling businesses.
Τhe ambitious scheme, which dates back at least a decade, calls for a block the streets of the once-buzzing area, enclosed by Debenhams central to the south, Evagoras to the north, and Stasikratous in the west -referred to as the “commercial triangle” in municipality plans – to be effectively torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
Over the last few years, the area has been on a fast-track course to dereliction, especially in the side-streets connecting Makarios with up-scale Stasikratous, with shops closing down so fast that the odd still-open store sticks out among consecutive ‘for rent’ signs like a sore thumb.
“People don’t do their shopping, or even strolling, in the city centre any more,” Nicosia municipality spokesman Makis Nicolaides told the Sunday Mail. “They prefer the malls.”
This is, of course, not “the people’s” fault. In the commercial hub’s heyday, rent levels had been notoriously high, with the outrageous cost passed on to shoppers and café-goers. Having to endure the outdoors – with scorching heat over most of the year – and strategically pick a time most likely to find one of the desperately few parking spots were just the icing on a cake of inconvenience.
The municipality knows all this, and its planning aims to address each and every point. With the exception of rent levels, for which the invisible hand has already started effecting a correction – albeit at moderate velocity – the reconstruction project places climatic and accessibility issues front and centre.
Post-overhaul, Makarios and its adjacent streets will be closed to private vehicles, except for those belonging to residents and shopkeepers. At a cost of some €30 million, the area is envisioned as a pedestrian paradise, with dedicated bus routes and bicycle lanes leading into it, in hopes that issues of accessibility, traffic congestion, and pollution, may be tackled. On the temperature front, the municipality will attempt to take on the forbidding Cypriot heat with many water-based structures, innovative shading solutions, and numerous modern-design benches.
“The main focus is innovation and the environmental development of the area,” Nicolaides said.
“The city centre is a unique area, and we aim to increase its environmental value.”
Last May, the Nicosia municipality invited tenders for the first phase of reconstruction – out of a total three – involving Stasikratous and the minor streets connecting it with Makarios. Tender submission closes on September 14, and, after picking the preferred bidder, the municipality can see its ambitious plans become reality.
“Of course, when work on the project might start depends on a number of unpredictable factors, like possible appeals to the Tenders Review Board, but in the best of circumstances we are aiming for the start of 2017,” the project’s architect Marina Tymviou told the Sunday Mail.
But the road to disaster is paved with good intentions, and, while the public and the municipality focus on the big picture, the area’s shopkeepers fear a crippling blow to their businesses. The hassle from turning the streets into a construction site for prolonged periods notwithstanding, plans call for the brief closing of streets altogether – to visitors, residents, tourists, and, crucially, paying customers.
“There’s no magical way to build things,” Tymviou commented.
“While various utilities – the power and telecoms companies, and so on – will be drawing their lines underground, the roads will be closed. But we plan to keep this to a minimum, while providing for access to suppliers.”
Such words are hardly encouraging to the people whose livelihoods are going to be directly affected, and Nicolaides’ non-committal assurances – “every project comes with some inconvenience, but this time we will try to keep it to a minimum”, he echoed – seem to have little impact. In response to the anticipated hit on their businesses, and instead of trying to figure out ways to weather the upcoming adversity, some businesses opted to bow out altogether.
FotoCine, an iconic photography studio formerly located at the corner of Theofanous Theodotou and Zena Gunther off Makarios, near the legendary Zena Palace cinema, moved to Achaion Street in Engomi last April, after 45 years of occupying the same spot. Its owner cited the upcoming roadworks as one of the key reasons for the move. “We are expecting work to start soon,” Antonis Farmakas, son of founder Costas, said when asked to explain the decision.
According to Farmakas, business started withering around 2012, and things came perilously close to threatening the business’ survival. A lack of trust in the business-friendliness of the upcoming works sealed the deal.
“We had not planned to move,” he said.
“The rent was always high, although the owner lowered it a bit in 2013. But in light of a further decrease in business, we decided to move elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, turning the Makarios area into a cooler, easily-accessible, energy-saving pedestrian hub will run in parallel with another radical project: rendering the rest of Makarios, from Debenhams central to the Aluminium Tower, a massive one-way road leading into the city, while making Kallipoleos street – to the east of Makarios – a one-way road in the opposite direction.
According to the transport ministry, pending some final approvals of minor importance, this project is about a month away from being ready for opening a tenders process, creating predictable side-effects for residents and shopkeepers, like increased congestion in roads leading out of Nicosia to the west of Makarios, and perhaps even further exacerbating accessibility issues to the “commercial triangle”.
“This project aims to improve accessibility, safety, and congestion, while facilitating and promoting cycling,” project director at the transport ministry Michalis Lamprinos told the Sunday Mail.
“Certainly, every project brings about some improvements and some negative effects. In this case, there is going to be vastly more improvement than side-effects.”
Ambitious projects aimed at improving the public’s quality of life, while creating better opportunities for business ventures, seem to strike the golden balance. But when the public and – importantly – businesses are seen to place so little faith in the authorities’ proclamations that it will do its utmost to minimise impact, it is perhaps time for government to reconsider whether more can be done in this direction.