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An open wound in the heart of the capital

March 31 is the latest official deadline for completion. It will be missed, yet again

EUROPEAN Union funding for the Eleftheria Square do-over is at serious risk of being lost if the ambitious project is not finished by the end of the year, the Directorate-general for European Programmes’ Charis Soteriou has told the Sunday Mail.

Soteriou, the government’s designated contact point for EU structural funds funnelled to Cyprus for cohesion policy – under which the application for Eleftheria Square was filed and approved for EU funding – said that the project was approved for funding of 85 per cent of its total cost from European structural funds in the previous programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013.

Artist's impression of the finished square
Artist’s impression of the finished square

Eligibility for these funds ran until the end of 2015, at which point the Nicosia municipality was able to get the project carried over to the new programme – 2014-2020 – except this time a condition was attached stipulating that the project was eligible until the end of 2017.

“We got it included in the new programme, but there are going to be serious questions if it’s not finished by the end of the year,” Soteriou said.

EU funding for work done so far has been claimed, and received, but the answer to who will be stuck with the bill if the end-of-2017 deadline is missed is a pretty straight-forward one.

“How it works is, you pay the contractors in full per the agreement and then you go back and claim what you are entitled to from the EU funds,” the Cypriot official said, adding that the funding programme covers budget overflows, too.

The entire project, comprising the construction of the square and a bridge, as well as a two-level underground parking area, was originally estimated to cost €23 million.

To address huge delays and the rocky coordination between the contractor and the architects who designed and oversaw it, the Nicosia municipality decided in 2014 to break up the project into two smaller ones, with the square and the bridge in one, and the parking space in the other, awarding the contract for the first to a different contractor and keeping the second on the back burner.

One estimate has the total cost of the sole remaining ongoing contract at €23 million.

A cafe on the city walls has had its view and major selling point blocked for the past five months
A cafe on the city walls has had its view and major selling point blocked for the past five months

Following decades of rumination, the Eleftheria Square facelift was kicked off in 2005, when an international competition was announced for its design, eventually won by the world-famous London-based architecture and design firm founded by the late Dame Zaha Hadid.

The final design was unveiled in 2011, and the original plan was for the square to be ready by June 2012, when Cyprus was to chair the European Council and would regularly host European leaders for the following six months.

But work was underway only in February 2012, when Miltiades Neophytou contractors won the job and started construction.

Per the deadlines agreed to at the time, the bridge was supposed to have been finished by June 2013. (It wasn’t, and it still isn’t.)

In July 2013, a metal bridge was set up over the construction site, to connect Stasinou Avenue in the contemporary part of town with Constantinou Paleologou street in old Nicosia. Although announced as “temporary” at the time, the bridge remains the only crossing point between the two areas four years on, and is used by hundreds of pedestrians on a daily basis.

Turf wars between the contractor and the architects soon broke out over who was responsible for the delays, which kept pushing deadlines back, with the construction firm claiming it was not being given adequately detailed marching orders and that the architects did not monitor progress properly, and the municipality claiming the construction company was simply not up to the task of managing a project of this magnitude.

 What was the main access between the top of Ledra St and Solomou Square has been blocked for months with no signs of progress
What was the main access between the top of Ledra St and Solomou Square has been blocked for months with no signs of progress

At some point, the contractor even warned he would only stay on the project if the architects were let go.

Instead, the Neophytou firm was released of its contractual obligations by the municipality in February 2014, in exchange for about €0.5 million in compensation – and about €5.5 million’s worth of construction work done and paid for – and new competitions for the construction of the square and the bridge, and a separate one for the parking area, were opened.

But at least six months were lost before a new contractor was found, because the municipality decided to deliberately low-ball the estimated cost when it invited tenders, in hopes of attracting lower bids.

“On the one hand, the municipality was not entitled to publish an intentionally lower cost estimation, and, on the other, doing so may have prevented bidders from participating in the competition,” Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides said in his 2015 annual report.

Not surprisingly, the trick didn’t work, and the lowest bid came in at 55 per cent higher than the ‘estimated’ cost, whereas the parking competition was cancelled because of suspicions of collusion among the five bidders.

The square competition was also cancelled, because none of the bids met the budget criterion, and a new one was opened, which was finally awarded in November 2014.

Lois Builders, the new contractors, got to work on the square in January 2015 against a March 2016 completion deadline, which was extended to June 2016 at their request and approved by the project’s architects.

Workmen
Workmen

Both finishing dates were missed, as was a subsequent one announced by Mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis when he said the square would be done by the end of 2016.

The end-of-year milestone was then pushed further back, and the contractors are now supposedly working against an end-of-March deadline, which is looking highly improbable.

Although both the municipality and the contractors declined comment for this piece, small tell-tale signs point to the project remaining far from completion.

A patch of road adjacent to the start of the iconic Ledra Street in the old town, on one side, and the construction site on the other, was closed to car traffic a few months ago, and replaced with a makeshift opening inside the pedestrianised commercial street.

The solution caused heavy traffic jams at the spot and great inconvenience to pedestrians, but it seems that the construction work that necessitated it is not even close to being finished, because the spot was tarmacked over two weeks ago.

(Suggestive clues notwithstanding, of course, the pervasive secrecy of the project-runners over even a rudimentary progress report is hardly encouraging.)

Once aspiring to drastically rejuvenate the city centre and bestow the capital the grandeur it deserves, the Eleftheria Square has become little more than an open wound: for residents and visitors, scrambling to and from the area through ‘temporary’, ineffectual diversions; for local businesses, which continue to suffer what is tantamount to a customer blockade; above all, to the Nicosia municipality, which has seen what it hoped would be its crowning achievement turn into a source of seemingly unending embarrassment.

 Access to the shops and small business along the walls is severely limited
Access to the shops and small business along the walls is severely limited

Five years of delays and missed deadlines

March 2005: tenders invited for square design
December 28, 2005: Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid and her associates Christos Passas and Saffet Bekiroglu win the competition to redesign Eleftheria square
August 29, 2011: final architectural plans unveiled
December 22, 2011: construction contract awarded
Feb 6, 2012: construction work starts by Miltiades Neophytou contracting firm
July 1, 2012: deadline for completion of Eleftheria square bridge and Eastern moat missed, pushed back to June 20, 2013
June 20, 2013: deadline for completion of bridge missed
July 24, 2013: temporary metal bridge over the Eleftheria square site connecting the walled city and the part outside the walls to address pedestrian movement issues during construction – still in place
Feb 6, 2014: project completion deadline at cost €23mln missed, pushed back to June 17, 2014
Feb 24, 2014: amicable dissolution of agreement with contractor in exchange for €530,000 (against contractor’s demands of over €1.5mln)
April 4, 2014: project split into two parts (underground parking and redesign of square), new competition for construction contract opened
June 17, 2014: project completion deadline missed
June-July, 2014: Nicosia municipality cancels tenders process as bids received greatly exceeded budget
November 23, 2014: square redesign contract awarded to lowest bidder at 55 per cent over budget
December 12, 2014: underground parking contract awarded to new contractor
March 2015: municipality cancels decision to award new underground parking contract due to suspicions of collusion among bidders
January 1, 2015: new contractor Lois Builders starts work on a March 2016 deadline
May 11, 2015: €3.5 million’s worth of work, formerly part of the underground parking contract, moved to the square redesign contract without a tenders process
November 11, 2015: project completion deadline pushed back to June 9, 2016
Dec 31, 2015: deadline for project completion for co-sponsorship of 85 per cent by EU structural funds missed, project included into new EU programme
February 8, 2016: project completion deadline pushed back to November 30, 2016
April 13, 2016: Mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis announces “end-of-year” completion and €32mln cost (excluding construction of the two-storey parking space)
March 31, 2017: official deadline for completion of bridge and square

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