How successful will the much-publicised new multi-million plan for the walled city be?

To great fanfare, the government in April unveiled a €40 million action plan aimed at revamping Nicosia’s walled city by providing grants for businesses and incentives for students and young families to move into the area.

In the presence of the ministers of interior and finance, President Nicos Anastiasiades and the Nicosia mayor, it was announced that included in that €40m is €15m to turn buildings into student housing and €10m in subsidies to entice businesses and €5m in economic support to subsidise purchase of primary residences. Meanwhile existing incentives to renovate listed buildings will be expanded and speeded up.

The plan is not a moment too soon. While sections of the old city have indeed been transformed over the years, street after street still contain crumbling, boarded up houses and shops and empty lots. Even bustling Ledra St with its bars and restaurants which saw a resurgence after the financial crisis post-2013 is losing steam as boutiques and shoe shops close and either remain empty or are replaced by those selling secondhand clothes.

feature jon a boarded up shop (christos theodorides)

A boarded up shop (Christos Theodorides)

But with several other attempts to change the face of Cyprus’ most populous city failing over the years, most notably the 1981 Nicosia Master Plan, doubts remain over whether the new project will work.

According to Nicosia mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis, the sheer scale and boldness of the proposed revamp are set to change people’s minds.

“The most notable difference between the new plan and the past one relates to the overall approach and focus,” Yiorkadjis told the Sunday Mail in an interview.

“For the first time, a multitude of planning and financial incentives have been approved, all targeting various population groups and various stakeholders. The rational is for these incentives to work together in combination.”

The mayor said the main selling points of the new plan, aside from the upgrade of old, historical buildings, consist in attracting and supporting the walled city’s economic activity, while retaining the existing population and, at the same time, luring in new residents.

feature jon the old city has many empty lots (christos theodorides)

The old city has many empty lots (Christos Theodorides)

Students are among the most targeted category of the new plan, a move that caters to the growing academic population of the capital, according to Yiorkadjis.

With the old city’s Phaneromeni school being turned into the University of Cyprus’ architecture department and the nearby Research and Innovation Centre of Excellence, catering for these students makes sense. But how practical is it for those students at university campuses in Engomi and Aglandjia to live in the walled city?

One of the most pressing issues is parking, as many students rely on their cars to get to their universities due to the lack of adequate public transport.

“Parking can be hard if we keep expecting to park right outside our destination. But in many other capitals and big cities in the world, one assumes to park up to 10-15 minutes from one’s destination,” Yiorkadjis argued.

“Times are changing. More and more, countries and cities are focusing on green growth, meaning fostering economic growth and development that is environmentally sustainable. This is the path of the future, and we can no longer ignore it.”

Yiorkadjis, nevertheless, acknowledged that changing the mentality of a population that has relied on cars for decades will represent a huge challenge, but remained positive that future generations, such as students, are now more sensitive to topics such as sustainability and green growth.

“Younger generations are generally more sensitive, proactive and sometimes even demanding when it comes to environmental issues. Furthermore, distances in Cyprus are small and therefore not a deterrent for sustainable modes of transportation.

“In addition, the historic centre is currently being serviced by mini buses, making frequent round trips, with a very attractive schedule. We have asked and are hoping that their routes will be extended to connect the three universities with the city centre,” Yiorkadjis said.

feature jon the research and innovation centre cyens in old nicosia (christos theodorides)

The research and innovation centre CYENS in old Nicosia (Christos Theodorides)

And, of course, the student housing incentive plan is just one a part of the housing scheme, with young couples being the other targeted category.

“We expect this new private housing plan to include the whole of the old town offering more flexibility to those interested in taking up permanent residence in the area.”

Another crucial point of the action plan involves promoting a grant scheme for enhancing entrepreneurship in old Nicosia, aimed at attracting or upgrading new businesses in the area.

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris revealed that the total budget allocated will amount to a total of €10 million, with a limit of up to €80,000 per individual application. The scheme will be open until 2026.

Yiorkadjis added that the entrepreneurship scheme also aims to upgrade existing businesses in the old city, along with attracting new ones.

“Eligible businesses can receive funding up to 60 per of the project cost with a maximum grant of up to €80,000 per project,” the mayor said.

“Eligible expenditures include construction and electromechanical expenses, cost of studies and part of the equipment. Potential beneficiaries can be either owners or tenants with an obligation to use the renovated premises for at least five years.”

The reality of the situation, however, is that the walled city is currently home to many empty premises, former businesses that, due to lack of customers or the limited accessibility to the area, have been forced to shut down over the years.

The biggest doubt is whether the total amount of €10 million will be enough to boost entrepreneurship in old Nicosia, considering the limited success of central businesses after the Turkish invasion of 1974 that split the city in two and forced people to move their shops elsewhere.

“We are mainly targeting young people. We want them to live and work in the walled city,” Yiorkadjis said.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to convince them to invest in the area, seeing that the state is also implementing a series of upgrades aimed at attracting new home or business owners.”

Nouris also announced several incentives for renovating old buildings in the walled city, albeit conceding that in the past they had only limited success.

“I will not dwell on the challenges, because we are already experiencing them,” Nouris said at the time.

“Instead, I will focus on the actions required and promoted by the government in order to solve the situation. Actions that require continuity and consistency.”

feature jon phaneromeni school will be renovated to become the university of cyprus' department of architecture (christos theodorides)

Phaneromeni school will be renovated to become the University of Cyprus’ department of architecture (christos theodorides)

Despite the encouraging outlook and the confidence with which the municipality and the government presented the plan, there are doubters.

Experienced sociologist, economist and urban planner Glafkos Constantinides said it will be very challenging to convince people to invest in the walled city, “which for years has suffered from decay and abandonment”.

“The recent government initiatives and schemes show good intentions indeed,” he told the Sunday Mail.

“However, they remain blind to the complexity of the underlying social and economic problems in the area replicating the usual recipe of jumping to patchwork actions and incentives for student accommodation and listed buildings without a real plan with vision, full understanding of all the issues, sustainable finance and a workable consultation and governance approach.”

Constantinides said the biggest issue is represented by the stakeholders’ lack of vision and a limited prospective view of the economic and social future of the area.

“Another key point needs to be an effective stock taking of all the main projects required to improve the infrastructure, the building stock and protect and maintain all those cultural assets and historical spaces that can reform the area.

“Only this way the plan is bound to offer a new experience for students, new residents and visitors,” Constantinides said.

There is also an elephant in the room. Whole swathes of the old city are home to irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and, whether we agree or not, this is a disincentive to gentrification. At the presentation, only Finance Minister Constantinos Petrides made a passing reference to this issue when he commented on the area hosting a huge number of irregular migrants.

There are many challenges, but Yiorkadjis remains upbeat.

“We understand that there is still a lot to be done but these incentives aim to bring us one step closer to the permanent and qualitative revitalisation of old Nicosia.”