Journal International Herald Tribune du 13 juin 2007

Greek mall boom challenges tradition

By Stelios Bouras

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

ATHENS: The first large shopping mall in Athens opened only 18 months ago, but the city's retail property landscape already is changing fast, with more than 10 similar projects expected to built around the capital in the next few years.

Those projects will add 382,000 square meters, or more than 4.1 million square feet, of retail space by 2010, according to figures provided by CB Richard Ellis Danos & Associates, real estate consultants based in Athens.

Developers and real estate agents are confident the market can absorb the extra space as Greece now ranks near the bottom of all European Union countries when it comes to the amount of shopping center space per resident. In 2006 there were 50 square meters of shopping center space for every 1,000 people in Greece, according to IOBE, a nonprofit research organization based in Athens. The average for all 25 EU countries is more than 150 square meters.

And the interest is there on the developers's side as well. "There is plenty of liquidity in the market looking for the right investment," said Gikas Hardouvelis, chief economist at EFG Eurobank, one of Greece's largest banks.

But the ultimate success of malls here really depends on whether Greeks decide to leave downtown areas behind in favor of shopping centers.

For now at least, downtown rental rates remain high. For example, properties along Ermou Street in central Athens, which include some of the city's largest stores, rent for as much as €265, or $353, per square meter per month, the tenth highest downtown rate in the world. And, "we don't see rents going downwards, there is large demand," said Philip Evans, partner and head of retail services at Cushman & Wakefield real estate agency in Athens.

In comparison, monthly rents in Greek shopping centers, which are not in city centers, average €39 per square meter, according to CB Richard Ellis real estate agency in London. That rate is among the lowest in the European Union; the monthly rate in Spain averages more than €63 per square meter although it is €25 per square meter in Romania.

Among the mall projects that have been announced for Athens, two are conversions of sites built for the 2004 Olympic Games.

The Galatsi Olympic Hall, where table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics events were held, will be turned by the end of 2008 into a €78 million shopping center, a joint venture of Acropole Charagionis and Sonae Sierra of Portugal. And a multistory building in northern Athens that was built for Olympics broadcasting is to be turned into 40,000 square meters of shopping space by 2009 by Lamda Development of Athens.

It was Lamda Development's earlier project, The Mall Athens, that started the city's mall spurt. When the development opened in November 2005, it introduced Athens's four million residents to the convenience of having 200 stores, restaurants and movie theaters under one roof. (Greece's first major mall opened in October 2005, just a month earlier, in Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city.)

Located in the northern Athens suburb of Marousi, The Mall Athens covers more than 58,000 square meters and has 2,065 parking spaces, a strong lure for shoppers in a city with traffic problems like Athens's.

Also, "the ability to choose from lots of products in the same area is one of the basic factors that have contributed to its success," said Nikos Xethalis, general manager at ECE Lamda Hellas, the company that manages the property.

Over all, Greece's strong economic growth and high private consumption rates are helping fuel retail activity. The country's gross domestic product is expected to expand by 3.9 percent this year, one of the highest growth rates in the euro zone. Increases in credit and a drop in unemployment rates have helped keep household spending high.

The robust economic activity - and increasing availability of retail space - has been drawing interest from foreign retailers eager to enter the market.

This year Leroy Merlin, the French-based do-it-yourself retailer, and Hennes & Mauritz, the Swedish clothing giant, opened stores while Ikea of Sweden and Zara of Spain say they intend to expand their operations in the country.

Developers, however, say dated laws, zoning restrictions and costly bureaucratic procedures cause costly setbacks.

Also, the country's property transfer tax of 9 to 11 percent is among the highest in the EU and, because it is paid by the buyer, it does deter growth, developers say.

"The largest problem for any developer in Greece is the red tape vis-à-vis permit acquisition. This is a result of land-use legislation," said Demetra Pallis, marketing manager at Developer Reds, a subsidiary of Greece's largest construction group, Hellenic Technodomiki-Aktor. Developer Reds is joining with Société Générale Immobilier Espagne to build the largest of the planned malls, a 100,000-square-meter shopping complex in Kantza, east of Athens.

Zoning restrictions limit which properties can even be considered for mall development and, developers say, as many as a dozen different ministries and government bodies can have the authority over permits for an average project.

Foreign investors, like Sonae Sierra, have dealt with the confusion by teaming with a local partner who has leverage with local authorities and a better understanding of building and tax laws. "This helps split planning risks with someone that has local knowledge," said Anna Nazou, head of international business at CBRE Danos.

 

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