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DERYNEIA, Cyprus – Time virtually stopped in 1974 for the Mediterranean tourist playground of Varosha. When Turkey invaded Cyprus in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece, thousands of residents fled, and chain-link fences enclosed a glamorous resort that it's said once played host to Hollywood royalty like Elizabeth Taylor.
The town's crumbling, war-scarred beachfront hotels have become an emblem of the country's division between Turks and Greeks. In 40 years, few have set foot inside the town, which remains heavily guarded by the Turkish army and twists of barbed wire.
But that grim scene could present a rare opportunity. Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture professor Jan Wampler calls it the greatest challenge of his career: he and a team of architects, urban planners, business leaders and peace activists hope to rebuild an entire town to correct past errors and mold a sustainable, ecological habitat.
The grass-roots project — the brainchild of Greek Cypriot-American Vasia Markides — means to transform the ghost town into a model eco-city, preserve local character, generate revenue for the debt-ridden country and provide a forward-thinking example of planning in a drought-prone country plagued by overdevelopment.
And Wampler who is the project's lead architect, relishes the possibility of getting it right the second time around.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," Wampler said on the sidelines of a five-day brainstorming seminar to solicit local input on how Varosha should be reborn. "Can we design a sustainable, ecological city with job creation for young people that would be known throughout Europe as an example?"
But the cards may be stacked against them. The town has been the subject of repeated calls for its return to its inhabitants as a confidence-building prelude to a comprehensive peace deal reunifying the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north with the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south. The country's complex politics continue to remain the primary obstacle to the town's return and must be resolved to get the project off the drawing board, said Alexis Galanos, the Greek Cypriot mayor of Famagusta that incorporates Varosha.
With peace talks currently on hold as both sides continue to squabble over how a federated Cyprus should be defined, the project is ultimately an academic exercise. But as project collaborators George Lordos and Ceren Bogac said, it can also serve as an example of people-power where ordinary Cypriots from both sides of the divide can upstage politicians by forging what they envision to be the city of their future.
"It's about letting citizens chose for themselves the road they wish to travel on," says Lordos.
Situated on the island's eastern coastline, Varosha was renowned for its white sand beaches and warm, azure waters. Its buildings are just a few hundred meters away from the village of Deryneia, but they are separated by a United-Nations-controlled no man's land that stretches across the country's entire length. Unlike other areas in the north where displaced Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turks settled, Varosha remained vacant in what Greek Cypriots say was a deliberate move to strengthen the Turkish Cypriots' bargaining position in future negotiations.
But if the fence comes down, a reborn Varosha could serve as a global blueprint for urban sustainability, said Markides.
"We want ... a set of guidelines that anyone responsible for redesigning the city will have to follow to make sure that we do it the right way this time," she added. "We need to bring alternative technologies here, which are the wave of the future. Why not be ahead of the game?"
The 35-year-old filmmaker said she inherited her "obsession" with Varosha from her mother Emily, a native of the town who implanted the idea in her daughter's mind a decade ago. Markides is in the process of producing a second documentary about Varosha as a means to raise funds for the eco-project.
Wampler, who laments the culture-destroying "homogenization" of modern architecture, says he would like to see home-grown materials used in the town's reconstruction in order to ensure that its Cypriot character is retained. Yet some buildings — including those iconic hotels that in the past had some complaining of massive afternoon shadows over the beach — may have to be torn down.
"If I had an idea, it's that the beach has to be for everybody," said Wampler.
Fiona Mullen, a Cyprus-based economist and project collaborator, said a 2009 estimate put the cost of rebuilding Varosha's basic infrastructure at $2 billion. But Mullen said irrespective of the price tag, a Varosha blueprint should aim to whet the appetite of investors to the economic potential of an eco-city that would give Cyprus a competitive advantage in a shaky region replete with cheaper tourist destinations.