When other countries are weighing urbanism rules over private interest

Author: Cyril Richert

Porte de Montreuil project – Credit in leJDD.fr: Lautreimage / Play-Time

London has rows of 4-storey Victorian houses, Paris has got 6-storey Haussmann buildings, both inherited from the 19th century. During the 20th century, the French city had a few attempt to build towers, with the – nearly unanimously disliked by Parisians – 210 m Montparnasse tower and a cluster of high rise buildings along the river in the west of Paris. In the meantime, the city of London developed high-rise in its centre, with Tower 42 acting as a landmark for the financial district amongst other taller buildings, later joined by the Gherkin.

However things started to diverge at the beginning of the 21st century. While Paris stayed mostly the same (and that is mostly due to the Montparnasse tower, as shortly after its construction was voted a law in 1977 to limit the size to 37 m [1] on all new buildings [2]), London initiated a more drastic change of its skyline when Ken Livingstone became Mayor of London in 2000.

Although Boris Johnson vowed to stop Ken Livingston’s “phallocratic towers” being “pepper-potted” across London, he quickly forgot about the promise he made during his campaign. With the help of Edward Lister (former leader of Wandsworth Council for 19 years) as Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning, he oversaw numerous skyscrapers, finding them “attractive city elements contributing positively to the London skyline”. A U-turn and betrayal as described by Simon Jenkins who wrote in 2009 in the Evening Standard: “All an architect has to do is suggest a truly ridiculous height and then “concede” a few storeys to get permission“. Unfortunately his successor, Sadiq Khan, probably focused on his aim to deliver more housing for Londoners, has not changed policy, as it was illustrated more recently in Wandsworth with the approval of Homebase site development

Cluster of skyscrapers in London vs respect of existing environment and views in Paris

Encouraged by politicians, developers are aiming at bigger and taller schemes. In Battersea, the plan to transform the Winstanley & York estate (with the demolition of 700 homes) into a cluster of skyscrapers (and 2000 new units), not overshadowed by Canary Wharf, could be Tory’s legacy for Clapham Junction. As planned, it should include several buildings of 20 to 31 storeys.

Winstanley & York proposal – artist’s view

At the same time, Paris unveiled another major plan to rehabilitate an area in the east of the city, with a mix of offices and housing. Although this project is described by a French newspaper as a spectacular scheme, it does not involve any skyscrapers: 7 buildings from 3 to 10 storeys should be erected by 2024 around a huge rectangle square with green space and trees.

Porte de Montreuil, Paris - Project

Winner project to redevelop Montreuil area (west of Paris) in 2024. (Credit in leJDD.fr: Lautreimage / Play-Time)

And this was not promoted by some town planners and decided behind closed doors in the office of the Council’s leader, but the project won a competition called “Reinventing Cities”. The French city is used to such consultation, as a  similar competition was organised 10 years ago to redeveloped the very centre of Paris (which did not involved skyscrapers either!). The project is described with the words “environmental excellence“, “urban courtesy” and “social inclusion” and Jean-Louis Missika, deputy Mayor in charge of architecture and planning for Paris said:

“The proposal respects the views of Paris on one side and the city of Montreuil on the other; the perspectives are preserved”.

Huge commercial project to redevelop major train station criticized by Paris City Hall

London is not the only capital to have plans to redevelop its main train stations; Paris is currently discussing a major scheme for Gare du Nord (the European must important railway hub, where the Eurostar arrives but also the Thalys from Amsterdam). In a nutshell, Auchan, one of the supermarket giants, paired with the French railway company SNCF to put forward a proposal including a huge commercial centre that people will be forced to cross before accessing the platforms. It was a clever idea from SNCF: the redevelopment of the station wouldn’t cost anything to them, as it was all paid by private funds.

Alas, famous architects including Jean Nouvel and Roland Castros objected loudly against the project at the beginning of September; and now even Missika, who initially supported the project, asked for a full overhaul, saying: 

“What we are getting is not satisfactory. We must first think about the transport issue, interchange with buses and bicycles, spaces made available to travelers, and build the rest around that; they did exactly the opposite.”

Paris’ officials are now describing the scheme as  “indecent“, “absurd” and “unacceptable“. They call for a project “less complex, less dense, respectful of ancient and modern heritage, fully dedicated to the comfort of travelers“and supported by public funding.

Guillaume Pepy, SNCF CEO, expressed his disappointment and claimed that going back to the drawing board was going to delay the redevelopment for years (similar justification was given by Peabody in Clapham Junction) and that it won’t be ready for the Olympic games in 2024.

But there should not be any surprise: when you use private funds, private companies need not only to make up for the money they give, but also earn extra profit. They are not charities. The interest of the passengers/users/residents is often of little concern in the commercial transaction.

When we look at former projects from Network Rail in London, such as the twin towers for Clapham Junction and the latest concept unveiled for the station, we think that they would benefit from integrating some of the concerns raised in Paris.

[1] In fact this is a bit more complicated as it depends on how wide is the street, but mostly 25m only for the centre of Paris, and from 31 to 37m max for the other districts

[2] In 2010, the Paris City Council voted to raise the height limit to 180m, mostly to allow taller buildings in the Batignolle area (north) and Porte de Versailles and 13th area (south), with new building located close to the outskirt of the French capital.


UPDATE 18/10/2019: On the Paris Gare du Nord project, agreement has been found on Friday Oct. 18th 2019, between the City Hall of Paris and the French rail company SNCF, to explore amendments to address the concerns raised by the Town Hall (including the possibility of some public financing, instead of fully private funding), without completely redesigning the project (otherwise a new competition should be organised and the project delayed by years).

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