‘Belly of Paris’ to get a makeover
Paris — Despite worries about the economic crisis, Paris city council on Monday approved a one-billion-dollar makeover for Les Halles, the former marketplace at the heart of the French capital.
The mammoth project to renovate the shopping complex, surrounding gardens and one of Europe’s busiest metro stations has been under discussion for seven years and finally got the go-ahead after much wrangling.
Once a bustling wholesale food market known as "the belly of Paris," Les Halles re-emerged in the 1980s as a multi-level shopping complex that never really endeared itself to Parisians.
Many avoid the area which has over the years developed a seedy side.
Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has staunchly defended the makeover as a priority for the rebirth of the neighbourhood, saying: "Les Halles are one of the main doors into Paris."
The Greens, who run Paris in a coalition with the Socialists, abstained from the vote, arguing that the money would be better spent on public housing to help Parisians hit by the downturn.
To save the project, Delanoe was forced to offer concessions to right-wing UMP council members over plans to redesign two green spaces, which in the end will remain as is.
Set to be completed in 2016, the project calls for a vast glass canopy measuring 14,000 square metres (150,000 square feet) covering the shopping complex, nearby green spaces as well as a library, a concert hall and cafes.
The design by lead architect David Mangin makes room for "a centre for hip-hop culture" to build on Les Halles’ reputation as a meeting place for young crowds from the suburbs.
Deep below, the Les Halles-Chatelet metro and suburban train station — used by 800,000 people a day — will be modernised, with more entrances and a refurbished waiting area.
But residents banded together to oppose the redesign of a children’s playground and changes to the Place Rene-Cassin, a green space at the foot of the gothic Saint Eustache church.
The two small parks will be preserved as is.
"The time has come to act," Delanoe told council members ahead of the vote. "Now more than ever, during this time of (economic) crisis, we must move ahead with this project."
After years of championing Les Halles’ renewal, Delanoe argued that the project would create jobs and that half of the costs were linked to security upgrades that were unavoidable.
Of the total estimated cost of 760 million euros (one billion dollars), 500 million euros will come from taxpayer money at a time when real estate revenues have nosedived in Paris.
The city administration hopes revenues from new commercial space opening up at the renovated Les Halles will make up for the shortfall.
The setting of one of Emile Zola’s novels, Les Halles was a 12th century marketplace that was razed when the food sellers moved to Rungis in the 1970s, leaving something of a black hole in the heart of the capital.
Then-mayor Jacques Chirac, who went on to become the French president, inaugurated the current Forum des Halles, an austere steel-and-glass structure in 1981 and it has since earned the dubious honour of being one of Paris’ least successful renovation projects.