News: More Unwanted Paris High Rise Towers Ahead?

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News: More Unwanted Paris High Rise Towers Ahead?
  One recent Friday, I stood in the autumn sunshine outside the Métro station near the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. Just across the street was the 5th arrondissement, home to the Panthéon and other great monuments known to the whole world. But I was in a district tourists rarely visit, the formerly industrial Paris 13th. About a half dozen members of the architectural preservationist organization SOS Paris and I met with experts from the Council for European Urbanism (CEU), an international group. SOS Paris fights to protect the architectural monuments of Paris and is campaigning to save the low skyline. Our two groups were going to visit sites where the City of Paris plans to build towers, plans that SOS Paris opposes. Members of the CEU board were in Paris to conduct research for a white paper about those towers. They are experts, and their report can be influential, but they said they had no preconceptions. That day we visited the showroom of Semapa, a public-private developer already refurbishing factories and warehouses, and planning towers, in “Paris Rive Gauche,” a development area in the Paris 13th. Towers in Paris? Paris has had height limits for hundreds of years, and polls show a majority of residents oppose towers. La Tour Montparnasse, completed in 1973 during a period of relaxed limits, is 50 stories (210 meters) tall. Because Paris is so low, and the Tour Montparnasse is so tall that it blots the skyline, it is universally hated, so in 1977 lower height limits were again imposed: roughly 10 stories (31 meters) for lodgings in the center, and 12 stories (37 meters) on the periphery of Paris. Arguing that Paris needs towers to house more young families, however, in July 2008 the Paris City Council raised the limit for housing on the periphery to about 16 stories (50 meters), and it authorized six skyscraper projects at the gates of Paris, up to 50 stories tall. We stopped first at the Gare d’Austerlitz, one of the six nineteenth-century railroad stations of Paris, and now a tribute to the effectiveness of SOS Paris and other associations. Our young guide was Yann Renaud, who works in the Associations Consultation Office, which Semapa established, as required by law. The station will become a transportation hub for high-speed and suburban trains and the Métro. In the original 1991 plan, Yann said, the main station survived, but not the historic auxiliary buildings. Now, however, owing to the efforts of SOS Paris and others, only one small building will be destroyed. Photos left to right: Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Tour Montparnasse. Photos: Wikimedia We walked eastward along the almost silent sidewalks of the Avenue de France, lined with new suburban-style office buildings. At the showroom of Semapa, a model showing all of Paris stretched across a room-sized table. At one end, we could see the streets of old, low, central Paris, with the Panthéon, the spire of Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower. Traditional Paris is tightly packed with boxy blocks of six- and eight-story apartment buildings with central courtyards built up against each other, and cut by wide avenues with vistas of great monuments. This is how Baron Georges Haussmann and the Emperor Napoléon III rebuilt the medieval city in the nineteenth century. The extraordinary density of Paris, greater than that of Mumbai, supports the Métro system and produces bustling street life, with cafés and shops. Circling the tiny city was the multi-lane beltway called the Périphérique, completed in 1973. The Périphérique is one of the few accommodations to the automobile that historically transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly Paris has made. From the Middle Ages into the twentieth century a succession of walls ringed Paris. First the city would expand beyond a wall, and then the wall would be torn down, the city limits moved out, and a new wall constructed. This sequence stops at the highway. Directly before us was the 13th arrondissement. Next to the Seine was the most conspicuous new building in the 13th, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, dating from 1996. Along with the Opéra Bastille, the Centre Pompidou, and I.M. Pei’s pyramid in the Louvre, it is one of the grands projets of President François Mitterrand. An enormous low box, it presents intimidating stairways to visitors, not shops or cafés. Its four right-angled glass-walled towers for stacks cleverly resemble open books, but sunlight ruins books, so wooden louvers had to be added. Photo of the Semapa model by ©Jan Wyers On the model, the tall plastic skyscrapers we had come to see nestled close to the Périphérique. Yann said that the skyscrapers would be up to 43 stories (180 meters) high. Two will be office buildings, and the top floors of a third probably a hotel. The lower apartment buildings in the project will be up to 15 stories (50 meters) high, taller than traditional Parisian buildings, and not tightly built along the street with interior courtyards, as in traditional Paris. The skyscrapers do promise marvelous views. But someone asked, “How can office buildings or a hotel house more young families?” The next afternoon, our guide to a second site, at the Batignolles in the 17th arrondissement, was Corinne LaBalme, an enthusiastic longtime resident. Corinne, a writer specializing in architecture and food, and editor of La Belle France, said that the 17th is rapidly commercializing. Banks are replacing small shops, and apartment prices have…
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