Restoring an avenue in Paris meant for kings

As Paris prepares to host the 2024 Olympics, millions of dollars are flowing into construction projects on the famous Champs-Élysées, as it tries to redefine its place


THE pavements are cracked along "la plus belle avenue du monde" - the most beautiful street in the world. Each day, 60,000 cars clog the lanes. Walkways are cluttered with abandoned scooters.

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées was built for royalty and named after paradise. But its last major renovation was more than 20 years ago.

New retail tenants have been intermittent. Parisians avoid the area with the resolution of New Yorkers steering clear of Times Square.

As Paris prepares to host the 2024 Olympics, hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into construction projects on the avenue, one of the most visited areas of the city, as it tries to re-establish and redefine its place.

Apple and WeWork moved in recently, and will be followed by the Galeries Lafayette department store.

Planned improvements will beautify and expand space for cyclists. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent refurbishing historic monuments, including the 119-year-old Grand Palais exhibition centre.

"We want to prevent the image of the Champs-Élysées from falling," said Jean-Noël Reinhardt, the president of the Comité Champs-Élysées, a community group.

The project is a complicated undertaking. Commercial rents along the promenade are among the highest in the world, at US$1,519 per square foot per year, compared with US$2,250 on Fifth Avenue, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

Construction in the beaux-arts buildings that line the street is heavily regulated, and any changes made to accommodate tourists and global chains risks further alienating locals.

Without the renovation, Champs-Élysées risks losing its prestige as a world-class destination, said Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor of Paris for urban planning and economic development.

The Champs-Élysées ranks among grand boulevards such as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Oxford Street in London.

Other streets, such as Des Voeux Road in Hong Kong and Khao San Road in Bangkok, are trying to position themselves as major attractions.

The avenue, stretching nearly 1.2 miles from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, has inspired streets in the Bronx, New Orleans, Prague and, recently, Tokyo.

In 2007, the city government, wanting to resist the "banalisation" of the strip, tried to block H&M from opening an outlet on the avenue. The fast-fashion chain arrived anyway, along with two Zara stores and an Abercrombie & Fitch housed in a sumptuous mansion behind a gilded gate.

"Having always the same brands, it's not good for the place, because people don't know where they are," Mr Missika said. "They could be in London or Tokyo."

Ideally, he said, the Champs- Élysées would host a balanced mix of fast-food outlets, sit-down restaurants, global retailers and local designers.

But the city has few legal tools to shape the commercial composition of the street.

"There must be a good equilibrium of commercial activity," he said. "When a place is totally deserted by local people, it's a big problem; the soul of the city disappears."

The Champs-Élysées is being repopulated by tenants that hope to draw both Parisians and tourists.

A 70,000 square foot extension of the Galeries Lafayette chain will open between Rue La Boétie and Rue du Colisée at the end of March, becoming the largest retail site on the street.

The nearly 90-year-old property, a former bank, is owned by the Qatar Investment Authority. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels uncovered a hidden cupola and crafted a vortex-like entrance into the four-story store.

A food court with communal tables will welcome shoppers and the 180,000 people who work around the Champs-Élysées.

Galeries Lafayette follows Apple, which opened a store last November at the corner of Rue Washington in a 19th-century apartment building that was once home to Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Other companies are finding their way onto the street. Last December, Norges Bank Real Estate Management of Norway bought nearly 110,900 sq ft of retail and office space at 79 Champs-Élysées.

Thomas Jefferson - the third president of the United States - once lived at 92 Champs-Élysées, where WeWork opened its 48,000-square-foot outpost in June.

Pierre Hermé, known as the "Picasso of pastries", teamed up with the beauty brand L'Occitane en Provence to open a 10,000 sq ft lifestyle store at 86 Champs-Élysées in early-2018. New boutiques from Dior and Nike are in the works.

Conventional retail, with its large signage and rushed customers, "will eventually just disappear" from the Champs-Élysées, said Stefan Behling, the lead architect on the Apple project.

Instead, concept stores and experiential spaces will take over. "The subtlety is the right thing," he added. NYTIMES

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