A new leisure megapark to be built near Paris could help improve a suburb's image. But environmentalists are up in arms about the sprawling complex. Lisa Louis reports from Paris.
In terms of figures, it's already impressive: The Chinese investment company Dalian Wanda and French international retail group Auchan will invest €3.1 billion ($3.8 billion) in the EuropaCity development, to be built on some 80 hectares (800,000 square meters) of land a few kilometers northeast of Paris.
Eight architecture firms have now been chosen to develop and construct the compound's eight buildings, which will feature hotels, restaurants, theaters, a museum, a cinema, a children's cultural center, an urban farm, a swimming pool, a ski slope and an ice-climbing area. Environmentalists are already calling it unsustainable.
'A whole new experience for the visitor'
Once developers get their construction permit, work will get underway. Its completion was initially scheduled for 2024 but is now likely to be pushed back by a few years due to delays in constructing a new crucial metro line.
Benoit Chang, the director general of Alliages et Territoires, the project company in charge of developing EuropaCity, says the project will reinvent the local economy for the digital era. "It'll be a whole new experience for the visitor in terms of culture, leisure, sports and shopping. When it comes to retail, it will show how the shops of tomorrow will function."
"The compound will be a meeting point between large manufacturers and consumers. We will have showrooms where companies will be able to tell the story of their savoir-faire and reinvent the way they do business."
In an effort to allay environmental concerns, he added that EuropaCity was in line with the concept of sustainable development and would generate 75 percent of its consumed energy locally through renewables such as solar energy.
Locals could 'feel proud to live here'
A separate new office complex will take up 200 hectares around the project while most of the so-called triangle of Gonesse's remaining 700 hectares will stay in the hands of local farmers.
Jean-Pierre Blazy, the mayor of the adjacent town of Gonesse, is hoping EuropaCity will lift the area's image.
"No tourist would at the moment consider visiting Gonesse on their trip to Paris — but this project could change that," he says. "Locals could finally feel proud to live here."
That could represent quite a change for the deprived suburb, where unemployment lingers around 15 percent above the national average.
Alliages et Territoires is promising that it will recruit three quarters of the 10,000 people working at EuropaCity locally and says it will develop specific training programs for the future employees.
Both the developer and the mayor maintain that local people are largely in favor of EuropaCity. They cite a survey by polling institute Odoxa last year which claims eight out 10 people living in the department are in favor of the project.
A matter of principle
Environmentalist Bernard Loup disputes these figures. He's the president of the "Collective for the Triangle of Gonesse," which was set up in 2011 to stop the construction of EuropaCity.
"We managed to gather more than 1,000 signatures against the project in very little time last summer — it's very clear to us that most of the locals are opposed to EuropaCity," he asserts.
The collective includes half a dozen environmental associations and says it is increasingly gaining the support of other NGOs around the Parisian region. Together, they have been organizing events to protest against the complex and say more than 3,000 people are supporting their initiative.
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Loup finds it hard to believe that the jobs created will benefit the locals. "That wasn't the case at Charles de Gaulle airport either — the people living here just don't have the skill set to work at such developments and I will only believe these training programs can change that when I see them."
But his critique of the project goes deeper: It's a matter of principle.
"EuropaCity contradicts the very spirit of the COP21 Climate Conference that took place only a few kilometers away from Gonesse," Loup says. "This project promotes consumerism and a model of society that we should be rejecting by now — is that the world we want to live in?"
The alternative: organic farming
Loup's collective is instead promoting an organic farming project that would start on 15 hectares and then, successively, gain ground.
"It would provide food for local canteens and employ local inhabitants," he says. "Everybody here could be a part of this very sensible project for the area."
The urban farm included in the EuropaCity project feels like an insult to Loup: "It's ridiculous — they are showcasing their small farming project and yet it'll be surrounded by a huge artificial complex taking up lots of agricultural land that could be used in a much more sustainable way."
The activist says the megacomplex will exacerbate the already jammed roads leading to Gonesse. EuropaCity could attract up to 30 million visitors per year, the developers estimate.
Opponents plan to appeal
EuropaCity's Chang points out that these visitors will not have the same time pattern as commuters. And half of the traffic will be absorbed by the new metro line that will connect the center of Paris with Gonesse.
"EuropaCity will be open 24/7, and our clients will arrive later in the day and go home later at night. This project will be a life-changing experience for them," Chang says.
The project's opponents are not going to go down without a fight, however: They now plan to appeal against the project's construction permit.