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Towering ambition

I’m not a fan of heights, but every now and then it’s important to get yourself into a glass elevator and see the views. Looming 360 feet high, La Grande Arche is La Défense’s most familiar landmark; a monolithic open-sided cube, with an 120,000-square-foot, newly renovated roof that allows you to gaze all the way down Avenue Charles de Gaulle to the Arc du Triomphe on the other side of the River Seine.

Construction of this two-square-mile cluster of high-rise towers began in 1958, with the intention of replacing farmland and dilapidated suburbs with a hub for business and banking. The first building erected was the low but expansive Center of New Industries and Technologies (now a convention center and Hilton hotel at the foot of the Arche), followed by the first of France’s office blocks – the Esso Tower and the Nobel Tower – in the sixties.

Today, La Défense is the largest purpose-built district in Europe, hovering above a network of roads on a 75-acre elevated concrete platform called “the Slab,” which allows pedestrians to walk freely across enormous plazas while cars pass beneath. For decades, the area has been home to a forest of mono-functional structures, occupied nine-to-five by workers who ebb and flow from their jobs to their outlying homes.

However, Paris has realized that it is falling behind other cities with its lifestyle-less urban planning, so city leaders have embarked on turning La Défense into a place not only for work but for living and socializing, too. Central to this is a host of ambitious projects that will set new records for scale; and in so doing rob London’s Shard of the title “tallest building in the EU.”

Design for Life

While the rest of Paris enjoys beautiful Haussmann boulevards, sidewalk dining and chic ateliers, La Défense tends to be inhuman in scale and substance, with impenetrable Brutalist blocks and never-ending esplanades. There have been attempts to brighten up the place – there is an “art walk” that takes in more than 60 al fresco sculptures, a freestanding chimney decorated in rainbow stripes and an urban garden near the Yaacov Agam fountain. But developers want to improve it further, with mixed-use projects that cater to tourists, locals and business travelers alike.

The best example of this is Hermitage Plaza, a pair of towers being designed by Foster and Partners that will stand 1,050 feet tall, making them the highest not only in Paris but in all the EU. Located on the banks of the Seine, with a jetty for people arriving by speedboat, construction on this new “arrondissement in the sky” is set to begin sometime this year with a scheduled completion date projected for early 2023.

It will include 377,000 square feet of office space, 488 high-end apartments and a 230-room five-star hotel, plus a spa and pool, designer shops, restaurants, a concert hall and art gallery.

Emin Iskenderov, chairman and chief executive of Russian developer Hermitage, calls it “a new era for La Défense.” Iskenderov notes, “From Wall Street to Canary Wharf, this model exists everywhere in the world except France.” But the $3 billion project is setting a new trend for Paris.

Dozens of other new buildings are also on the horizon. French architect Jean Nouvel has designed the Residence Campusea, a gleaming block of student apartments that will open later this year, and the faceted 722-foot Hekla tower to follow in 2021. Next year, the Belvédère will provide 190,000 square feet of office and commercial space. In 2019 will be the 460-foot tall Trinity and the 540-foot Saint Gobain. In 2020 there will be the Alto tower and, in 2022, the Sisters – one standing at 656 feet and the other at 328 feet. Connected by a glass bridge, they will house offices and a hotel.

In a continuing effort to introduce more green space, this summer will see the unveiling of Oxygen, a 16,000-square-foot semicircular park at the end of the Slab, with outdoor terraces partitioned by banks of tall grasses, living walls, sleek cafés with turf roofs and free-flowing organic architecture.

In 2019, Table Square will become a “bistronomy” destination boasting no fewer than seven new restaurants and bars.  “For decades we have been growing vertically – now we are developing horizontally,” Ledoux says.

Creative Cluster

To the northwest of La Grande Arche is a long aerial walkway that ends abruptly outside the new Citizen M La Défense hotel in the Nanterre zone. Opened in June, the 175-room property is a far cry from nearby business hotels such as the Mercure, Renaissance and Pullman. The Dutch brand has instead delivered a place to stay where all rooms are the same and prices are capped even during peak season.

The communal lounges are decorated with quirky modern art, and there’s co-working space, a concept store, a 24-hour self-service canteen and stylish meeting rooms with whiteboard walls. “We are about affordable luxury. We have designer Vitra furniture and our house pour is Ketel One vodka but we don’t charge premium prices,” says Alex Perper, Citizen M’s area manager for France.

From the outdoor deck, you can look across to the new U Arena, which opened in October with a concert by the Rolling Stones. The 40,000-seat venue will also be used for rugby matches, motocross championships and conventions.

Come 2022, next to it will be the La Tour de Jardins de l’Arche. Resembling a tower of glass Jenga blocks planted with trees, it will have offices, 700 hotel rooms, a spa, pool and rooftop restaurant.

“The neighborhood has been transformed during the past couple of years,” says Corinne de Conti, president of event services company City One 111. “It has become very dynamic and young.”

The final part of the urban renewal plan is the $32 billion expansion of the Paris Metro system, taking place over the next 15 years. The Grand Paris Express is expected to boost capacity to two million people a day by 2026, with the addition of four automatic lines, the extension of two existing ones, and 72 new stations. By 2027, there will be a direct link from La Défense to Paris Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2.

Look Out, London

Meanwhile, competition between London and Paris is heating up. As the British negotiate their withdrawal from the EU, the French capital is looking to pull in as many as 20,000 UK finance workers who will be compelled to migrate in the wake of Brexit.

“Tired of the fog? Try the frogs.” So reads the latest ad campaign from French government organization Defacto. “We launched our campaign after we heard it would be a hard Brexit,” says Thomas Ledoux, head of communications for Defacto. “We wanted people to know Paris will welcome you. We have office space available, whereas in Dublin, for example, there is none. That is a problem. Frankfurt is efficient but it doesn’t have the size of Paris, and with that comes a certain lifestyle.”

Goldman Sachs says it will move 6,000 staff to Frankfurt and Paris as part of a contingency plan ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU. HSBC has said it will move 1,000 jobs to Paris, while Reuters will relocate 9,000 to the Continent. Newly elected president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to rejuvenate the French economy and has been campaigning for financiers to choose Paris over other European hubs such as Milan, Amsterdam, Madrid or Luxembourg.

As one French Embassy spokesperson notes: “The Grand Paris project represents a radical transformation of the capital. By 2030, it could generate an additional €100 billion to €200 billion in GDP, as well as 115,000 jobs.”