The new old world
BY MICHAEL FOREMAN
WHEN DISNEYLAND RESORT PARIS debuted in 1992, its U.S. brand of cartoon fun clashed with French sensibilities. Villagers protested, railway workers went on strike and terrorists bombed the park's electrical system. Poor attendance led to losses that plagued the company for years as critics dubbed the park “Euro Dismal” and a “cultural Chernobyl.”
Even so, Euro Disney Associés SCA forged ahead with an ambitious public-private partnership aimed at developing Val d'Europe, a planned community to support the resort. It wasn't going to be an easy sell, however. Government officials were looking for a pragmatic way to curb suburban sprawl from nearby Paris and steer growth in the rural region, not another shiny theme-park ride.
To win over the skeptics, the project team meticulously designed a mixed-use community firmly rooted in the local culture. With a focus on traditional architecture, accessibility and sustainability, Val d'Europe beat the odds. It now boasts a booming business community and more than 23,000 residents—not to mention hordes of happy tourists from around the world.
From the start, Euro Disney worked closely with state authority EPAFrance and the locally elected Val d'Europe New Town Association (SAN).
New York, New York, USA-based Cooper, Robertson & Partners was brought in to handle architecture and design. And the company's senior urban designer and partner Michel Dionne was tasked with weaving together a coherent plan.
“We had regular meetings with the project stakeholders,” says Mr. Dionne. “We clearly identified the goal of the town…to make sure that the principles and vision of the place were implemented.”
Designers and developers began sketching diagrams of Val d'Europe as early as 1994, although the final phase of the build-out won't launch until next year, with a completion date of 2018. So far, roughly €6.6 billion in private investment has been put into the project.
THE CENTER OF THE ACTION
Today Val d'Europe spans 1,943 hectares (4,801 acres) and five districts, anchored by a thriving town center. But planning the new downtown district met with logistical roadblocks from the beginning. Mr. Dionne had only a small parcel of land to work with, hemmed in by Disneyland Resort Paris and a boulevard circling the park.
“The pie-shaped plan was not the most ideal land configuration to work with,” he says. “We had to be very creative.”
The team also had to figure out a way to design around a 1.2 million square-foot (111,484 square-meter) shopping center already under construction. Using a bit of architectural subterfuge, the mall's main entrances were modified to complement the adjoining squares and plazas. “It feels more like a normal town,” Mr. Dionne says.
Two rail corridors bisect Val d'Europe: the RER, leading commuters to Paris, and the TGV, heading to points throughout Europe. A densely populated community placed near convenient transportation translates to built-in sustainability.
“Because you're located on the transit [lines], you reduce your carbon footprint,” Mr. Dionne says.
The mixed-use development also puts most necessities within walking or biking distance. “You have a good retail center, the hospital and university [are] getting built, so there will be less need for your car,” he says. “It's a more compact town.”
The design also fosters a diverse population. Rentals mix with co-ops and low-income housing (which represents 20 percent of all units) among bistros, shops and public spaces. “You don't have a notion that one is richer than the other,” says Mr. Dionne. “Architecturally, they all blend in.”
YESTERDAY AND TODAY
With Paris and that other planned community—Versailles—nearby, Val d'Europe couldn't “bring down the neighborhood.” The design includes hotels reminiscent of 19th century Paris and elegant façades influenced by the surrounding Île-de-France region. “We used materials and a language that is common to the region,” Mr. Dionne says.
But not every stakeholder agreed on a purely nostalgic approach. In the end, the stakeholders reached a compromise: Public buildings would draw on favorite modern styles, while residential and office buildings retained a classic flavor.
BUSINESS BUYS IN
Offering proximity to European commercial centers, Val d'Europe attracts corporations from across the globe. The downtown district features almost 300,000 square meters (3 million square feet) of office space, and a 180-hectare (445-acre) business park can be found on the outskirts of the town. To date, around 1,500 businesses have set up shop, with an average of five more arriving every week.
What's important to SAN and EPAFrance is that the town continues its evolution once the last backhoe pulls out.
To preserve flexibility, the team created clear connections to surrounding villages and infrastructures that will allow organic growth. “Over time, the town will become part of the regional system,” Mr. Dionne says. “All of the existing roads and features of the land have been respected and are well-connected to the other towns.”
THINK LOCALLY, WIN GLOBALLY
Val d'Europe has already garnered numerous awards worldwide, including:
* The 2008 Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence
* The Prix Rotthier Pour la Reconstruction de La Ville 2008
* The 2008 Palladio Award for the Place de Toscane
* The Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Award 2006
PM NETWORK MAY 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG