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Paris’ Biggest Retail Center to Get Major Overhaul


By Bennett Voyles

Le Forum des Halles is the biggest shopping center in central Paris. It is one of Europe’s most profitable. And it is roundly hated by many Parisians, who regard the three-decade-old, nearly 650,000-square-foot center as cramped, unsafe and spectacularly ugly.

But the center Paris loves to hate is soon to undergo a major facelift as part of an €832 million (about $1.1 billion) neighborhood redevelopment project by the city and Unibail-Rodamco, the center’s longtime operator and now, with AXA Group, its co-owner.

To go by the numbers, it is hard to see why Forum des Halles is considered a problem. Nearly 41 million visit the five-level, 200-store mall every year, which posts some €9,000 (about $12,500) per square meter overall. French entertainment and electronics giant FNAC, Swedish fashion shop H&M and French cinema chain UGC Ciné Cité all post their best results there, according to Khokha Mansouri, Jones Lang LaSalle’s director of shopping center services for French capital markets.

But Forum des Halles is also an overcrowded, stressful place beset with technical problems, bad traffic patterns and a reputation as a hangout for unsavory elements, critics say. Built largely underground and connected to the Châtelet–Les Halles interchange of the city subway system and the suburban train line, the 1970s-era mall replaced the 19th-century glass-and-steel pavilions of what had been Paris’ central food market since the 12th century. That by itself endeared it to few, but some say the mall’s popularity among nonwhite youth from the working-class suburbs may be the biggest reason for the distaste it arouses among upper-class whites in central Paris.

Proponents say they hope redevelopment will draw in not just well-heeled Parisians, but tourists as well, because the mall has been entirely off the tourist map, even though it is located right between such popular stops as the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou.

French architect David Mangin won the commission for this project in competition with such notables as Rem Koolhaas. Perhaps the most dramatic element in the Mangin plan would be replacing the conventional roof with a translucent canopy that allows light to reach the center’s lowest level.

The mall will open out onto a field, replacing the subdivided gardens and plaza that are there now and creating a large, more easily policed field in the center of Paris. The addition of new entrances to the Châtelet–Les Halles station will help relieve congestion. Some 65,000 square feet of additional space will be earmarked for upscale dining and shops.

The redevelopment has advanced at a crawling pace. The plans have been discussed since 2002, but only this year is work actually expected to begin, now that the City Council approved the €238 million sale to Unibail-Rodamco and AXA, last November.

Ory Eshel, an independent adviser to commercial real estate developers, is skeptical that the revamp will be sufficient to distract shoppers from that great 19th-century redevelopment a few subway stops away: the grand shopping avenues created by Baron Haussmann. “Unibail will do a great job, but how can 6,000 square meters [of gross leasable area] compete with the exuberant offer to be found at ground level along the spectacular avenues of Haussmannian Paris?”

Others see things differently. Jody Israelsky, a consultant with Retail Vision, a Paris-based firm involved in the project, is optimistic that the addition of upscale shops and restaurants will lure neighborhood shoppers from nearby upscale neighborhoods such as the stylish Le Marais.

But can any one center really serve both the posh Paris and its rough suburbs? Not a problem, says Israelsky. These days, consumers mix and match budget and upscale brands much more than they once did, she says. “One may buy a T-shirt from the H&M and jeans from Diesel or Seven, and shoes from Geox,” she said. “Products span all price ranges.”

Developers have their fingers crossed that the classes will mix as easily as that — and as they once did, long ago, in the historic Les Halles market where smart Parisians, students and tourists alike rubbed shoulders and enjoyed an onion soup or a late-night drink.

This story is from the April 2011 issue of Shopping Centers Today

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