An Avenue in Neuilly

January 3, 2012

It is Charles de Gaulle avenue, one of the busiest European highway [16], carrying no less than 150,000 vehicles/day, which Neuilly wants to put it into a tunnel. fair enough!… but not that simple. First, the cost- a fantastic €1 billion for a less than 1.5km tunnel. Secondly, 8 to 10 years of construction. Thirdly and probably more important, arises the question of what should look the Avenue…2 different visions: On the surface…one presents an avenue with a large median while another prefers an avenue with contre allées:

A green Mall- as envisioned by Vasconi-Natale (left) or a central avenue with shared contre allee (right)

On what could be probably considered as mere cosmetics by many, the France’s Head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy carries all his weight into a battle, engaged by franc tireur Jean Christophe Fromantin, involving the Mayor of Paris and having as soldiers no less than architects like Castro, Foster or Pei….Why that?

  • Because behind an apparently benign Boulevard configuration, what is at stake is 2 fundamentally different visions of the city.

But…first a bit of context:

The geographic context

Neuilly sur Seine, tucked on the west side of Paris, between the Champs-Élysées and la Défense, and bordering the magnificent Bois de Boulogne parisian park, is the most affluent Parisian suburb.
Its Avenue Charles de Gaulle, linking Paris to La Defénse, in the Champs Élysées alignment, is part of the Royal axis, envisioned by André Le Notre in 1640.

The Avenue Charles de Gaulle in the context of the historical axis (royal way): it is the axis's westend section between La Defénse et Porte Maillot

An avenue of superlative

Nowadays this 70 meters wide avenue carries a staggering amount of traffic, ~150,000 vehicles/day [1]. That is only the tip of the iceberg: 80% of the trips occur in fact below the surface, where run one of the world busiest subway line and one of the world most busiest train line [2].

Today, Not only the avenue, but also its origin, the Porte Maillot, marking the limit between Neuilly and Paris, are a far cry to the standard their “world class” location commends:

The Charles de Gaulle avenue is treated as a freeway. On its 70 meters wide, one can count up to 20 lanes of cars (including parking)!

Avenue Charles de Gaulle is also part of the national road network (where it is then called RN13) and is considered as a strategic axis, under direct state supervision.

The political context.

Nicolas Sarkozy was mayor of Neuilly, a right-wing stronghold, before winning the presidential election in 2007, and was then carrying the burying project of the RN13 road. At the 2008 city election, he was endorsing his protege David Martinon to be his successor for Neuilly…It should have been a formality matter, but a franc tireur, Jean Christophe Fromantin came into the way, and will be elected Mayor of Neuilly (60,000 inhabitants) at the great displeasure of the Sarkozy’s clan. To mitigate the damage, Jean Sarkozy, the President’s son will be candidate, and be elected as expected, as a district councillor for a Neuilly ward. He will be vested instantaneously as the wip of his party, which incidentally control the district council (1.5 millions of people), and will be also president of the District’s Transport commission.

The Paris Regional area, like Paris is under control of the left (PS): Jean Paul Huchon is president of the Paris regional council (which oversight 12 millions people) while better known Bertrand Delanoë is mayor of the influential Paris city (2 millions inhabitant).

All of the above political actors have an opinion on the tunnelling under the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. We shouldn’t forget the still powerful prefect of Paris, Daniel Canepa, appointed by the president, and in charge to represent the interests of the “state”.
The least opinionated is may be the The president of the region whose doesn’t want to pay for it:

  • The cost of tunneling 1.5km of road, €1 billion, can also buy 8km of Express subway tunnel, and that is more inline with the regional priority.

The 2 different options

The pastoral vision

Up to 2007, it was no much discussion on what to do with the avenue, and the credo up to then could have been tunnel=park…So the general idea was that “traffic” is bad and needs to be put into the tunnel. As much as possible tunnel accesses need to be provided to this effect: That is known as the Complete burying of the avenue. The project was very Neuilly centric, and it was no consideration of the avenue context in the “Étoile-La Défense” axis. Thought that the City of Neuilly will have commissioned 2 different architecture studies, Bressac-Huet and vasconi-Natale, their work was just to be considered as informal contribution for a 2006 debate. The ‘official’ study was focusing on the tunnel not taking into account the urban environment [24]. The renderings of the project as of 2006, reflect it:

the avenue with traffic put in tunnel...allow for a large grassed median...lot of green: that is pretty much it. no bike no bus, no sidewalk coffee, not much life

The large grassed median avenue is modeled on the Avenue de Breteuil in Paris, an avenue commending some of the highest real estate price in the city. Thought it is pretty, it is also dull and lifeless.

Avenue de Breteuil, Paris: a large grassed median, ideal for its posh residential neighborhood, but also a pretty lifeless avenue


The tunnel exits right at the door of Paris, at Porte Maillot. traffic estimated at 200,000 vehicles

The social and economic justification of this project is basically null [18], nevertheless this pastoral vision is the one supported by the Sarkozy family.

The “global” vision

“the complete burying is a reductionist approach, taking account only the neighbors comfort”…said the Neuilly’s mayor, Jean Christophe Fromantin [25], whose think that ““kill all the traffic” is destructing value[5]. In 2008, it will expose an alternative project, then called axe13 [19], based on 2 main principles:

  • Charles de Gaulle Avenue, between Paris and La Défense, deserves an ambitious project in surface
  • It is the the surface project which is defining the quality of the urbanism project and justifying, or not, a tunnel (and not necessarily the traffic level)

Fromantin will have got the discrete and benevolent involvement of some pretty famous firms and architects before exposing the idea to public: The project is based on a less ambitious tunneling reduced to regional transit traffic only [17]-that is known as the partial burying of the avenue: Gone are the tunnel portals in the middle of the avenue, but also a much more urban avenue is proposed, which found its inspiration more in La rambla of Barcelona than the Avenue de Breteuil of Paris:

  • Tranquility of the neighbors is not the main objective anymore, the main one is to create an attractive urban space.

The project features central circulation on 6 lanes, including 2 bus lanes. Traditional contre-allee are treated as space-shared and feature numerous kiosks

Below are some configuration of the 70 meters wide avenue

The different Profiles of Charles de Gaulle avenue (profile of the Grande Armée avenue connecting to Charles de Gaulle at Porte Maillot is given for reference)

But what will buy the support of Paris [23], beyond the sweet taste of supporting a project creating the ire of the Sarkozy’s clan [20][21], is the integration of the project in a relatively “global” context:

Pont de Neuilly, links Charles de Gaulle avenue with La Défense or rather its huge intestines... the huge pedestrian mall at La Défense is virtually not accessible by foot!

Pont de Neuilly

In the early stage, the highlight of the project was at the western end of the Avenue, Pont de Neuilly, a bridge over the Seine river. Renewing with a Middle age tradition, Fromantin is envisioning to transform it into a living bridge on the model of the Hadi Teherani bridge project in Hamburg. It has been no lack of leading architect contributions, among them some from Pei or Piano : none of them catch-up with the Fromantin idea…none of them have been convincing enough so far either…

At Pont de Neuilly, Fromantin envisions a living bridge as inspired by the Teherani project in Hamburg

I. M. Pei contribution for Pont de Neuilly. The streetcar is treated as amusement park attraction: No doubt that Pei is american

But in fact, with the project maturing , Porte Maillot, connecting the avenue on the eastern edge, is affirming itself as the project’s gravity center.

The emergence of Porte Maillot

Porte Maillot: A "No man's land" marking the limit between Paris and Neuilly. Charles de Gaulle Avenue starts here (right picture is taken from it)- credit photo for right (27)

Porte Maillot has long been neglicted, not to say that its potential has been ignored by architect like Le Corbusier [11]. It is technically on Paris territory, so it can looks curious to see the Neuilly’s mayor proposing the redesign of something not under its jurisdiction, but he probably didn’t do it without involving Paris city-hall.

At the difference of the pastoral vision, in the global vision, the traffic is not feeding into Paris anymore: it is directed directly to the Boulevard Périphérique, a ring road expressway surrounding Paris – so the tunnel is not designed to be a faster way to enter into Paris: people going to Paris-Porte Maillot- still have to stay on the surface. The absence of portal unleashes the urban potential of Porte Maillot:

  • In such instance, it is expected that the residual surface traffic to be an healthy 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles/day, when 85,000 to 150,000 could travel into tunnel depending on the toll options.

In the "global" vision, the tunnel exit disappears, to darn seamlessly Neuilly to Paris, thru Porte Maillot. Current rendering (illustration from Bernard Lamy) are nothing much more than that some "towers in the park" and must be understood as testing ground

Economics for a Billion tunnel

That is certainly a Gordian knot. Clearly traditional metrics can’t justify such a project.
Thought,numerous part of the project is geared toward land lift, real estate appreciation an development are eventually estimated to generate not much more than €300 millions. Toll is another source of financing:

  • without toll traffic is expected to be 150,000 vehicles into the tunnel.
  • with a €2 toll, traffic is reduced to 85,000 vehicles into the tunnel…other vehicles finding alternative ways (a priori the study doesn’t expect a report on public transit) [6]…Toll revenue is estimated at €35 millions/year, not even close enough to cover the debt service.

Some other rationals are needed to justify it:


It is not the least of the strength of the Fromantin’s approach to have replaced this project in a global world context: Paris has to compete with London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai…and like it or not, the Neuilly’s Avenue Charles de Gaulle sits on an emblematic axis defining Paris…and its image is not that good…

  • Victim of its success, a “Mummification” of the historic Paris at the eastern end…
  • and at the western end « this is La Défense, the office-city that nobody really likes but that has one undeniable virtue… »[12]:

La Defense, the historic axis in a Paris, as seen by Rem Koolhass (12)

Rem Koolhass, scheme captures pretty well what is the essence of the Paris metropolis. and one of it is that La Défense, long considered to be an eyeshore having nothing to do with Paris needs to be reappropirated as part and defining feature of the city, pretty much like “The city“-obviously full part of London- is.

When come branding, one can think of the Olympic games or World’s fairs to put a city on the world stage: A whole new dimension where €1 billion to define a city image is not necessarily considered as extravagant!

Some general observations.

The level of political intrigue is very high, the level of general public involvement pretty low and secret deals are the norm. It is not that the public is disinterested by urban affairs, it is, but it is just how the things have always worked in Paris:

Urban affairs have been for long a domain for enlightened dictatorship preferring confrontation to compromise…Rare Departures of it, like has been done at the Halles, have usually translated in disasters: As theorized by Haussmann, Paris is a city of Nomads and immigrantswhy ask for their opinions?…Paris belongs to France…[26] – and the most celebrated Parisian modern architecture piece, Pompidou centre by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, and Louvres Pyramid by I.M. Pei have suffered not a single input of the Paris public- architecture without compromise….But the intricacies of the french political system and public interest in urban affairs is such, that “enlightened dictatorship” in urban matter can’t exercise without a certain level of support [13] which request a ‘dictator’ with an urban vision showing breath and ambition.

The Design of a Boulevard is certainly a serious matter in Paris, but in the context of the Neuilly Avenue Charles de Gaulle, we can see it has triggered a more fundamental discussion:

  • The place and level of traffic in the city, but overall more importantly a question on the desired environment, a”pastoral” vision versus an assumed “urban” (Is all that green that good?).

It is also the tale of 2 methods:

  • Act fast versus act right

Thought, it has failed to place Jean Sarkozy at the head of the very rich and powerful EPAD- the organization controlling la Défense development- in 2009, the Sarkozy family controls all the key level of power enabling the pursuing of their vision in an diligent manner. But, because Fromantin was able to offer a strong and powerful counter-proposition, involving a dream team of architects, gathering an incredible among of support crossing a wide political spectrum (from the right wing to the Communist party on the left… and incidentally inflicting an humiliating defeat to another Sarkozy protege in a 2011 district election [15]), the Sarkozy clan has been stopped in its tracks. Now, looking clearly overwhelmed by the dimension of a project they were initially ridiculing [20][21], the Sarkozy’s seem to use all of their influence to drag it down…all for the wrong reasons:

A social note

There is little questioning in France, on excessive activities centralization and almost obscene wealth concentration [14], eventually forcing people to live far away of their work place and putting incredible stress on the transportation system. Indeed, to relieve an “overcrowded” transportation system feeding La Défense, they intend to build more of them, defacto reinforcing a vicious circle: an area becoming increasingly attractive…but eventually at the expense of many other parts in Paris…and tremendous cost of negative “branding” like the 2005 riot, and ways to address the root cause of it, don’t seem too much on the decision maker’s radar.

It is also curious to see that the very “provincial”, if not outright primitive, Sarkozy’s approach has been able to go without questioning for so long. That is certainly due to the fact that Neuilly sits outside the Historic Paris core and as much as careful attention is given to any thing occurring into the city historic limits, as less as there is concerns on what happens other side of the Boulevard Péripherique, which acts as a barrier between the historic core and its metropolitan region, as efficiently as the citywall it has replaced. General attention has started to be given to this project once people have understood it was defining Paris.

Unless otherwise noticed, pictures credit to [4] and [19].

[1] It makes the third busiest road of France, the 2 others one being freeway A1 and A6: Not even the Port Mann bridge in Vancouver area carry close to this amount of traffic. The Champs-Élysées itself carries ~85,000 vehicles/day.

[2] Metro line 1, and RER line A (a regional express train line). the extension of the RER line E is also scheduled.

[3] Jean Sarkozy will be also “recommended” as to be directing the “La Defense” administration which is the most important European Business district. This has created a public outrage, and plan has not been pursued.

[4] Debat public sur le projet de denivellation et de couverture de la RN13, 22 février au 30 mai 2006

[5] Le projet qui sème la zizanie, Constanty Hélène, l’Express, January 20, 2009

[6] axe majeur, third public meeting minutes, Feb 7, 2011.

[7] 4 teams have focused on different thematics. Focusing on business development (Deloitte-Foster), people (Fidal-Gautrand), social interaction (Francis Lefebvre-Castro) and cultural development (PricewaterhouseCoopers-Ferrier)

[8] Les projets d’aménagement de surface, Contribution to the 2006 public debate, Ville de Neuilly

[10] Paris, an architectural history, Anthony Sutcliffe, Yale University Press 1993

[11] This area got tested with the high rise idea in the 30’s: the section between the Arc de Triomphe and la defense was supposed to be developed as the Triumphal way, and a parisian properties developer, leonard Rosenthal, privately organised a consultation for the study of the architectural treatment of Porte Maillot (to be then called ‘Place de la Victoire’), which saw lot of emphasis on High rises. The government itself will have organised late 1931 another consultation which has resulted in more conservative submissions but will have not followed suite on it. The French urbanists society will recommend la Defense, rather Porte Maillot, to experiment new architecture urban form [10]…and here we are!

[12] S,M,L,XL, Rem Koolhaas, New York, Monacelli Press, 1995.

[13] Even Haussmann, failing to understand that the support of the Emperor was not sufficient, will fall on growing opposition of Paris

[14] A rare dissident opinion: À propos d’un investissement urbain à Neuilly…, François Meunier, October 14, 2009, telos. Another one is offered in [18]

[15] Jean Christophe Fromanin, gaining 70% of the vote has defeated Marie-Cécile Ménard in a 2011 district election. the later was occupying the district seat of Nicolas Sarkozy for his district seat.

[16] Les Hauts-de-Seine jugent “inacceptable” le plan d’aménagement de M. Huchon, Béatrice Jérôme, le Monde, June 28, 2007.

[17] Originally, Fromantin was advocating for 2×2 lanes tunnel with no intermediate access, and a 2×3 surface lanes boulevard, when the Sarkozy family was advocating for a 2×3 lanes tunnel with intermediate access complimented by 2×2 surfaces side lanes… To date the State administration says that the traffic prediction support a 2×3 lanes tunnel, but agree against the intermediate access.

[18] Quel bilan socio-économique pour le tunnel sous Neuilly ?, Frédéric Heran and DARBERA Richard Darbeda, Transports, no438, 2006.

[19] The initiative will be renamed “axe majeur” in the years 2008.

[20] Enfouissement de la N 13 : Sarkozy s’impatiente, Le Parisien, July 6, 2009.

[21] Jean Sarkozy: “Les études de Mr Fromantin masquent un manque d’initiative”, Kévin Deniau, L’express, July 7, 2009

[22] Neuilly taille la route vers le Grand Paris, V. Sibylle, Liberation, April 24, 2009

[23] Enfouissement de la RN13 à Neuilly: la mairie de Paris approuve le projet, AFP news via Le Point, Dec 16, 2010.

[24] Vasconi-natale will have brought some suggestion for Pont de neuilly and Porte Maillot, marking the ends of the Avenue. that was going beyond the study scope, but was already opening the idea of a treatment of the aveneu in a “Global” context

[25] Le maire de Neuilly tente une percée, Bertrand Greco, le Journal du Dimanche, June 1 , 2009

[26] Transforming Paris: the life and labors of Baron Haussmann, David P. Jordan, Free Press, 1995.

[27] blog of Brigitte Kuster, Paris XVII Arrondissement’s mayor


3 Responses to “An Avenue in Neuilly”

  1. rico Says:

    One of your best posts yet for me. Very interesting to learn what is going on in Paris. You won’t find many urbanists disagreeing with your analysis.

  2. Voony Says:

    Thanks for the good words.
    I tried to shed some light more on the process and philosophy at play than the end result. Indeed I find it pretty interesting to compare with how things are done in Vancouver, and I wrote this blog entry with that in mind.
    I am also preparing a blog entry on les Halles of Paris, which has been and still is a urban conundrum in Paris but a very interesting piece of infrastructure including a huge subway station to study. At this time I am mostly in the process of collecting information (it is such a conundrum, that lot of contradictory informations are on the net, and even the french wikipedia page is not very reliable!).

  3. clio Says:

    Thanks for the insightful article encompassing a fine collection of urban concepts and a comparison between them. It is always interesting to compare the urban fabric of different places and of different times; your article has benefitted me a lot in seeing the big visions as well as the intricacies, and some deficiencies of different urban approaches.

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