‘Indecent’ and ‘Absurd’: Project for Gare du Nord Divides Paris

PARIS — A group of leading French architects have denounced a plan to renovate the Gare du Nord, one of Paris’s main train stations, calling the designs that would turn the station into a glassy, mammoth, restaurant-filled shopping mall “indecent,” “absurd” and “unacceptable.”

The plan for the Gare du Nord, the terminus for the Eurostar train from London and the largest station in Europe, would cost 600 million euros, about $660 million, and force commuters and travelers to go through a platform lined with shops before getting to the train platforms, in much the way that airports route passengers through duty-free shops.

“This means: more distance to travel, significantly increased access times,” the experts wrote in an open letter published in Le Monde on Tuesday. They called the plan to triple the station’s surface area and saturate it with shops, restaurants and cafes in an area already buzzing with them a “serious offense” to users of transport.

Among the 19 signatories of the letter were the award-winning architect Jean Nouvel, as well as other renowned architects, historians and urban planners from Britain, France and the United States.

For the Gare du Nord, a construction permit was initially denied in June by a city commission, but the company in charge of the construction — a holding company owned by S.N.C.F., the French train operator, and Ceetrus, a branch of the retail chain Auchan — appealed the ruling, and a final verdict is expected in the fall.

The station already handles 700,000 passengers a day, and daily traffic is expected to increase to 900,000, by 2030. A major hub for suburban trains serving eastern and northern Paris, the station also links the city to Amsterdam, Brussels and many cities and towns in northern France.

But if the station is well-used, it is not well-liked. For years, it has been criticized by locals and travelers as dark, dysfunctional and even chaotic during rush hours. A prominent British business leader once called it “the squalor pit of Europe.”

This spring, thousands of Eurostar passengers lined up on its platforms as they suffered hourlong delays, and for years it was home to a sexual harassment scandal involving employees of a cleaning company.

Paris prides itself on its century-old monuments, among them, its soaring, historic train stations. Quarrels like the one over the renovation plan are common among experts, and open letters in the press are the common way to express discontent.

The dispute over the Gare du Nord has been long-running, dividing urban planners and architects for years over what a modern train station should be.

“It all goes to one question,” said Bernard Landau, a former deputy director of urban planning at the city of Paris. “Should we transform all train stations into shopping malls?”

In addition to competing with local business, opponents have warned that new shops would imperil shopping malls in the nearby suburbs that are already struggling to attract customers.

In recent years, dozens of shops have already been installed at the Gare du Nord on the floors that lead to trains for the suburban rail network, known as the R.E.R. The renovated station would include co-working and exhibition spaces, sports facilities like a trail track on its roof, and a parking lot for 2,000 bicycles.

The construction is scheduled to start between the end of the year and early 2020, and to be completed by 2024, when Paris hosts the Summer Olympics and Paralympics Games. The letter in Le Monde called the idea that it could finished in less than five years “ridiculous.”

The Gare du Nord is at the heart of the transit plans for the Olympics, linking Paris to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, as well as much of the infrastructure dedicated to the events — the Stade de France, a yet-to-be-built pool, and facilities for athletes and the media.

In his response to the architects, Mr. Solard, the chief executive of S.N.C.F. Gares & Connexions, said that the renovated station would be ready to serve most of the Olympic sites, but that its benefits would be felt long after the Games are over.

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