A dull mayoral race in Paris has been brought to life by a spectacular proposal to transform the richest avenue in the French capital into a park, shopping mall and council estate.
The front-running Socialist candidate for mayor of Paris and present deputy mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has supported plans to redevelop the enormous but inert Avenue Foch into a green arm stretching from the Bois de Boulogne into the heart of the capital.
If she wins the election in March, the billionaire residents of the avenue – including Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern royalty and the families of African dictators – may find themselves living alongside much poorer neighbours.
Avenue Foch, 140 metres wide, equivalent to the length of one-and-a-half football pitches, is one of the broadest thoroughfares in the world. If the plans go ahead, the western end, near the Bois de Boulogne, would become a park. The other end, near to the Arc de Triomphe, would become a pedestrian mall surrounded by 550,000 square metres of shops, offices, hotels and council flats.
Residents’ groups have attacked the idea as desecration of a beautiful avenue, which was declared a “historic monument” 60 years ago. The centre-right mayor of the 16th arrondissement has dismissed the project as “outrageous” and – with a word invented by former President Jacques Chirac – “abracadabrantesque”.
The centre-right candidate to become mayor of Paris, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, hopes to make opposition to the plans a vote-winner in the March election.
Avenue Foch is one of the 12 spokes which radiate from the Etoile, the immense roundabout which encircles the Arc de Triomphe. When it was built, in the late 19th century, it was one of the most sought-after addresses for Parisian old money (la haute bourgoisie) and new money (les nouveaux riches).
Over the years its name has changed, with the prevailing political winds, from the Avenue de L’Impératrice, to the Avenue Général-Ulrich, to the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne to the Avenue Foch, after a First World War field marshal. During the Nazi occupation of Paris from 1940-44 it became the address of choice for the Gestapo and other high-ranking Germans, earning the nickname the “Avenue Boche”.
In recent years most of the apartments and mansions on the 1.3km-long avenue have been sold to super-wealthy foreigners. A typical resident – or currently non-resident – is Teodorin Obiang, 43, the son and probable successor of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.
It was at his seven-storey, €80m (£66m) mansion at 42 Avenue Foch that French police conducted a two-week raid in 2012. This was part of an investigation into his allegedly ill-gotten wealth, ranging from nine luxury cars to antique furniture and vintage wines.
The man who dreamed up the plan to transform the avenue, a developer called Marc Rozenblat, argues that it has become an intolerable waste of space in one of the densest cities in the world. He describes the Avenue Foch as a “lifeless urban motorway”.
Cars should, he says, be banished to a couple of lanes. The rest would be redeveloped, tastefully, as the “biggest urban promenade in France”, linking the Bois de Boulogne to the Champs Elysées.
This would bring new life to an area which has become notoriously dead, he says. At night many of the mansions and apartments are dark. The gardens on either side of the eight-lane road are seldom used. Existing buildings would remain, he says. The western end would become a much-needed green space. The eastern end would be redeveloped, at a profit to the city which owns the land, of up to €4bn.