Paris is a prime example: The “storefront city’s” streets dazzle and delight with powerful perspectives, enlivened by countless of tightly packed shops. With its clear separation between upper floors, occupied by private residencies, and commercial space at street level, Paris turns the ground floor into a public affair, one expected to generate revenue and added value for the urban environment. This leads to the establishment of novel alliances between the private and public realm, a constant reinvention of storefront designs, and many potential future surprises – as research conducted by Erwan Bonduelle, Susanne Eliasson, and Anthony Jammes of studio GRAU reveals. Beyond their focus on architecture and urban planning, GRAU now explore the urban potential of street level interactions, throwing a spotlight on this shifting territory where the two realms can come together.

Alain Bublex. “Sector Saint-Germain-des-Prés.” From the series “Plan Voisin de Paris”. Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois
Alain Bublex. “Sector Saint-Germain-des-Prés.” From the series “Plan Voisin de Paris”. Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois

On a different note, public-private company Semaest evolved from urban development enterprise to one that revitalizes neighborhoods in decline, activates new districts, and protects the cultural identity of at-risk areas – all through the smart management of some 75.000 m2 of Parisian ground floor real estate. This campaign gained momentum nine years ago, when the city registered concern about emerging zones of commercial monocultures. And Paris’ 11th arrondissement was affected most of all: Here, textile wholesalers monopolized entire streets, squeezing out local shops that used to energize the neighborhood and serve its everyday needs. Georges Sarre, who at the time was the 11th mayor as well as president of Semaest, decided to involve his company in the restoration of a (dynamic) equilibrium. In 2004, the city launched its Vital’Quartier plan, tasking Semaest with the revival of six areas in eastern and central Paris that suffered from such monocultures or high rates of commercial vacancies. In 2008, five more development zones were identified and added to the scheme, including the famous Latin Quarter, which posed a different kind of challenge: Home to the Sorbonne and other schools and universities, this area has traditionally been a magnet for publishers and bookstores. Nowadays, when a major fashion brand can easily outbid a bookstore for attractive and expensive retail real estate, Paris wants to ensure that the written word doesn’t simply disappear from the city center.

To this end, Semaest can dip into a versatile toolbox of legal and financial measures to protect existing small businesses, including long-term leases and attractive rental conditions, or to identify new occupants for vacant shops in areas that could use a fresh boost and an injection of entrepreneurial spirit, e. g. new developments or formerly seedy regeneration zones. Akin to acupuncture, small pricks, tweaks and triggers can have considerable effects: Semaest’s initiatives are primarily designed to kick-start and catalyze the renewal process. Soon after, further shops arrive, attracted by the change of scene. Bakeries, pharmacies, eateries, repair shops, hair salons: simple, down-to-earth establishments that help to make a place livable, worth caring for, and open to innovations.

Closing the circle, this is where GRAU come in: For Semaest’s 30th anniversary, the young team presented a summary of existing strategies – and proposed some brand new solutions. As part of their research, they conducted several in-depth investigations and revived some Parisian idiosyncrasies like shopping arcades or booksellers’ fold-out stalls, tapped into the capacities of underused areas, and devised new ways to exploit and reappropriate street level space. Why not open up the “horizontal depth” of old city blocks (usually inaccessible) or involve courtyards (traditionally unused)? Why not share a vast space between a number of differently sized and themes stores instead of renting it to a single franchise? Learning from the resourcefulness of a way-too-small pizzeria that suggested its customers – identifiable by red balloons – to wait for their pizzas in a public garden across the road? Why not encourage pop-up stores in new development areas? Just to mention a few ways how ground floor spaces could make and shape the city. And others are sure to follow their example: Where the city meets the ground is where the city comes alive.

For more information on the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, click here.

Text: Anna Yudina
Header image: Today, Semaest manages 650 locations across Paris. (1) Two-in-one: A dressmaker and tearoom in the 18th arrondissement. Here, in the Chateau Rouge sector, Semaest curates new retail spaces after the rehabilitation of insalubrated buildings. Mission Vital’Quartier: (2) a butchery in the 10th; (3) a sandwich shop in the 3rd; (5) a street art bookstore in the Latin Quarter; (7-8) Greek and Italian deli shops. (6) ZAC Claude Bernard: Creating a fabric of local shops and services in a new development area in Northern Paris. (4) Viaduc des Arts: Once an elevated railway, now a unique arts and crafts domain. The 64 vaults of the old viaduct host diverse workshops. (9-10) Cour de l’Industrie: 19th-century workshop buildings have proven an ideal location for artists and musicians. In 2004, Semaest purchased the tumble-down structures that are now being renovated. This made it possible to preserve the identity of the place – and the creative community.
Credits: Semaest (1), Mathieu Delmestre – Semaest (2, 3, 5, 7, 8), Jacques Leroy – Mairie de Paris (4), 11h45 – Semaest (6), Stéphane Levy (9), Anaid de Dieuleveult (10)