Posted by Gretchen Moore
Last month, I was very fortunate to travel to Europe to study urban innovation in a variety of cities. I was particularly excited for the opportunity to explore Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris. I wanted to discover the secrets that make this one of the most famous, most celebrated, most charming retail streets in the world. After all, in downtown Fresno, we’re in the process of revitalizing our main street and I figured if I’m ever going to learn how create a world-renowned retail district, it would be on Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris!
What I saw on Avenue des Champs-Elysees was…well, it wasn’t what I expected.
There were trees, beautiful trees. Not a lot of benches, but plenty of outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants. Cool rotating kiosks. And incredible architecture. Oh my goodness, the architecture!
There was also a Disney Store. And an Abercrombie. And H&M. And a Toyota dealership.
The world’s most famous street is a suburban shopping mall.
Over its 350-year history, the 8-lane Avenue des Champs-Elysees has continually evolved and changed. What was once the world’s most charming, high-end shopping avenue is now a tourist trap. It turns out that with notoriety came high price tags and now only the largest, most powerful national brands can inhabit the street, as evidenced by the recent opening of the world’s largest Adidas store. This is no place for local boutiques, mom-and-pop restaurants and unique ethnic goods that attract adventurous customers. This is a suburban lifestyle center anchored by Napoleon’s Arc de Triomph.
City officials in Paris have been pushing back against the new, Disney-fied version of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. But this isn’t the first fluctuation in the history of the street and it won’t be the last. As one merchant told me, in the early 1800s, Avenue des Champs-Elysees was a “no go” area, home to a whole host of illicit activities, saved by revitalization efforts in 1830. The street reclaimed it’s prominence through the 1960s, but lost balance and fell victim once again to crime and disinvestment.
After $45 million of streetscaping and pedestrian-friendly investment in the 1990s, the street again began attracting high-end stores along with many big name, American retailers. And now, with rents hovering at $1.2 million per year, and 500,000 visitors each day, the Avenue des Champs-Elysees is commercially successful but utterly lacking in charm.
So, what did I learn?
I learned that even when you win, you lose. Commercial success comes at a price.
This trip was a good reminder that every city has challenges and we must be committed to conquering every challenge every day. In urban revitalization, you never get to cross the goal line. It’s like trying to hang a picture that is never exactly straight – you adjust a little on the left, then a little on the right, then a little on the left. It’s ok that Fresno is still a work in progress because what makes a city successful is its ability to reinvent as many times as it takes to get it right. Knowing that even the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris, France is still looking for the sweet spot after all these years means that we’re in good company.