If you had the chance to design Paris again from scratch, where would you start?
That’s the challenge facing the real estate arm of Disneyland Paris, owned by The Walt Disney Company, which is tackling one of the largest greenfield and urban development projects in Europe, Val d’Europe, creating a new ‘city’ east of Paris.
While most know that theme park Disneyland Paris, which opened just over 30 years ago, brought The Walt Disney Company to the Paris Region, creating jobs and forging Europe’s number one tourist attraction, it is less well known that the French government signed over a staggering 2,200 hectares of land to the US media giant and its European subsidiary for an even more ambitious development.
An agreement was inked in 1987 between the French government, the Paris Region, the Seine-et-Marne Department, the RATP Paris Transport Authority and The Walt Disney Company to counterbalance the economically strong west-of-Paris metropolitan region with a whole new urban centre, clustered around Disneyland Paris. Real Estate Development by Euro Disney was created to take charge of the tourism and urban development plan.
What is particularly striking is the sheer scale of the plot. Val d’Europe has so much land to play with that it is arguably set to become Paris’ (smaller) twin. The development land is equivalent to around a quarter of downtown Paris, and that means space for thousands of residences, hotel keys, shops and restaurants, offices, educational facilities, student and senior homes, and industrial facilities.
Of mice and men
On a recent visit to the project, this writer saw just a little of what is taking shape, spending two days exploring the territory. Disneyland Paris, anchored by the Marne-la-Vallée Chessy train station, is a nine-minute TGV ride from Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport.
Once at the station, regular shuttle buses ferry visitors to the Disney complex of hotels, at the heart of which rises the newest flagship hotel serving the theme park, called Disney Hotel New York – The Art of Marvel. Filled with portraits of Avengers new and old – from whole murals opposite the lifts on each floor, to unique modern art interpretations of heroes in the atrium and corridors ranging from Ant Man to Captain Marvel – this modern four star hotel includes two restaurants and two bars, a pool and gym. From here, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the gates of Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park.
Disneyland Paris attracts millions of visitors each year and the Val d’Europe site is currently home to more than 15 hotels offering some 12,000 keys, representing the second largest hotel capacity in France after Paris itself, and with further hospitality schemes in the works.
There are plans to expand the rooms to as many as 25,000, supported also by its year-round MICE business, which still successfully attracts conferences due to the perks of staying next to Disneyland Paris and the area’s multiple amenities, less than an hour from Paris. In the east of the Val d’Europe zone, a golf course attracts thousands of visitors every year. There is also an expansion of Walt Disney Studios Park underway.
But the real estate rising around the Disney destination goes beyond leisure, aiming to create a new, permanent community for local and international companies and citizens, and driving France’s economic growth in the process. All this, while maintaining a pledge to keep at least 30% of the site as green land.
Today, the residential and commercial district around Disneyland Paris already hosts 7,200 companies and provides 44,000 jobs for around 52,000 inhabitants. After Disneyland Park was developed, a major shopping centre arrived next – the Val d’Europe shopping mall – flanked by the La Vallée Village outlet which attract tens of millions of visitors each year, including dedicated tourists.
Although the mall was conceived in a different time, it remains a successful shopping centre today, serving Parisians who come with their cars as well as local workers and the millions of tourists that pass through. The district’s first high street – which runs down from the shopping centre and is surrounded by restaurants, coffee shops and residential schemes – is a genteel replica of Paris when glimpsed from the tower of the Plaza.
Developed in the early 90s, its faithful lead roofs, period details and cream facades offer shades of Hausmann, while the predominantly faux art deco lineaments of the hotels and apartment blocks channel Paris, the French Riviera and Miami. It is clean and spotlessly maintained – like the theme park, where broken light bulbs are switched out within the hour – but this is a real district supporting a burgeoning economy.
At the perimeter of the established district, against a blur of green fields, the next phase of development is in the works. Tens of new apartment units and restaurants were unveiled this summer, whilst new student and senior residences are in the pipeline, alongside a street of passive house-labelled single-family units being developed by France’s Nexity.
‘To date the residential component is 45% single family homes, but the next phase is about adding density with more apartment buildings,’ says Christophe Giral, real estate director of Disneyland Paris. Top level BREEAM certification and other key labels are sought as standard for anything new in the ground.
There is a smart office and light industrial district dubbed the International Business Park anchored by international companies including Multivac, a Germany-headquartered leader in food packaging.
The firm’s managing director Martin Taube says that Multivac – which previously had a French office in the Greater Paris region – chose Val d’Europe for its new French headquarters due to the area’s transport links, local workforce and ‘commercial synergies’. The International Business Park further benefits from co-working facilities and sporting structures, all of which help retain a young workforce.
Val d’Europe today is actively wooing international companies to transfer their headquarters here – or develop even more imaginative projects. A recent win is its deal with financial services firm Deloitte, which is currently completing its brand-new in-house training campus, the Deloitte University EMEA, on a bucolic site here surrounded by trees and lakes.
This state-of-the-art building, developed by Nexity, will host employees from all over the world for education, conferences and away days, transferring from a previous facility established in Brussels, Belgium. Among seven Deloitte University facilities around the globe, the campus reflects a village design with sustainability and biodiversity in focus.
There are a few logistics units too in Val d’Europe – Goodman was one of the first developers to raise a shed here, joined later by the likes of DB Schenker and Auchan – but the current masterplan will limit their further spread. Despite this, the area’s data centre remains one of its more successful developments.
An early proponent of district heating, Giral says that the scheme was ‘ahead of its time’ in diverting waste heat to warm the surrounding buildings. Today it heats the Val d’Europe Aquatic Centre and some of the business premises located in the International Business Park. It’s not the only aspect of Val d’Europe which is striking for its pioneering approach to sustainability.
Green for good
Another key leisure site at Val d’Europe, Villages Nature Paris by Center Parcs, operated by Pierre & Vacances, draws visitors who long to engage with nature. With an urban farm and villas dotted around its lake with individual waterfronts, it truly lives up to its name. But the site also sits on top of Val d’Europe’s biggest secret from a sustainability perspective – a massive underground lake of thermal water.
Thierry Decorps, general manager of Center Parcs and director of Villages Nature, explains: ‘Many years ago, crude oil wildcatters drilled experimental wells here after oil was discovered in the Paris region. They found the thermal lake instead. At the time it wasn’t of great interest, but around 15 years ago, geologists and engineers came back to this site to see what could be done.’
The resulting water park and hospitality units benefit from a massive operation to pump hot water up from a depth of 2 kilometres – exploiting the prehistoric ocean pocket, dubbed Dogger, lying deep in the ground and heated by the earth’s upper mantle. But it doesn’t just provide a temperate swimming pool for holidaymakers.
The geothermic plant provides 45% of the heat used by Disneyland Paris, via water pumped up through heating units in the park at a temperature of 79 degrees. In a closed loop, the water then reaches the Center Parc residences and the Acqualagon indoor water park, which it maintains at a year-round temperature of around 30 degrees.
The cooled water, still contained, then passes back underground at a 2.15 km distance from the bore hole that brings up the hot water. That enables the water to return to the underground reservoir, be reheated and reused in an endless cycle. The engineers just have to make sure that the right amount of hot water is pumped up so that the temperature of the main reservoir isn’t negatively impacted.
Explains Damien Audric, head of environmental sustainability and land development at Disneyland Paris: ‘Geothermal energy is reliable. The temperature is the same year-round, it doesn’t need the sun to shine or the wind to blow.
The water remains in a closed loop and then returns to the earth, where it is heated once again.’
Villages Nature started out as a joint venture between Center Parcs and Disney, opening in 2017 from extensive and innovative designs led by Disney imagineer Joe Rohde.
Although Disney sold its stake in the venture at the start of this year, under the agreement, it will continue to benefit from the geothermal heating plant, while being able to recycle capital back into the further expansion of Val d’Europe. In the meantime, Pierre & Vacances, and its ultimate owner Blackstone, will push ahead with the development of another 193 resort rooms here by 2025.
On top of the data centre’s district heating and the Villages Nature geothermal plant, Disneyland Paris is focused on other pioneering sustainability projects. Six biogas production centres supply Val d’Europe with green energy.
Disneyland Paris is also the only theme park in the world to benefit from its own water treatment plant, a hugely ambitious facility recycling water from the theme park and Disneyland Hotel to maintain the golf course and the site’s extensive green areas. While it is not licensed to generate potable water, the recycling plant means another green tick on its sustainability report – and a saving of 2 million cubic metres of water since 2013. On top of that, Val d’Europe has acquired a source of water 100 km north of the area which will ensure its potable water supplies in the future.
A further sustainable scheme is Europe’s largest solar canopy plant, which is being erected over 20 hectares of its main guest parking lot. Leased to a third-party operator, which sells the energy back to the grid, this will provide approximately 17% of the resort’s energy consumption when it is completed by the end of this year. It will generate some 36 GWh per year of renewable energy – enough to power a city with 17,400 inhabitants for a full year.
The project will also help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by approximately 890 tonnes of CO2/year within Val d’Europe. As well as reflecting well on the annual sustainability reports of The Walt Disney Company, the plan is in line with the objectives of the Climate Air Energy Plan which sets the French national standards pertaining to climate, air and energy.
‘Current and future buildings meet stringent energy efficiency standards that are higher than required under basic regulations,’ underlines Giral, indicating the area’s further ambitions to replicate a ’15-minute city approach allowing residents to reach their offices, shops, services and leisure facilities within just minutes by foot or bicycle’.
Image (c) Disney