The Plan Local d’Urbanisme in Versailles : from bad to worse

The Versailles Municipal Council, on 24 November 2011, approved a revision of the Plan Local d’Urbanisme [Local Zoning Plan] (see previous articles in French on the subject). The city is therefore determined to implement its project consisting in replacing its current reversible zoning policy whereby property is assigned to the army, thus still government owned, with irreversible zoning where land is sold to the private sector and extensive building is involved.
The deadline for opposing the PLU is end of January. The sad fact is that few associations have until now shown any interest in taking steps to prevent it and the media has remained strangely silent (except for the Journal des Arts [1]) in the face of one what may turn out to be one of the greatest heritage scandals of the decade. Versailles City Hall, for its part, simply continues to deny the implications of the project.

The lure of the "garden city"

1. View of the château and the gardens of Versailles seen from
the Orangerie by Dumas, engraving by Coquart, 1712.
One can see that Versailles was never designed as a
“garden city”, its mineral (stone) character is striking,
with vegetation reserved,
on the West end, for only the King’s use.
A grille, (lower right), showed the passage from the city
to the royal park, (the pilasters are still standing).

The beauty of Versailles stems in great part from its location between the city and the countryside. Almost everyone visiting the Domain has experienced this sudden stepping from a mineral universe, the administrative capital of the Ancien Régime before the Revolution still turned towards Paris, into a vegetable universe, that of hunting parties and other royal pleasures. These two worlds meet head on in Versailles in an absolute manner. We should remember that Louis XIV ordered the destruction of the four villages remaining in the park (Chèvreloup, Trianon, Choisy-aux-Boeuf and Satory) [2] located, in three of the cases, in the exact place where construction is planned today. The mayor of Versailles, François de Mazières is attempting to blur this particularly clear concept by claiming that Versailles is a "ville jardin" or garden city, which is historically false (ill. 1), and by affirming that the city and nature are not in opposition. This corresponds to the concept of "urban nature" which he has developed notably at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine which he presides. Thus, erecting HQE (High Quality Environment) buildings constitutes a free licence for any infringement on the environment. There is a confusion here between an almost theoretical respect for nature (reducing CO2 emissions) and that of a concrete nature. However, it is obvious that constructing four-story buildings in the park at Versailles, generating car traffic, parking lots, night lighting and noise pollution will damage its "real" environment.
Unless the government does something to stop it, the situation in the park will soon be comparable to the same one after the Revolutionary deaccessioning. We all know the patient and costly work undertaken by Napoleon to restore the former park within the borders established for Louis XIV [3]. Today, the opposite is being done, an unfortunate but revealing symbol of the times.

Anarchic deaccessioning and random protection

The dismantlement also concerns the former annexes of the Château. We see that after the former Garde-Meuble of Louis XVI (furniture storage) in Versailles, an extension of the buildings at the hôtel Pompadour assigned to the EPV [4], now the former Surintendance des Bâtiments du roi (ill. 2), which housed most of the painting collections belonging to the Crown [5] (ill. 3), will be partially sold in January 2012 [6]. Why can’t these historical buildings be assigned to the EPV to house its personnel so as to avoid the building of Low Income Housing, proposed by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, in the listed park [7] ? The deaccessioning-urbanization of the land at Pion, the end of the royal perspective, sold by the city last 16 December, to the Etablissement public foncier des Yvelines [8] is just as irresponsible.

2. Entrance to the Surintendance des Bâtiments.
A sign says : “For sale France Domaine”
followed by a cell phone number !
This building is shown in ill. 1, on the lower right.
Photo : Julien Lacaze

3. Reconstitution of a wall at the
Surintendance showing notably,
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Anne”.
Photoediting in Versalia, n° 12.

Listing the Domain of Versailles as a Historical Monument did not correspond to a coherent strategy and was carried out at the beginning of the 20th century by government administration. The land at Pion would thus have been protected except that the Domain was reclassified on 31 October 1906, but ten months too soon...Therefore, an overall approach is now urgently needed both concerning the nature of government property in Versailles as well as its protection, as has already been done for other national Domains in France.
Legislators are now aware of the disastrous consequences of this veritable give-away, its equivalent found only during the Revolution [9]. A bill was proposed relative to the government’s monumental heritage at the Senate in October 2010 (see news item of 27/1/11). It has just been returned (on 4 November 2011) by the National Assembly for a second reading and should soon be voted on. It calls for a Haut conseil du patrimoine monumental [High Board for Monumental Heritage] to define what may be deaccessioned among the heritage listings of historical monuments belonging to the government. This bill also enables the Haut conseil to propose new listings to make up for certain gaps (for instance, Pion). Deaccessioning, however, has not been suspended while waiting for the voting to take place, which is not normal. There is a very real threat that France-Domaine, hoping to avoid the restrictions imposed by a positive vote at the National Assembly, will increase deaccessioning at the beginning of the year.

The adopted PLU is worse than the original proposal

The PLU project which we had denounced in our previous article was altered at the last moment by the city of Versailles. These changes appear when comparing the version voted by the city on 27 January 2011 and the definitive one adopted last 24 November.
The first big change is that there will be not two, but three, new stations built within the walls of the Domaine national de Versailles, in a radius of 1500 m.! Besides the Pion station, which should rise along the railway line of the Grande Ceinture and of Satory, on the subway line planned by the Grand Paris project, the city is planning to reopen the facility at Matelots as a "secondary station" along the Paris Montparnasse line, "Plaisir/Dreux" [10]. The forest on the Satory hillside, an important asset for the panorama of the château, will moreover be slashed away in two places to allow "a liaison for public transport" between the Grand Paris subway, the Mortemets and the Matelots, while the stations at Pion and Matelots will be linked by a new departmental (or secondary) route [11] and the Mortemets lane extended so as to allow traffic from the D10 (ill. 4) ! No further explanations are needed to illustrate the consequences resulting from these installations in terms of land crowding onto the national domain of Versailles. They will inevitably lead to the formation of a "Satory Matelots neighborhood [12] (ill. 5) including Satory, les Mortemets, les Matelots, not to mention Pion and the INRA. This would mean that all of the Domain located south of the Grand Canal would be built up. With time, the density of this city within the park will only continue to grow. The association Sauvegarde et animation de Versailles et environs (SAVE), despite the mayor’s denials during a municipal council meeting, has apparently not considered the fact that these new road and railway accesses will double the population of Versailles [13].

4. Map of hunting areas, plan of the “Petit Parc”,
circa 1780 (early 19thc. for Satory).
The different zones designated for building in the PLU
are outlined in red.
The red circles are the future stations.
The red arrows show the transport
lines to be built.

5. The PLU does not hesitate in dividing the Domaine national
de Versailles into city “neighborhoods”.
Pion thus falls into the “Quartier Saint-Louis Château”,
Mortemets becomes the “Quartier Satory Matelots”.


The other major modification concerns the land at Mortemets, particularly sensitive as it is adjacent to the Château gardens and the Suisses pond. Whereas the January 2011 project planned to install "activities associated with landscape purposes [...] and installations for welcoming the public [14]", the final PLU adopted on 24 November 2011 states that the Mortemets sector "has the potential [sic] capacity to welcome recreational, cultural, sports and tourist activities [15]". An "activity" linked to the landscape, disturbing enough as that is, will now be replaced by a recreational, tourist and cultural activity (the latter covering, as we all know, a particulary large field)... Far from helping to reassure us, the Regulations, the best defined part of the PLU, stipulate that it is possible to have buildings "meant to welcome the public or for tourist attractions on the site such as a newstand, restaurants, bathrooms,...[the suspension points are in the text] [16]. We may legitimately ask, without in principle doubting the mayor’s good intentions, if these measures do not constitute a permit for installing a veritable amusement park at Mortemets...This last minute modification, ignored by all, is further proof, if any more were needed, that this very vague project is practically a blank check. We should add that there are no regulations stipulating the surface area of the buildings, nor their maximum height, or their building to plot ratio (governing the total floor area permit) [17], which is particularly dangerous. The measure stating that the buildings should "respect the balance of the composition [18]" and the "historical or landscape characteristics" of the park [19] are just as vague. When examining the the PLU Zoning plan (ill. 6), we can see that narrow forested strips are planned around the perimeter. The center of this space, however, shows no plans for trees, the better to free up the land for the installations. The idea is to conceal the view of these constructions from the château, corresponding to a simple "constraint of access", when in fact the land at Mortemets itself is at stake here and is the "subject" of this protection as it is entirely listed...

6. Zoning map for Mortemets and Matelots.
At Mortemets, a forested zone
(grids and circles) surrounds the lots to be built up
(zone NPa). Zones NPa1 will be reserved
for nomadic gypsies. At Matelots, zone Ukb will offer
about 46,000m2 of
building floor area and will be partly
reserved for the army. Zone Ukd will be even
more densely built up.

7. A view of the land listed as a historical monument at Matelots.
The Grand Canal can be seen close by (on the left)
as well as the replanted lanes at Mortemets
(in the center) and Matelots (on the right).
The PLU is reserving the zone outlined in blue for the army
despite the disbanding of the 5th RG.
These low buildings, which increased in number despite
the listing, may be progressively demolished.
Photo F. Coune/5e Génie


The case of Matelots is just as worrisome. The new version of Orientations for installations states that the land "should be an overall installation" and adds that "this space will welcome activities currently located in the Mortemets sector, gardens and possibly outdoor sports activities." The statements made by the mayor to The Art Tribune are thus apparently repeated and the "sports show" now converted into sports activities...In fact, the map accompanying the text still indicates an "overall installation integrating the garden tradition, sports, different events and associated activities as well as an urban center surrounding the station and the railway line", with a further clarification of this zone [20]. The regulations for the zone stipulate that the height of the buildings can reach "12 m. at the roof gutters [21]", which corresponds to a building with four floors, that is double the height of the buildings erected by the army, usually presenting one level above the ground floor (ill. 7). The Coefficient d’Occupation des Sols (COS) [building to plot ration] for the land at Matelots is 0.10 [22]. Since the surface area is 46 hectares (or app. 113.67 acres) [23], this measure would allow the construction of about 46,000 m2 of SHON ("surface de planchers utile" or useful floor area), keeping in mind that the "real COS" will probably increase this figure [24]. Therefore, four buildings with a ground floor each over one hectare (equal to 1.47 acres) (larger than a football field) and 12 m. high could be built there ; unless one prefers to scatter 57 Hausmannien type buildings [25] with four floors each around the site...Although the Regulations for this zone prohibit "shops", they do not however prevent the installation of housing [26], hotels or offices [27]. The surrounding area to the Matelots station provides for a COS much higher than "1", especially since it has a margin allowing it to exceed by 20% [28]. Limitations on building height in this zone which is particularly visible from the park are fixed at nine meters, that is a three-floor building [29]. Housing, shops, hotels and offices can be built there. Once this first phase is completed, who is going to protest ten years from now against increasing the COS at Matelots ? It is extremely surprising to note that this land which is supposed to welcome such a project is listed under the protection of historical monuments (but how much longer ?), in the same way as the site of the future station...

8. Zoning map for the Satory plateau.
The build-up of zone AU, formerly the “Maneuvers field”,
is subject to its decontamination.
Peripheral zone UI can be built up without having to be decontaminated,
and the buildings can rise up to a height of 9 meters.

In Satory (ill. 8), unlisted land, the maneuvers field will not be built up until the ground has been decontaminated [30], a fact which has not kept the city from immediately wishing to parcel the edge of the plateau, which faces the château, that is the most sensitive in terms of heritage. Buildings nine meters high can be constructed there [31]. The particularly sensitive question here, of night lighting generated by the planned installations is not regulated in any way. It would be possible to preserve the entire western part of the Satory plateau, notably as concerns the heritage missions of the OIN Paris-Saclay, on condition that this marginal urbanization be abandoned and at the same time saving the costly expenses of decontamination.

The scandal of the Pion barracks

In Pion, where the land lies at the end of the perspectives designed from the château, the discrepancy between the city’s official statements and the reality of the texts involved is nothing short of stupefying. These plots, slightly built up by the army, are to become the archetype of the "garden city", in a model "eco-neighborhood" [32], with the "goal of integrating the ’liveliness of the city’ with a concern for balance and the interpenetration of a verdant weaving in an urban site" [33] (Orientations d’aménagement du PLU or Orientations for installations of the PLU).

Unless the government reacts, the PLU measures reported here will become reality, since Pion does not fall under the protection of historical monuments along with the park and was recently sold by France Domaine last 16 December. The PLU Regulations stipulate first of all that "20% of the surface of the land should be transformed into full ground green spaces [34]", which means that the buildings, parking lots, roads, etc., will occupy 80% of the area, currently empty for the most part ! The rest of the "revegetation" will be "designed on a paved surface [35]. This is what the city understands by "garden city" !

9. Zoning map for the Pion sector.
The upper part of the land (in green)
is not built up today and
is part of the Etoile Royale. It will welcome buildings with a height
between 9 and 12 meters.

The proximity to the airfield at Saint Cyr made it necessary to urbanize this land, creating a "zone exposed to noise". The PLU consequently specifies the perimeters of a maximum exposure zone, lined up with the runways (zone URc) with two zones on either side with reduced exposure (zones URa and URc) (ill. 9). The presence on the ground of the "constructions" will be of 50% in the lower half of the land (ones UR and URa). The subsoil, terraces, or any kind of artificial grounds would be in addition [36]..In these two zones, the height of the buildings is limited to 12 m., that is three floors above the ground level, whereas the army had promised, in 1906, to erect only buildings "with a simple ground floor"... We point out that the zone URa today is not built in the upper half. In zone URc, at the heart of the zone exposed to noise, also not built up, the plan provides for 10% occupation of the ground [37] to welcome buildings nine meters high [38] intended for "an open air activity, public service or one of collective interest, as long as the vegetation remains predominant in the sector [39]", which would allow for example, the installation of "landscaped" parking lots. The URb zone, barely built up and contained between the lanes of Fontenay and Saint Cyr, can have buildings nine meters high [40], that is two levels above the ground floor, with ground occupation limited to only 30% of the zone [41], not to mention the parcels artificially treated... As one can easily see, the concept of "garden city" loses all sense and serves only to legitimize the deaccessioning-urbanization of the lands acquired by Louis XIV and part of the Etoile Royale (or Royal Star).

The French Ministry of Culture is accountable

The urbanization of the land at Pion is today the most pressing problem. The PLU plans to build it up to the maximum capacity by exploiting a confusing loophole in the protection of the Domain of Versailles. The government should remedy this situation before it is too late by acting on the EPFY, a public establishment of the state "holding" this land with the intention of parcelling it out [42]. In fact, this public establishment (whose deliberations can be executed after approval by the Prefect), is also empowered to "save or enhance constructed or non-constructed heritage and natural spaces [43]" ! Therefore, something can still be done if there is the political determination to act in time.
At this historic moment for the Domain of Versailles, how are we to interpret the words of Frédéric Mitterand when he said he showed "considerable vigilance for anything listed (inscrit) [sic]" at Versailles [44] ? Does this mean giving free rein to the municipal projects or is it the promise of a renaissance for the Park ?

Version française

Didier Rykner et Julien Lacaze, lundi 16 janvier 2012


[1] Sophie Flouquet, "Les chantiers de Versailes", Le Journal des Arts, no. 359, 16 December 2011-5 January 2012, p. 6.

[2] Vincent Maroteaux, Versailles le roi et son domaine, Paris, Picard, 2000, p. 104.

[3] See Vincent Maroteaux, Versailles le roi et son domaine, Paris, Picard, 2000, pp. 234-239, 245-246.

[4] This beautiful neo-Classical building was constructed between 1780 and 1783. Located at 10-11 rue des Réservoirs, it housed the Prefecture of Seine-et-Oise offices after the Revolution until 1866, before being occupied by the DDASS.

[5] Stéphane Castelluccio, "Le cabinet des tableaux de la Surintendance des Bâtiments du roi à Versailles", Versalia no. 12, 2009, pp. 21-54.

[6] A part of this hôtel is being transformed into student lodgings, which theoretically is not a bad choice, with the remaining section to be sold. We hope that an inventory of the existing decorative elements inside the building has been taken in order to ensure their protection.

[7] The construction of this LIH will result notably in the destruction of the 18th century horse stables at the Porte de Chèvreloup.

[8] France Domaine refuses to comment on this sale and referred us to the publication of the sale, two months from now (!), by the mortgage register.

[9] An important pavilion built by Gabriel for Louis XV, for example, is also up for sale. We will be discussing it very shortly.

[10] Public inquiry case approved by the municipal council on 24 November 2011. 2b - Orientations for installations by sector, p. 15.

[11] Public inquiry case approved by the municipal council on 24 November 2011. 2b- Orientations for installations by sector, p. 14.

[12] PLU project approved by the municipal council on 24 November 2011. 1a - Presentation report, p. 93.

[13] Municipal council session of Versailles of 16 December 2010.

[14] PLU project approved by the municipal council on 27 January 2011. 2b - Orientations for installations by sector, p. 14.

[15] PLU project approved by the municipal council on 24 November 2011. 2b - Orientations for installations by sector, p. 14.

[16] art. NP 2, 5th, Public inquiry case approved by the municipal council on 24 November 2011. 3a - Regulations. Written regulation, p. 362.

[17] Art. NP 9, 10 and 14.

[18] Art. NP 11.

[19] Art. NP 2 5.

[20] Article L 123-5 of the Code de l’urbanisme confirms that the orientations for installations cannot be dissasociated from "their graphic documents".

[21] Art. UK 10.2.

[22] Art. UK 14.

[23] This was the figure given at the time of the Roland-Garros project, on the website Versailles Roland-Garros (no longer online today), under the heading "Questions/answers", question 4.

[24] The buildings constructed by the army are grouped together in the same zone which has a COS above 0.1. Once isolated into an autonomous parcel, these buildings will benefit from the "real COS" allowing the addition of a large part of the total SHON permitted on the rest of the land.

[25] Having a 200 m2 SHON on the ground.

[26] Even though the Orientations for installations state that the zone "is not meant to welcome a residential neighborhood".

[27] In the Satory zone, the PLU prohibits for example constructions "for housing, hotel acommodations, offices, shops, tradesmen, industry or warehouse use".

[28] Art. Ul 10.

[29] Art. Ul 10.2.

[30] Art. AU 1 and AU 2.1.

[31] Art. Al 10.2.

[32] See this article from Le Journal du Dimanche.

[33] PLU project approved by the municipal council on 24 November 2011. 2b - Orientations for installations by sector, p. 18.

[34] Art. UR 13-3.

[35] Art. UR 13-2.

[36] Art. UR 9.1.

[37] Art. UR 9-2.

[38] Art. UR 10-2.

[39] Art. UR 2.

[40] Art. UR 10-2.

[41] Art. UR 9-2.

[42] Décret constitutif de l’EPFI of 13 September 2006 (art. 17).

[43] Art. L. 300-1 of the Code d’urbanisme, with reference to article 2 of the Décret constitutif of the EPFI of 13 September 2006.

[44] Article in the Journal des Arts quoted in note 1.

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