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Nature versus Nurture

The redevelopment of the French Open’s iconic Roland Garros tennis complex has attracted significant opposition. Elisha Chauhan spoke to FFT (French Tennis Federation) Director General Gilbert Ysern about ending a challenging tête-à-tête with environmental opposition.

The overhaul of Roland Garros, home of tennis’ French Open grand slam, including a new 5,000-seater stadium on the south-east side of 19th-century botanical garden Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, has gone far from smoothly.

The €350-million development, which also includes the building of a retractable roof on the main Philippe Chatrier court, was first unveiled in May 2009, however hostility to the plans by local residents and environmentalists led FFT director general Gilbert Ysern to say only months later that the tournament would have to relocate were the changes not made.

Having finally been given the green light in 2011, the FFT then faced a tribunal in 2013 – which it won – but now two years on, the development is being stalled by a study evaluating the viability of an alternative redevelopment that would “preserve the integrity” of the Jardin.

The proposal, made by environmental opposition, requires building work to take place on top of the A13 motorway that neighbours Roland Garros. This would mean the FFT would have to cover the road to create an area of about 15,000-square-metres to build courts on, which is the same amount of area needed in the botanical garden.

We will not go ahead with the roof if the expansion is not approved

Ysern, however, remains positive: “We were expecting the building permit to be delivered at the end of April, but due to the new study that we’ve been asked to conduct, we are going to be delayed by at least one month.

“At this stage our schedule is not at risk, and we should still be in a position to start work by next fall, and deliver as expected between 2017 and 2019. For sure, the study will go in our favour like all the previous ones, which all came to the conclusion that the so-called alternative does not work and isn’t deemed possible for many reasons. They are financial, legal and even environmental – so I don’t see any reason why this study would come to a different conclusion.

“We will also not go ahead with the roof if the expansion is not approved, because for us it’s one project. If we cannot expand our facilities, we clearly will not take the risk to invest a huge amount of money on site, knowing that in any case our site would remain too small.”

The environmental protection agency France Nature Environment (FNE), however, is also positive, and claims that building on the Jardin goes against conservation rules, which can be easily avoided with the alternative proposal. This, it hopes, will be shown by the study. 

“We contest the expansion of the Roland Garros into the botanical garden, as it is exactly like Kew Gardens in London. The gardens are also protected by law, and so to overrule them would be madness,” FNE spokesperson Agnes Popelin told SportBusiness International. “We have no problem with the development of the existing facilities but object to the expansion.

“The cost of our proposal is also exactly the same as building a new court – around €50 million – and will save having to demolish [the existing] court one for the expansion. The new study will evaluate how the cover will be built, as well as calculate its exact cost.”

Wider Picture

In addition to modernising the venue’s facilities for an improved fan experience, Ysern believes that the expansion is necessary for the future of the French Open, particularly when you compare Roland Garros’ facilities to the other three tennis grand slams.

The US Open’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was approved a $500-million expansion in July 2013, a £70-million modernisation of Wimbledon was announced in December and includes a retractable roof on court one, while an AU$700-million renovation of the Australian Open’s Melbourne Park started this year.

“The expansion is necessary to keep our tournament successful, which it has been for the last 20 to 30 years, but now we need the redevelopment,” adds Ysern. “If we cannot expand the facilities, our tournament will very quickly be at risk in the near future.

“A potential Paris bid for the 2024 summer Olympics would be boosted if Roland Garros was redeveloped; the bid would be stronger if we can show that our facilities have started improving and modernising.”

Popelin renders this argument invalid, as destroying historic green areas – particularly when there is an alternative that actively reduces noise and air pollution – would give the wrong impression to both Olympic Games rights-holder the IOC (International Olympic Committee) as well as the United Nations, which gathers in Paris for a two-week Climate Change Conference at the end of November.

“For us, the whole idea is completely astonishing, as [on March 18] a report revealed that Paris is one of the worst cities for air pollution and smog [which caused local police to put in place a 20-kilometres-per-hour speed limit for roads in and around the capital],” she says.

“Even for a potential Parisian Olympic bid, it would be better to make the city greener by building a tennis court on top of a covered motorway than to go the other way by building the facilities on top of a conserved green area.”

Long Rally

Six years since the Roland Garros expansion plans were initially announced, neither side looks like it’s prepared to drop the ball.

However, history dictates that money talks when negotiating stadia plans, so threatening to take the French Open out of Paris – that, according to Popelin, makes €25 million in profit over the two weeks it’s hosted at the Roland Garros, excluding tourism income – could speak volumes.

“I don’t think the environmentalists have a case to stop the redevelopment, as we have gone through all of the various procedures we were asked to, and at each step we have ended up with a positive position from the various administrations and committees we were in discussions with,” says Ysern.

“We’ve had a series of green lights for our plans over the last five years and we are close to the end now, so I don’t see why we could not be allowed to go through with those plans.”

Popelin says, however, that if the FFT goes ahead with building on the botanical gardens, the FNE will contest the project in court.

“It’s a mistake for Roland Garros management to only focus on building on the botanical garden and to dismiss any other options, rendering them impossible when many specialists and experts say the motorway cover is possible,” she says.

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