PARIS: The only new permanent sports venue built in inner Paris for the Olympics this year opened its doors Sunday in an area of the capital hoping to shed its reputation for crack-dealing and crime.

The 8,000-seat Arena Porte de la Chapelle, which sits just inside the capital’s ring road, is a key part of regeneration efforts centred on one of Paris’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

The Porte de la Chapelle area, which will host badminton and rhythmic gymnastics during the Paris 2024 Games, was until recently the scene of so-called “crack hill”, a meeting place for up to 300 addicts at its worst in 2020.

Since becoming a symbol of the capital’s drugs problems, police have stepped up patrols, while the hill has been relandscaped and planted with trees, disbursing the dealers and their customers.

“For the last two months, we’ve got far fewer addicts in the area because they’ve moved on,“ the head of local residents’ association Vivre au 93 La Chapelle, Jean-Michel Metayer, told AFP.

Migrant camps that were also a constant feature under the raised sections of the nearby ringroad and A1 motorway have also been prevented from forming, under tactics decried by some charities.

“We all hope that the work changes the reputation of the area, which is not very good,“ added Metayer.

- ‘Fantastic’ -

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who launched her re-election bid from Porte de la Chapelle in 2020, has made the new arena a core part of a 500-million-euro ($540 million) makeover of the district.

Other regeneration efforts include tearing up the main thoroughfare, which serves as a major route into central Paris.

The space for cars has been dramatically reduced, while granite-edged cycle lanes, footpaths and hundreds of trees have been added, reflecting the eco-minded political priorities of Hidalgo’s 10 years in power.

“People used to talk about this area as a ‘no-go zone’,“ Hidalgo told reporters on Sunday as she inaugurated the arena, adding that she found the description “unfair on local residents.”

“But we made a commitment to change things. Today we have the demonstration that change is possible,“ she added.

The arena -- owned by the city of Paris and branded as the Adidas Arena -- will become the home of the ambitious US-owned Paris Basketball club, which will play its first game there on Sunday.

In late 2025, a university research site, Campus Condorcet, will also open nearby for up to 4,500 people daily.

“Between the campus and the arena, we have two major components which are going to reconfigure and transform the area,“ said Nicolas Dupeux, director general of the arena’s operating company, Paris Entertainment Company, told AFP.

“With sport, music and restaurants, we expect 1.2-1.3 million people to come here per year. That’s massive,“ he added. “This influx is going to create a dynamic in the area.”

- Long-term legacy? -

Organisers of the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics, which run from July 26 to September 8, are keen to present their Games as a new low-budget model, with almost all the sports set to take place in pre-existing or temporary infrastructure.

A new aquatics centre has also been built from scratch, a few kilometres (miles) away on the other side of the ringroad.

Other facilities, including the national Stade de France stadium, are being upgraded, while events such as skateboarding, beach volleyball or archery are set to take place in ephemeral venues scattered around the city.

Helping regenerate the Porte de la Chapelle area, as well as the nearby Saint-Ouen and Saint-Denis suburbs where other Olympics investments have been concentrated, is seen as one of the most promising legacy achievements of the Games.

But many local residents still need to be convinced.

“It’s great to put millions into improving the avenue, but that’s not going to resolve the security problems,“ local bar manager Salim Aouchiche told AFP.

Metayer, from the residents’ association, agreed.

“During the Games, there’ll be 40,000 police officers on duty. The question that lots of people are asking themselves is what will happen afterwards?” he added. - AFP

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