Europe's millionaires have run out of room, so they're building homes into the sea
A $3-billion project in Monaco is expanding the city-state into the Mediterranean
June 5, 2018, CBC News
At a regular walking pace, you can cross from one end of Monaco to the other in under an hour — provided you don't get lost or take a wrong turn on one of the winding roads carved into the side of the hills.
Monaco is the second-smallest country in the world — only beaten out by the Vatican — and it is also one of the most densely populated.
On top of that, it's one of the richest. Roughly one out of every three people who live in Monaco is a millionaire, attracted by the allure of Monte Carlo, a complete lack of income tax and the prime location on the French Riviera.
So what do you do when you're short on space and money is no object? You build land and condos right into the sea.
In a 10-year, $3-billion Cdn project, the city-state of Monaco is expanding by six hectares into the Mediterranean. The land is destined to become a pedestrian-only area surrounding a number of new condo buildings. In all, it will add 100 new units to Monaco's real estate market.
"It's a permanent mechanism of renewal of the city," says Jean-Luc Nguyen, the director of Public Works for the Principality of Monaco, which is overseeing the land reclamation project.
Surrounded on three sides by France, Monaco's options for enlargement are limited. But physical growth to enable economic and population stimulus is seen as something of a right in the case of Monaco, and has been since the late 19th century, when the city-state first reached its hand into the sea, taking marine habitat for itself.
In the time since, various reclamation projects have been green-lit by the reigning Grimaldi monarch of the day. Even prior to this latest endeavour, roughly 20 per cent of Monaco's landmass previously belonged to the sea. The practice seems to have gone past the point of being questioned.
Red-hot real estate
Real estate in Monaco is a hot commodity. It is home to the world's most expensive penthouse, ringing in at $431.5 million Cdn.
Nguyen explains that in a given year, only 20 to 30 apartments are put on the market, so adding 100 is significant when turnover is that low.
The new district will be called Anse du Portier, and while monitored and approved by the government, it has been fully financed by private investors. Apartments are expected to go on sale in 2020.
There is a certain irony that the reclamation is led by project manager Christophe Hirsinger, who jokes that a "poor builder" could never afford the real estate in the country he is working hard to expand.
Hirsinger commutes into the city daily along with tens of thousands of other French and Italian citizens. The city's population swells by roughly 75 per cent during working hours.
Hirsinger has been overseeing the preparatory work done by Bouygues Travaux Publics since October 2016. They are tasked with building the six hectares of land from nothing, before handing it over to real estate developers.
"What is special in this project is that the techniques are really to the limits. We have a very deep sea in this place," Hirsinger says.
Sediments from the bay were removed to reveal the solid rock beneath. Laid atop that rock was an additional 30 metres of compacted rock.
This summer, the first visible aspects of the project will begin to take shape above the surface of the water, when the first of the enormous "caissons" ("boxes" in French) arrives in the harbour.
Each caisson is about the size of a building itself: 26 metres high, more than 30 metres wide and weighing nearly 10,000 tons.
"It's a kind of magic," Hirsinger says of the caisson construction, which is taking place about 300 km down the coast in Marseille, France.
Each caisson takes about a month to build, and once construction starts on a caisson they cannot stop, so they work around the clock until it is complete. In July, the first of 18 caissons will make its three-day voyage to Monaco. By summer 2019, all of the caissons will be installed on top of the 30 metres of compacted rock.
Then the caissons will be filled with sand to further stabilize them. The crescent formed by the caissons will then be infilled, mostly with sand as well. And the housing development will be built on top of that.
There has been little to no public objection to the project, but even if there had been, Monaco is ruled by a constitutional monarchy and the outcry would have done little good. Monégasques — as residents of Monaco are called — have been jailed in the past merely for criticizing the rulers.
"You have a feeling of pride because Monaco is doing something extraordinary. Because it's not common to expand on the sea," says Nguyen.
A handful of other countries have pursued land reclamation to expand their territory, including Qatar, U.A.E., China and Japan. Perhaps the most comparable situation to the one in Monaco is that of the island nation of Singapore, which has expanded its size by 22 per cent since 1965.
William Jamieson, who has looked at Singapore's reclamation practices for both his Master's thesis in urban affairs and now his Ph.D at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the narrative surrounding Singapore's reclamation projects is that they help promote its image as a world-class destination for business and tourism.
But environmental groups have been vocal in Singapore about the loss of coral reefs and mangroves, among other concerns. In his research, Jamieson spoke with an engineer there who admitted the environmental protections they implemented only minimally mitigated the damage done by the work.
"Usually with the stirring up of all that silt and all the influx of soil or sand, or whatever they're using, it increases the turbidity [cloudiness] of the water dramatically, and it does alter what can live there or prefers to live there," Jamieson said.
Both Hirsinger and Nguyen are convinced the environmental safeguards used in Monaco are far superior to those used prior or elsewhere. Hirsinger says he has never before worked on a project where environmental constraints were such a focus.
Prior to any of the dredging work beginning, Bouygues Travaux Publics partnered with local diving teams to rehome various marine species to eco-reserves located outside the project area. Hirsinger mentions one species in particular: posidonia, a flowering marine grass that grows in dense fields in the Mediterranean.
"To do this type of gardening, but 15 meters below the level of water, was not done elsewhere," he says. "For us, it was a discovery every day."
When asked about environmental impacts, Jean-Luc Nguyen flips open his laptop. Fish swim across his screen — it's a live feed from the underwater cameras placed in the Monaco bay, and is streamed to both his computer and cell phone.
Another click and he has the historical data showing turbidity, oxygen levels and temperature, which is meant to ensure that the levels in the bay remain within the parameters they've deemed acceptable.
"So when there is a problem, I can have a very quick reaction," Nguyen says.
Another consideration for this project is rising sea levels. The new subdivision will be built high enough above the water's edge to be able to withstand 75 cm of sea level rise over the next 100 years.
Nguyen doesn't pretend to know the future, but he says this project might not be Monaco's last push against Mother Nature's water-land divide.
"You can never say never, but there are still several environmental and technical issues that we have to face in this project now. And when you go further and deeper into the sea, these issues are getting more and more complex. So it is not that obvious that we can always continue to gain onto the sea," he says.
"But for now, we have a project that we can consider as sustainable."
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