The French spa town of Divonne-les-Bains, well-known for its colourful Sunday market, is planning a major facelift of its former railway district.
The area is currently serving as a parking lot with the late 19th century station lying largely derelict apart from an SCNF ticket boutique. The nearly seven hectare site will soon be turned into a new commercial and residential centre.
According to urbanist Nicolas Michelin, the idea is to revitalise the area in a contemporary manner, while respecting the “colours” and views of Divonne and its people. The current vision includes a 1,000-car underground car park, 400 apartments and new shops combined with green spaces and bike paths. Once public consultations are complete, the town will launch a nationwide competition for architects and developers to come up with appropriate plans.
A key issue, however, is what to do with the old station, which used to link Nyon and Bellegarde. Given that much of old Divonne has been bulldozed, many residents would like to see the station preserved, possibly turned into a museum or cultural hub. Critics maintain that the building is not worth keeping as it lacks proper foundations and has no particular architectural significance. To renovate it, noted one council member, “would cost a fortune.”
At the end of WWII, however, the station received Jews and other concentration camp survivors who were brought to Divonne to recuperate. Given that Divonne as with nearby Gex, was where Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” was based, the towns did not play particularly “glorious roles” during the war. This, according to Philippe Viannay, the former resistance editor of Defense de la France who died in 1986. Some consider it crucial to keep the station as a historical reminder for future generations.
Given how small the French resistance actually was during the war and how many older generation French only reluctantly talk about this period, the preserving of the station would prove significant. As local former resistance fighters point out, while other Rhone-Alp towns, such as St Julien and Oyonnax, were active in the Maquis, Divonne excelled more in clandestine trading of contraband with Switzerland. Some Pays de Gex families to this day still do not talk with each because of past collaboration with Vichy France and the Nazi occupation.