AT the eastern edge of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine, heavy trucks rumble along cobbled streets, freight trains pull slowly in and out of dusty switchyards, and occasional flatboats deliver loads of gravel and cement at the river's edge. The area, called Tolbiac, suggests all the sweat and grime, long since crusted with dust, of a Zola novel. By the middle of the next decade, however, what is now mostly railyards and closed or marginal businesses is slated to become a new city within Paris.
Already set to accommodate France's new ``grand library,'' the large swatch of underutilized industrial land could also become a European business hub to rival the financial and commercial center that has continued to grow west of Paris at La D'efense.
It is the last remaining large piece of developable land in Paris - nearly 200 acres, with a mile and a half of prime river front. As such, the ``Seine Rive Gauche'' project represents an important opportunity for governmental agencies to reorient Paris's growth away from the west. The western concentration has so overloaded transportation systems that government officials speak openly of a ``crisis.''
At the same time, the Tolbiac project provides French officials with a chance to improve their development record. Few Parisians consider the skyscrapers of La D'efense or the 56-story tower at Montparnasse to be worthy of their city.
``This is the largest single piece of Paris left to be developed,'' says Pierre Geny, deputy to the mayor of 13th district, where the project is located. ``We want this to result in something on the level of Europe and the world, a neighborhood for the year 2000. But we refuse to see the architecture of La D'efense and all its skyscrapers repeated here. And we insist that it be lively,'' he adds. Watching closely to make sure that promise of a ``lively neighborhood'' is fulfilled are the artists who, over the last decade, have turned an old railyard refrigeration building into a multistory arts center. The painters, sculptors, photographers, weavers, and musicians who work (and in some cases live) there have organized the 91 Quai de la Gare Association, named after the address of their building. They fear the same fate could await them that doomed the former artist colonies of Montparnasse and Montmartre.
``Even if they decide to leave this place standing, which isn't at all sure yet, we could still be forced out by rising prices,'' says Jacques Morand, a commercial photographer and president of the association.
The artists here are not opposed to some form of development of the land around them. Only the Communist Party, which sees no political benefit in replacing the rail yards and auto-body shops of the old Paris with the offices and apartments of the new, has come out against the plan. But the artists say they deserve a corner in a changing and ever more expensive Paris.
``Paris is always glorifying the great artists of its past, yet many of them had difficulties just getting by,'' adds Paolo Calia. Mr. Calia is a painter and photographer who has lived and worked in the building for five years. ``Artists are never helped much, but all we're asking is to stay where we can work best.''
Mr. Calia, whose very Italian workspace is reminiscent of the Fellini movies he has worked on, says Paris must learn to accommodate artists where they are.
Indeed, one of the biggest advantages the artists have is a French concern over the image of Paris as an artistic center. The hope that the project extends the Latin Quarter to the east, with the proposed ``Grand Library'' acting as a magnet for intellectual activities, should work in the artists' favor. The fact that the wife of the 13th district's mayor is an artist and arts promoter won't hurt, either.
But the pressures working against such a pattern of development are also strong. The city wants the project to open Paris to the expected boom in the finance and services sectors resulting from the European Community's plan to create a single market by the end of 1992.
Some of France's largest banks are considering moving their headquarters here. Still-sketchy plans call for the project to include 7 million square feet of office space. Four million square feet of office space were built in all of Paris over the last five years.
In addition, the city and the national government agree that the project will be an important test of plans to reorient growth to the eastern part of Paris. Already 43 percent of the area's office space is concentrated on the western outskirts of Paris. More than a million people a day cross the city to work, making the main east-west rapid-transit line the busiest in the world.
The idea is to create a pole that will draw people and businesses to the eastern part of the city and its eastern suburbs. But it remains to be seen how such a task can be fulfilled while respecting the surroundings and some of the existing inhabitants, including the artists at 91 Quai de la Gare. Also located here are the Paris flour mills, where much of the city's flour is milled and many of its bread bakers are trained.
One reason this project might succeed is that so far it is being kept largely in the hands of the city and of the 13th district. When the government proposed that a special national-level bureaucracy be created to oversee the project, local officials pointed derisively to a La D'efense, which has such a special status, and the idea was dropped.
Mr. Geny says public participation in the project's development will be both frequent and heeded. He says a ``human scale'' will be ensured by including housing for about 20,000 people, and by limiting the height of buildings to no more than 12 stories. Beyond that, he insists, the area's artists will be able to stay where they are.
``Of course we want to believe the city when they say that,'' responds Mr. Morand, ``but who's to say what will happen when the real estate developers finally take hold of this land?''
Just outside Morand's fourth-floor studio, another artist is busy spray-painting blue and yellow designs on the walls of the building's elevator. ``I was getting tired of what was there,'' says Dominique Larrivaz, with a grin. He says he welcomes the project. ``Our value wouldn't be monetary, but to show how it can work to integrate this into what they're planning. It would be unique in Paris.''
But whether a project designed to attract bank and multinational headquarters can live side by side with a building where spray-painting the elevator is a form of art is an open question.