Wavering street lights, dilapidated buildings, and a feeling of uneasiness. A few years ago, that would have been a perfect description of a typical Belgian railway station neighborhood. That negative connotation is in sharp contrast with today’s situation: Flemish railway station neighborhoods have become more popular than ever.
The days of rundown railway station neighborhoods are behind us. Companies are willing to pay high prices for strategically interesting locations, a phenomenon that has not escaped real estate developers. Railway station neighborhoods are increasingly becoming interesting investment projects.
The major turnaround came after a few Flemish cities created a master plan to save their railway station neighborhoods, with car-free squares with abundant greenery, underground car parks and malls, restaurants and shops nearby, etc. The government immediately set an excellent example by establishing their administrative centers in the railway station neighborhoods. Soon after, the private sector also jumped on the bandwagon.
“Not surprisingly,” says Cedric Olivier, Business Unit Manager at ION, “because smooth mobility is still essential. This not only applies to homes but clearly to businesses, too. And even though we are teleworking more today, it doesn’t mean that we need to focus less on accessibility. The COVID-19 crisis has made many companies think about where they want to go in the future, including when it comes to their offices. Should we expand or reorganize them? Real estate developers can focus on this by offering flexible formulas. Either way, this new concept of teleworking is setting things in motion. I don't think this will be a threat to new office projects in railway station neighborhoods; I see it more as an opportunity.”
The fact that everyone wants offices close to train stations will also mean higher rents. Yet this won’t stop companies. Potential tenants mainly look at the overall costs, such as overhead, location, and mobility. When they do the math, choosing an office building near a railway station is in most cases the logical option.
Olivier's responsibilities include Roelevard, an eye-catching project at the Roeselare railway station that ION is developing together with Steenoven. There will be 6,000 m. of offices and 81 apartments. “This combination of living and working in the same location creates a great ambiance. There are things going on night and day, and there’s a great dynamism among the various players at the site.”
This positive change has been applied to various Flemish cities. An excellent example of this is Mechelen. With more than 80 percent growth in office projects, the city is clearly expanding. The “Mechelen In Beweging” (Mechelen on the move) project will give the railway station neighborhood a full makeover. There will be new railway and bus station buildings, a new railway bypass, a link road, and many new bike and footpaths. A total of 120,000 m. of new office space will be built around the station.
“A railway often creates a break between different urban districts,” notes Olivier. “Area developments can provide new links. For example, in the design for Roelevard, we also paid a great deal of attention to public spaces. We want to upgrade an existing bicycle tunnel to create a link between the urban districts on both sides of the station. This has always been the starting point of this design. Finally, we will use horizontal and vertical green roofs to give the surrounding area a fresh look.”