Property development at the Utrecht Centrum Project

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6.4.1 Hoog Catharijne

There has been no unanimous evaluation of the successive waves of redevelopment plans for the Utrecht central station area. The different interpretations of the Utrecht Centrum Project (UCP, formerly the Utrecht City Project) can be traced to the different perceptions of Hoog Catharijne (HC), of its economic success as well as its failures in other respects. Thus that is where we shall start our review. In 1991 HC contained offices (149 500 m2), shopping and restaurants / catering (74 000 m2), hotels (19 000 m2), housing (350 units), four cinemas, a sports hall, a music centre with two concert halls, and congress and exhibition spaces (94500 m2). All were part of a vast complex stretching along two sides of the tracks and containing the railway station, reconstructed according to a 'bridge over the tracks' model parallel to the development of HC. The impact of HC on the city has been the object of repeated analyses. Reviewing the studies done thus far, Ottens and Ter Welle-Heethuis (1983, p. 393) concluded that HC 'has prevented the erosion of the central function of the historic centre and has determined an increment of the employment' From these and successive studies, it emerges that the retail (commercial) supply of HC is complementary, rather than competitive, to that of the city centre. A specialization trend can be recognized in the geographical origin of the visitors: mainly internal to the city for the town centre, mainly external for HC. Also, the supply of tertiary space appears to be complementary. HC would function mainly to attract business from outside the city, while the city centre would function as an incubator of new activities. The trade fair has also benefited from the HC operation. Once it had been relocated on the other side of the tracks, it profited from more space and increased accessibility, reinforcing its role as one of the two main congress and exhibition centres in the country. Finally, the interaction with the public transport node has also been reciprocally beneficial. The shopping centre and the station have fed into each other. In 1993, 74% of the people who went to HC that year (approximately 25 million) got there by public transport (Gemeente Utrecht et al., 1993)

More ambiguous or even negative are the effects on the surrounding neighbourhoods. Between 1974 (a year after the opening of the shopping centre) and 1980, the streets connecting HC with the cathedral, which is the symbolic centre of the city, had seen on average a 32% growth in the number of passers-by. Yet the streets that had been 'cut off' registered a 46% decline (Bogaard, 1981). In the areas marginalized by development, negative effects have added to the loss of visitors. These other effects include an increase in vehicle through-traffic and a fall in property values. A similar drain on resources was also felt by the municipal treasury.

Table 6.1 Utrecht Centrum Project: summary of the main phases

Phase 1: Hoog Catharijne, 1962-1973


25 February 1964 1968

23 September 1973

A property developer proposes to the municipality an integral restructuring plan for the station area, to have the name of Hoog Catharijne (HC)

Contract between the developer and municipality signed Public protests Construction of HC starts

Inauguration of the main component of the plan: a 75 000 m2 shopping centre

Economic success but public criticism

Phase 2: rise and fall of the public-private partnership, 1986-1993

1986 The Utrecht City Project (UCP), a new initiative for the station area, is launched by the municipality, the Algemeen Burgerlijk Pensioenfonds (ABP), the Jaarbeurs, and the national railway company NS 1988 An 'agreement in principle' is reached by the four partners

Public concern

May 1993

Master plan is presented. ABP does not sign it; NS signs with reservations

Contrasts within the partnership

Phase 3: rise and fall of the municipality-developers company, 1993-1995

December 1993 A framework agreement for the establishment of a development company incorporating the municipality and three property development fimis is approved by the city council

Former partners are out of the planning process; public concern continues

June 1995 The development company publishes a 'spatial-functional concept'

Contrasts with former partners and public not solved Phase 4; rise of a stakeholders' platform, 1996-1997

February 1996 After a (destructive) joint evaluation of the spatial-functional concept, an administrative platform is started, involving the original four key actors

June 1996 The solution guideline is published

Elaborations and consultations

February 1997 The provisional urban design plan is presented

Public reactions

End 1997 Expected presentation of a definitive urban design plan to the city council

Phase 4: implementation, 1998-2008

1998 Hoped for construction start, so that the whole project could be built, in phases, by 2008

Given the difference between the variable interest rates applied to the city debts and the fixed rates applied to the rent paid by HC for using the area, the treasury registered an annual loss of several million guilders (Kargadoor, 1979). Another negative point turned up in the evaluation of the architecture and urban design qualities of the complex. HC has deprived the city of a direct relationship with its station, eliminating any alternative to the labyrinthine path across the shopping centre. That shopping centre can hardly be defined as a part of the city. Beyond the shops and the (invisible) offices, there is little else. The residential function has been nearly banned, and the few dwellings that are present are invisible too. The monofunctionality of HC has produced other monofunctionality. Because HC is not a pleasant place to be, hotels, restaurants and cafes have multiplied in the historic centre, as well as specialized shops. There those establishments have thrived, above all at the cost of the residential functions and retail sector serving daily needs.

Master plan (1993)

The programme of the Utrecht City Project envisaged by the 1993 master plan (Gemeente Utrecht et al., 1993; Figure 6.4) in response to these shortcomings is ambitious. The UCP foresees extensive infrastructure works. These include the addition and multiple branching of tracks (in the long term, also an extension of the platforms and a second passenger hall); the construction of a new tunnel for cars and bicycles; a dedicated tram line; new bus lines and a bus station; new car and bicycle parking space; and adaptations of the street layout. With regard to activities, it proposes the addition of offices (268 000-332 000 m2), shopping, cafes, restaurants and hotels (23 000-28 000 m2), housing (945-975 units), a third concert hall, a casino, an extra cinema, a theatre, and art galleries. The massive programme is not justified merely by citing urban design insufficiencies, nor by pointing to economic and public transport developments alone. As in other station projects in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe (Bertolini, 1996b), financial feasibility calculations weigh heavily. In essence, the profits generated by all the offices are indispensable to cover the high infrastructure costs and the other 'nice things for the city'.

The plan of the public-private partnership is however not the only possible 'definition of reality'. In 1992, the Bewoners Overleg City Project (BOCP, a coalition of local residents and environmentalists active since 1990) published its own analysis of the UCP (BOCP, 1992). This document typifies later local reactions and thus warrants a brief discussion here.

The BOCP chose, provocatively, to base its reasoning on the needs of the user, not on the need to balance the budget. This choice implied a series of requirements:

• The project had to be multifunctional.

• The public spaces must not be dominated by large-scale facilities.

• The plan must reflect the needs of the area, not trade-offs between what is imposed by the central government and what is desired by developers.

• The impact of traffic on the quality of public spaces must be more seriously considered.

• Natural features must be protected and expanded.

• Noise caused by trains had to be controlled at the source so that residential areas would not have to be confined to marginal locations.

• 10% of the dwellings must be social housing, including apartments for disabled persons.

• Existing buildings and structures that were in good condition had to be put to better use and not demolished.

The BOCP also demanded more clarity on the part of the municipality with reference to financial forecasts and deals, as well as regarding the continuation of the project's intentions in future management policy. Finally, the BOCP wanted the local authority to give priority to the unemployed of the surrounding areas in the allocation of jobs, and to provide shelter for the beggars and homeless who have been using HC at night. On the positive side, the BOCP appreciated the intentions of the partnership plan to improve the security of the public space and especially the ground floor, to invest in public transport, and to improve the connections between the railway station and the city.

The BOCP was not the only voice of discontent. The small businesses of the city centre also criticized the UCP. The critique voiced by the small business community was of a rather different nature from that expressed by the inhabitants. The paramount preoccupation was the accessibility of the historic city. Just like 20 years earlier with regard to their demands for HC, they asked for more parking space for cars, a ring road, an underground metro, and more bicycle paths and parking. Fearing overwhelming competition they also opposed the development of new retail and public functions on the west side of the tracks. However, they supported the idea of strengthening the HC shopping centre on the first-floor level (that entailed possible expansion at the ground level), but the business community also called for investment to make the rest of the city centre more pleasant and safe. In general, they were perplexed by the growing concentration of the retail sector in the city.

Spatial-functional concept (1995)

Criticism such as that paraphrased above has been partially acknowledged by the public-private development company that was established at the end of 1993 to turn the master plan into a spatial-functional concept (SFC). The objectives adopted by the SFC (Ontwikkelingsmaatschappij UCP, 1995) reiterated the general objectives of the master plan: realization of high-quality public transport facilities and reduction of automobility; realization of high-quality public spaces; strengthening of the economic structure of the city and region; and concentration of labour-intensive employment around the public transport node. In particular, it stressed how strong the components in the railway station area were (HC, the Jaarbeurs, the transportation node), but how weak their integration was (as shown in the quality of the public spaces). A bit ambiguously, the poor accessibility of the area by car was seen as a problem as well.

The SFC (Figure 6.5) tried to answer these problems by proposing a spatial structure that could guarantee the functionality of the individual elements, and coordination of the whole. On the functional side, the point of departure is that the UCP must become an integrated element of the city centre. The most important condition for achieving this is the concentration of diverse attractive functions. The mixture of functions will also help to reinforce the economic structure of the area. However, in terms of the quantities proposed, the new plan did not deviate much from the 1993 master plan. There was a little less emphasis on offices (down to 255 000 m2) and a little more emphasis on housing (up to 1100 units), possibly as a reaction to the prevailing poor prospects in the office property market. With regard to accessibility, a double-pronged approach was proposed: improve access to the area by car, but at the same time give priority to pedestrians. Supposedly, this apparent contradiction could be resolved by bringing as much traffic as possible underground.

In general, the SFC deals more with urban design than with programmatic issues. This should not come as a surprise, as the main functional actors in the area (ABP, NS, Jaarbeurs) were not involved in working out the plan. In trying to overcome this evident lack of external support and consultation, as well as the confusion among the market partners, great emphasis was given to flexibility of implementation. Accordingly, the leading criterion for the approach to financial matters was the ability to deal with changing circumstances. Development was to take place in phases within circumscribed sub-areas. This would make it easier to control the cash flow and allow for the transfer of functions within the project area. It would also make it possible to call development to a halt (perhaps temporarily) after any one of the steps. The idea was that each phase should be self-financing, at least in principle. A land-exploitation budget would be the most important instrument to direct decision-making on financial matters. Also, to increase flexibility, the construction of offices, shops and housing would as far as possible be kept separate from the construction of infrastructure, which would necessarily have to follow other procedures. Behind this separation lies the crux of the matter: the project is feasible only if central government and third parties 'do their part'. But the impression remains that fundamental problems could not be solved because fundamental partners were not involved.

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