Utrecht Centrum Project evaluation

The future of the Utrecht Centrum Project has long been overshadowed by its previous history. In an earlier form it entailed the development of Hoog Catharijne. Essentially, it represents one of the most complex redevelopment processes in Europe. Added to the previous experience, there are numerous constraints and complicating factors in this particular area. Nevertheless, the ambitions of all actors involved are still high. A reconstruction of this particular case as presented above is instructive to anyone involved in redevelopment processes of this kind of area in Europe. Four observations are particularly relevant. The first concerns the actors involved, with reference to their past experiences.

The Utrecht Centrum Project story shows how the quality of the relationships among an array of heterogeneous actors conditions the outcome of station area projects. In Utrecht, no feasible plans were possible until a positive working relationship had been developed between the main actors in the area. Those actors are the municipality, the railways, the owners of the shopping centre, and the managers of the congress and exhibition centre. That paved the way

Table 6.2 Utrecht Centrum Project: main structural data

Area ownership

Mostly Utrecht municipality and NS; ABP and Jaarbeurs have long-term land leaseholds

616 700 m2 (net, excluding leisure)

360 000 m2 (30 000 m2 substitution)

221 400 m2 (1845 units)

42 700 m2 (5000 m2 substitution)

9600 m2

18 000 m2 (concert hall)

Casino, megatheatre, multiplex cinema, food and leisure court, urban entertainment centre, etc.

4000 extra (11 600 total) car; 9000 extra (21 000 total) bicycle

Total floor area

Offices

Housing

Shops

Hotels, restaurants, cafes

Culture Leisure

Parking

Costs (excluding main infrastructure) 3 billion guilders (of which 1 billion guilders land development costs, to be recovered through land rents)

for progress. In a few months, more progress was made than in the years that had passed since the initiative was launched. The breakthroughs demonstrated by the solution guidelines must in the first place be explained by this new quality of the interaction between the actors. It was also important that the internal reorganization processes, in which all the partners were involved, had reached a stage where they could seriously commit themselves to the project. Maintenance of this quality throughout the period of implementation and beyond appears to be a crucial condition in achieving the ambitious plans. By contrast, less appears to have changed in the quality of the communication with local interests. This remains a weak point of the project. The problem is that it is extremely difficult, and not very credible, to involve the population when they are under the impression that the fundamental decisions have been already made elsewhere.

The second observation concerns the node-place concept, and specifically the node element in that concept. The station of Utrecht Centraal has historically been the hub of the Dutch national railway network. This position has meant that, while Utrecht is a medium-sized city of around 230 000 inhabitants and only the fourth largest in the country, its station is the second biggest, just behind Amsterdam Centraal. The Utrecht transport node is in continuous flux. It has recently been expanded and adapted. It is going to be further strengthened by an HST link to Germany and to Schiphol Airport. Most importantly, a one-terminal concept is being pursued by all the transport operators active in the node. The integrated perception of the user, rather than the compartmentalized perspective of the transport operators, will be the guiding criterion. If implemented, the one-terminal concept would redress the present shortcoming of the node: the difficulty of intermodal transfers. The changes foreseen are enormous, not just in physical but also in organizational terms. Once central government financing is definitively ensured, the far-reaching reconstruction of the infrastructure would have to be coordinated with continuing transportation services and with the ambitious urban development programmes also being pursued. Cooperation between transport operators would have to be maintained in the implementation and management phases; and cooperation is imperative in the face of an ongoing privatization process that will affect each and every one of them. In all likelihood, the new interchange of Utrecht Centraal could (and should) be the proving ground for an innovative node-management formula.

The third observation is complementary to the second. It focuses on the place element in the node-place concept. As a place, Utrecht Centraal, including its surroundings, is faced in a particularly explicit way with one of the most difficult dilemmas of railway station area redevelopment. On the one hand, the area is a highly accessible place, attracting concentrations of high-profile functions. On the other hand, it is part of a wider urban fabric, often of a totally different order. In Utrecht, pressures for further concentration of functions come from the market, but also from national and local policies, both economic and environmental. A crucial task of the UCP initiative is to allow both the station area and the surrounding neighbourhoods to develop autonomously while ensuring that complementarity rather than destructive competition prevails. Such a task has many dimensions. These include realizing the quality and continuity of the public spaces, managing traffic to and through the area, and managing spatial competition between economic activities. The current plans for the Utrecht Centrum Project face these issues with more clarity than has been demonstrated in earlier attempts. A great effort has been made to abate barrier effects and provide for pleasant open spaces, to look for ways to neutralize the negative effects of traffic, and to harmonize new activities with existing ones. Some questions are still awaiting answers, however. The envisaged city boulevard solution to the dilemma of accessibility by car versus liveability of public spaces and the surroundings still has to be verified. The enormous concentration of new office and entertainment functions on the west side, combined with the existing congress and exhibition facilities and with much better car accessibility, could result in the emergence there of a sort of autonomous edge city, at odds with the rest of the station area and the surrounding residential neighbourhoods.

The fourth observation deals with the interaction between node and place. Utrecht Centraal is an evolving transport node. Expansion and adaptation of the infrastructure is likely to be a never-ending story. This makes any plan for the area highly dependent on the many uncertainties of financing and implementing infrastructure works. On the place side, the volatility of the property market only makes matters worse. The project is founded on the assumption of a high and growing demand for office space at the station. Also, other elements of the functional programme depend heavily on how the markets respond. In order to deal with this combination of uncertainties, implementation of the UCP will be through independent subprojects, each being as autonomous from the others as possible. Furthermore, 'hard' and 'soft' elements have been combined in the development approach in an attempt to shape certainties while allowing for flexibility. In Utrecht, one of the hard elements is the condition of self-financing of the whole and of each of its parts. Another is the implementation of the traffic distribution scheme and of the open spaces plan. A permanent consultation structure among the main actors is also seen as a hard condition. 'Soft' refers to how all this will be implemented. Accordingly, the planning instrument will be a legally binding local plan

Fig. 6.9 Amsterdam Zuid and the Zuidas in the metropolitan context. (Source: DRO, Amsterdam)

(bestemmingsplan), but one that would allow 'the possibility of being further specified' (a so-called Article 11 plan). It will have a process orientation, following an 'if...then' structure.

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