The south of the country of Luxembourg has a strong industrial heritage. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the area was home to a large steel manufacturing sector. Due to direct access to iron ore, the steel industry predominantly settled nearby. Steel mills were built next to existing settlements, attracting workers from Luxembourg and abroad, gradually transforming villages into cities.

The steel crisis in the 1970’s prompted an economic re-orientation. The decline of the steel industry and its production sites led to a period of difficult economic transition. Nevertheless, the vacant steel production sites in direct proximity to city centres would prove valuable for the future.

To support alternative economic sectors and to address high demand for offices and housing, these brownfield sites are steadily being converted into urban districts. The ‘Belval’ reconversion project is the first development of its kind in Luxembourg, converting the former steel production site into a new urban district.

Rationale for action

The ‘Belval’ site is shared between the city of ‘Esch-sur-Alzette’ and the municipality of ‘Sanem’ in the South of the country. In 1997 steel production finished, leaving a 120 hectare idle industrial site next to the two centres that risked being left vacant. Developing the site would provide potential for decentralisation, an objective mentioned in the national planning strategies.

The ‘Belval’ site before closing of the steel mill in 1991. The large production halls in the background are still operational to this date in 2021. Source: Les Meloures, Wikipedia.

Objective

This triggered the development of ‘Belval’ from a brownfield site into a new urban district. The site should provide office space and housing attracting businesses, inhabitants and employees, supporting and strengthening the economy of the region. Developing ‘Belval’ should also support the government’s decentralisation policies, developing a second growth pole in addition to Luxembourg City, reinforcing a more balanced territorial development.

Initial plans for developing the steel mill into a new urban district were made a year prior to its closure. Accommodating businesses, new inhabitants, a university and a concert hall, the area was planned as an urban and independent district of the municipality of Sanem and the city of Esch-sur-Alzette. The masterplan puts special emphasis on the creation of knowledge economy businesses, encouraging specialisation in knowledge-intensive sectors. Sustaining and valorising the area’s architectural heritage should create a special identity for the district and a reminder of the industrial past.

Panoramic view of the Belval district in 2019 with ongoing works. Source: Zinneke, Wikipedia.

Time frame

First efforts to develop the area into a new urban district started in 1996. The masterplan was adopted in 2002. Development is still ongoing, with about 50% of the buildings completed by 2019. Development should be finalised by 2028.

Key players

Development was entrusted to two intermediaries, that were specifically founded for this purpose. The first and primary intermediary, AGORA, is a public-private organisation encompassing the steel company (the former landowner) and the state. The organisation is in charge of developing and commercialising the new district and benefits are shared equally between the two members. The second intermediary is the ‘Fonds Belval’ (Belval Fund), implementing the public investment programme. So, the public institution is in charge of building, approving and managing the buildings as well as public infrastructure such as the university complex and the museum.

Many public bodies were involved in the process with ministries and municipalities in supervisory and consultancy boards, the national railway for traffic planning and the municipalities having their final say on development through land-use plans and building permits. Private investors are also implementing non-public buildings in ‘Belval’.

‘Place de l’Académie’ in Belval. Source: Zinneke, Wikipedia.

Implementation steps and processes

There are several important implementation steps for the development. A key one was the foundation of an ‘ERSID’ (grouping of economic interest) in 1996 as an intermediate institution. It launched a pre-study, investigating the potential to convert the brownfield site into a university pole. Steel production in ‘Belval’ was halted in 1997 and the land was transferred for a symbolic price of EUR 1 from the steel company to the state.  

Another key step was the foundation in 2000 of AGORA to implement the project. Developing public installations, as detailed in the masterplan adopted in 2002 was ‘Fonds Belval’, founded the same year.

Construction started in 2004 and the first buildings were completed soon after (e.g. a concert hall ‘Rockhal’ in 2005, first office buildings in 2006 and a shopping mall in 2008). ‘Belval’ welcomed the first residents in 2009. The university and research institutes opened their doors in 2015. Today, the development of ‘Belval’ is not yet finalised with less than half of the planned buildings still to be realised.

Required resources

As ‘Belval’ is still under construction and far from being finalised, it is not possible to assess the resources required for the development. ‘Fonds Belval’ indicated in its annual balance sheet of 2017 a budget of EUR 614 million for construction and related services.

Results

Today, ‘Belval’ is an urban district, hosting many important national functions. The university, research institutions (e.g. Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research), banks and large service providers are all in the new district. A total of 180 business institutions, retailers and restaurants have opened providing labour for 5,000 employees. The site also hosts amenities such as a concert hall, a shopping centre and a museum, as well as 2,400 permanent residents.

‘Belval’ is the economic motor of the south, highlighting the economic rationale for developing the district. With more employees and residents to be welcomed in future, its economic role is expected to increase.

The area features modern architecture, integrating innovative building forms and techniques. Meanwhile, the industrial heritage was preserved in the form of two high furnaces and their related infrastructure that function today as a museum. Despite the high density of offices and housing, ‘Belval’ has large public spaces, squares and pedestrian zones.

View of the University with the former high furnace in the background. Source: © Michel Brumat / Foersom sàrl 2015

Experiences, success factors, risks

The specifics of brownfield developments mean many non-standard solutions have been required. ‘How to deal with soil contamination?’, ‘How to integrate industrial heritage into the urban development concept?’, ‘How to build an urban area from scratch and how to make the district function with far more employees than inhabitants?’ and ‘How to make the retail sector function with a small number of potential customers?’ are just some questions that had to be addressed during development.

Maybe because of the uncertainties and the steep learning curve for planners and decision-makers, realisation of ‘Belval’ continues. If everything goes as planned, the district will be finalised after more than three decades, having stretched across the entire careers of some decision makers and planners.

The planning process is very often taken as a prime example for a top-down process, overruling local citizens and decision-makers. This perception is rooted in the limited involvement of potential citizens and local authorities in the conception and realisation of the site. The masterplan also featured little flexibility to address problems and issues arising during its realisation.

Successful integration of the industrial heritage into the urban design. Source: Zinneke, Wikipedia.

Conclusions

In 2021, 25 years after the brownfield conversion was launched, the development has not been finalised. With about ten years of development to come, it is too early to draw final conclusions on whether the development has worked or not.

Despite criticism in recent years, views on ‘Belval’ have started to change. The relevance of ‘Belval’ for economic development of the south, the large number of businesses and the urban design of the existing district are positive. Slowly but steadily, ‘Belval’ fulfils the purpose for which it was designed, as the new centre of the knowledge economy in Luxembourg.

As a result, the name ‘Belval’ is known by individuals in and outside of Luxembourg. The sheer size, the many issues planners had to tackle and the fact that ‘Belval’ is the first reconversion project in Luxembourg have increased the projects’ visibility. The area is also a testbed for future developments of brownfield sites in the south of the country.

Contact

Ms Daisy Wagner, Chief planner of the city of Esch-sur-Alzette: daisy.wagner@esch.lu

References

AGORA, 2019: Website about the Belval project: https://www.belval.lu/en/

AGORA, 2019: Website of the association: https://www.agora.lu/en/

Fonds Belval, 2019: Website of the fund: https://www.fonds-belval.lu/

The south of Luxembourg is marked by the heritage of the steel industry and mining. Large active and inactive industrial sites next to urban centres remind residents and visitors of the peak of heavy industry. Located in the south of Dudelange city centre, the Schmelz district was home to a steel mill until 2005. The 40-hectare site is now undergoing a major brownfield reconversion project.

Rationale for action

Following the steel crisis in the 1970’s, more and more steel mills closed. Since then, the ongoing structural change has also affected Luxembourg’s south. In 2005, the former Schmelz steel mill was closed, which created a 40-hectare industrial brownfield site next to the city centre. The municipality saw the opportunity and kick-started a process to convert the site into a new urban district.

Schmelz district during early 20th century. Source: City of Dudelange, 2019.

Objective

The central objective of the NeiSchmelz project is to construct a new district with housing, commercial and cultural areas connecting the districts of Italie and Schmelz to the city centre. Preserving the heritage of heavy industry is particularly important for the municipality. Therefore, the municipality intends to maintain the former industrial character, by preserving industrial artefacts such as the water tower and the floor plan of the factory buildings.

NeiSchmelz will offer approximately 1 000 new housing units. The new district should be multifunctional, mixed and attractive also for locals. By involving the Housing Fund (Fonds du Logement) in the development, housing will also be available for prices below market value, which will further promote a social mix.

The new district will have easy access to Dudelange city centre, to surrounding districts, to green recreation areas and to the national traffic infrastructure. In addition to existing railway lines for example, there will be new traffic infrastructure within the new district and towards the surrounding areas (pathways, bike lanes, roads).

Time frame

The development started in 2008 and is ongoing (2021). The participatory phase started back in 2009 and the interim use concept was developed in 2011. A decontamination study and negotiations between the steel company (Arcelor Mittal) and the state were finalised in 2016. Since then, urbanistic concepts are being developed and implemented.

Key players

City of Dudelange, Housing Fund (Fonds du Logement), Luxembourg state functions (environment and water management administration, public roads and bridges administration (all under the Ministry of sustainable development and Infrastructure), CFL (national railway company)), Luxembourg EcoInnovation Cluster, developers, architects, civil society (community and social enterprises) and private developers.

Positioning of the NeiSchmelz district in relation to Dudelange centre (in the upper half of the picture). Source: City of Dudelange, 2019.

Implementation steps and processes

After the former steel mill closed in 2005, the municipal administration issued a call for proposals in 2006 to gather ideas for future use of the site. In 2008, there was a decision to create a new urban district with a focus on housing. A national call for development proposals was launched in 2009. In 2010, the NeiSchmelz proposal was awarded and planners were contracted to develop the master plan for the district. In parallel, a concept to decontaminate the area was elaborated. In the meantime, an interim use concept was initiated and the master plan was finalised in 2012. Negotiations between the steel company, who owned the site, and the state finished in 2016, transferring ownership of the site to the state-owned Housing Fund.

Alongside implementation, a participatory process involving the public was organised. From 2009 to 2016, local residents and interest groups could incorporate their ideas for the interim use and final state of the conversion. This was achieved through information campaigns, multiple consultations and workshops. Presentations of the project highlight changes introduced through the public consultation procedure to illustrate to citizens how their contribution has influenced the project.

In order to develop the site, the municipal land-use plan (PAG) had to be changed. For the technical implementation, the city will rely on four so-called PAP (partial land-use plans). These act as building permits and were submitted for approval in late 2017.

Required resources

Since the project is implemented stepwise, the required resources cannot be specified. A key aspect for the project, however, was the acquisition of the site from the steel company.

Results

So far, there are few results of the conversion project. 1 000 new housing units will create living space for around 2 000 new residents. Additionally, there will be new commercial areas as well as public and semi-public areas for social and cultural exchange. A large area in the centre of the district will be for businesses, targeting start-ups and innovative enterprises. Building permits, in the form of partial land use plans for the new district were submitted for approval in late 2017 and approved in 2019.

Aerial view of the future district. Source: Fonds du Logement, 2019.

Experiences, success factors, risks

Reconversion provides the opportunity to bring new types of land use into an urban area. NeiSchmelz creates a new residential district with businesses and public spaces. At the same time, the project illustrates how cultural heritage from the steel industry can be preserved while changing the usage of the site.

This industrial reconversion is a large-scale project that benefits from multi-level governance arrangements. In particular for the negotiations with the globally acting industrial companies, it was important to involve a national player.

The project is similar in size to other conversion projects in Luxembourg. For most of these projects, the sheer size in relation to the immediate surroundings and existing urban fabric poses special challenges for planners and architects.

Conclusions

NeiSchmelz illustrates that participatory processes, if implemented thoughtfully, have an impact on the length of a planning process. Participation, however, is key to acceptance of the new project and should thus represent a central pillar in the planning process. A good project requires effort and time.

Contacts

Ms Eva Gottschalk, Chief planner of the City of Dudelange: Eva.Gottschalk@dudelange.lu

References

City of Dudelange, 2021: project website: http://www.dudelange.lu/fr/projets-urbains/projet-neischmelz

City of Dudelange, 2013: participation report: http://www.dudelange.lu/fr/Documents/2013_Neischmelz-Rapport.pdf