How to enable sustainable urban commercial development in inner cities? How to cope with commercial concurrence between city centres and greenfield shopping centres? How to deal with commercial vacancies? What instruments and tools are there that decision-makers can use?

On Friday, 17. September 2021, CIPU organised an excursion to two Luxembourg cities to address these questions. During an afternoon, around 30 planners and experts from various cities and municipalities across the country learned about the approaches, of among other the city of Esch-sur-Alzette, the second biggest city of Luxembourg with 35,000 inhabitants.

The first half of the excursion led to Esch-sur-Alzette

In Esch-sur-Alzette, ‘CLAIRE’ is a municipal initiative with the objective to combat commercial vacancies in the city. The city, which has been a historic commercial centre of the Grand Duchy, features the highest level of commercial surfaces per capita in the country. Consequentially, the inner-city commercial surfaces are highly sensitive to newly occurring trends such as greenfield shopping centres and online shopping.

Luxembourg urban planners during the excursion in the shopping street in Esch-sur-Alzette. Source: Zeyen+Baumann.

Esch-sur-Alzette, also known for its steel industry, has experienced several steel crises during the past century. As consequence, many family-owned businesses have closed because of declining turnover as result of the decreasing purchasing power. Additionally, a former steel mill called ‘Belval’, just adjacent to the city centre has been transformed into a new urban district. A large shopping mall offers many of the amenities the city centre can’t and increases the pressure on the inner-city shops even further.

In 2018, a citizen survey has identified commercial vacancies as a priority topic. Since then, municipal decision-makers became active and developed together with a consultancy the project ‘CLAIRE’, which employs 2.5 full time equivalents.

Planners during the excursion in Esch-sur-Alzette. Source: Zeyen+Baumann.

‘CLAIRE’ helps the municipality to act as middle man between property owners and businesses. It brings shops and stores together through the negotiating power of the municipality and allows to bridge and negotiate different interests. This way the city effectively reduces the commercial vacancies. It offers proven solutions in the form of long-term leaseholds but can also make short-term uses possible; an interim use concepts provides surfaces to shops in the form of pop-up spaces or as showcases for publicity. With reducing commercial vacancies, the inner city has become more attractive, according to surveyed citizens.

An important part of ‘CLAIRE’ are pop-up surfaces. In the framework of this short-term use concept, shop owners can rent a flexible size of commercial surfaces for short periods of time. This helps shop owners to test the general demand and new products with marginal financial and organisational commitment. The pop-up surfaces are known to residents and shoppers from outside and have well-integrated into the ever-diversifying commercial offer in Esch-sur-Alzette of today.

Planners inside one of the pop-up stores. Source: Zeyen+Baumann.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and booming online commerce, ‘CLAIRE’ has shown results: in 2021, only 14% of the shop surfaces in Esch-sur-Alzette were vacant. The reduction of commercial vacancies has led to a better perception of the city centre and consequentially to a better image of the city as place to live and place to visit.

Still not all challenges can be solved. So for deadlocks regarding rent expectations of property owners, which sometimes exceed what businesses can pay for. However, rent for commercial surfaces can in most cases be successfully mediated through political support from the council of aldermen.

A more detailed description of the concept in English is provided in a CIPU project sheet, that you may find here:  

The project has also a website, that you can access here (German and French language):

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