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Retail: heading for more sustainable urban zones

Commercial zones need to be reinvented to serve mixed purposes in line with contemporary realities in the interests of sustainability.

Filip de Bois

Portfolio Director

Redevco Belgium

Investors and property developers today are all concerned by sustainability and aim to act in different ways: by using recyclable materials to renovate but also by densifying and making the best use of existing spaces. Filip de Bois, Portfolio Director at Redevco Belgium, believes the situation is clear: “We need to rethink the use made of supermarket car parks. They may have up to 2,000 parking spots, but most of the week they are only a third full, except on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Better use has to be made of spaces like these. It would benefit the city and the people who live there. For instance, it would be possible to develop an area providing apartments, offices, shops, etc. There is still considerable potential for this in the Brussels-Capital Region.”

So the aim is to make these sites more dynamic and animated, probably with smaller shops, closer to consumers. But in Filip de Bois’ view, there is another essential aspect when it comes to sustainability: “Let’s stop developing new constructions on sites that are not yet built up and instead concentrate on renovating and redeveloping what is already there. Because sometimes I see paradoxes, where constructions are promoted as being the latest thing in sustainability, whereas they have been built on a site that had to be deforested first! So instead, let’s carry on developing and improving what we already have.”

A virtuous project

A good example of this is Oostakker Oude Bareel, near Ghent. The site covers a total surface area of 70,000 m², with a big Carrefour supermarket and about 1,200 parking spots: “It’s the perfect place to densify. To make the best possible use of the space by creating housing and a new tram terminus as well as gathering shops together here. Combining things like this would attract even more customers. So everyone would win: the tenants on the site, the customers, the neighbourhood and the city, the environment – everyone. It’s an ambitious project to carry out, with the different levels of authority involved and tenants with long leases.”

This has a significant advantage as far as Redevco is concerned: “We manage these sites for our investor clients as owners, so we are not pure property developers. That means we can work on redeveloping the site with less focus on the time factor, unlike a pure property developer who has to take an option, pay interest on this option and not receive any rent throughout the permit acquisition process. And we consult properly with the tenants and the various bodies and authorities, which is fully in line with a sustainable approach.”

Other similar projects are being considered, for example for properties in Auderghem and Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, where sites can be put to better use, including with recyclable materials, of course, by installing solar panels and charging stations or improving insulation.

The importance of good consultation

It is essential to develop good consultation with the various levels of authority to successfully implement these projects. As Filip de Bois says, “The challenge is that we manage assets with a long-term vision. But political power evolves on the basis of elections, and coalition changes sometimes delay virtuous projects aiming to improve sustainability.

Plus there are still a lot of ongoing debates with experts on the value of our investments in the coming years. How do you value a building that meets all the sustainability criteria, compared with an old, unrenovated building? A distinction should be made between buildings that are already almost carbon neutral and those that are not. Reference rules are still needed here that are identical across regions, and even throughout Europe.”

Redevco aims to have a net zero carbon portfolio by 2040: “We measure the water, gas and electricity consumption for each of our tenants, in each of our buildings, throughout Europe. That gives us knowledge, so that we can do better afterwards. Where we can make fast improvements, we consult with our tenants to see what can be done quickly.”

Consumers’ habits are clearly evolving, so it is essential to respond positively to this change by heading towards commercial zones where quality will be the key word.

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