AGORA – Belval, an ambitious urban project at European Level
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Belval, an ambitious urban project at European Level

In 1997, it was a wasteland with an area equivalent to 120 football pitches. In 2020, it is an innovative urban quarter integrating contemporary architecture with revitalised old industrial installations which have found new uses. Belval is a remarkable achievement on the scale of Luxembourg and even Europe.

First-time visitors to Belval are dazzled by the imposing character of the blast furnaces and the university quarter built on the industrial remains of the former site. There is good reason. Even AGORA collaborators, though they are experts who have seen others, continue to be impressed by the scale of the project they have been involved in for several years.

Vanessa Villeneuve is a project manager engineer. She began working on the Belval project even before she joined AGORA, during the demolition phase of the old steel works and installations. The blast furnaces had not yet been rehabilitated; the land was largely virgin. For me," she says, "it's the project of a lifetime and I'm very impressed when I look at the result, even though I've been there every step of the way.”

The Director of Urban Planning and Infrastructure, Thomas Rau, recalls his arrival at AGORA in 2003. He also remembers his surprise at the project. "There were 1.3 million square metres to build, more than 20,000 employees and students to accommodate, and more than 7,000 residents to house. At the time I thought this bet was a bit crazy. But in the end, it was this lofty ambition that made my mind up. I wanted to be a part of it!”

A utopia turned into reality

20 years after the creation of AGORA, this is the result. Today 18,000 people have invested in the site. Families, students, employees, senior citizens: the objective of a social mix was quickly achieved. All these people rooted in Belval live in an urban universe designed according to sustainable development principles. “This meets national guidance translated on the ground by a proactive government policy”, recalls Vincent Delwiche Managing Director of AGORA.

He has been at the head of the planning and development company for many years and is particularly proud of the way the quarter has been shaped by the Science City concept. This was the starting point for achieving the ambition to convert an industrial region into a space dedicated to the knowledge economy and tertiary development.

“Historically, before the creation of the University, Luxembourg appreciated the fact that students go abroad to study and then come back to Luxembourg with new ideas, new practices and new contacts. This policy was reversed with the thinking on the Belval project: we now consider that we must also bring researchers to us to innovate directly on our territory.”

Indeed, it is an opportunity for the whole country to have a development platform in promising fields, primarily through research and the exploitation of new technologies.

To achieve these results, AGORA has developed a four-step method that sum up the essence of the role and action of the development company in the revitalisation of brownfield sites in Luxembourg.

Rigorous planning

"The power of the method enables ordinary men to do extraordinary things," Vincent Delwiche often likes to repeat, adapting a famous quote from Peter Drucker, the “Pope of management". If Belval could be completed so efficiently and quickly, it is because of its rigorous planning.

The first global study on brownfield sites (AGIPLAN study) had already pinpointed the unique development potential of the Belval-Ouest site. This was followed by soil quality diagnostics and hydrological analyses to define the concepts of remediation and reuse of the soil of the former industrial site.

Finally, after studying several development hypotheses, the final masterplan was drafted and presented in 2002 following an international urban planning competition organised by AGORA. Over time, in order to be able to optimise programming and take into account the economic situation and new urban trends, other competitions have been organised. The best teams of architects and landscape planners in Europe were called on, resulting in bold designs such as those for Um Belval Park, the future Central Square quarter and its magnificent Place des Bassins.

Demolishing and remediating: the great adventure

In 1995, before the final closure of the site, a rare event had already left its mark. The most recent blast furnace had been dismantled and sold to the Chinese steel group Kisco, which rebuilt it identically in Yunnan province!

Two years later, when the official closure of Belval-Ouest was announced, the first major demolitions were undertaken by the former owner. At the same time, the ARBED Group (now ArcelorMittal) donated blast furnace A to the people of Luxembourg. This decision would later allow the last two blast furnaces at Belval to be integrated into the urban landscape defined by the masterplan. After six years of work carried out by AGORA up to 2004, the demolition cycle was completed resulting in thousands of cubic metres of concrete and steel removed and recycled. On the site, next to the industrial heritage of the Blast Furnace Terrace, only the old weakened chimneys and the sintering basins of the former sintering plant were to remain.

Of course, AGORA also had to swing into action to ensure the elimination of the risks to the natural environment and future occupants associated with the former activities. This was the objective of the remediation concept validated by the Environment Administration. This concept is the result of an inventory of soil and groundwater pollution. It enabled polluted areas to be identified and delimited. After obtaining the ministerial permits, the development company has monitored its implementation, which, depending on the future activities planned on the site, consists of either covering the polluted soil or relocating it to the Plateau Saint-Esprit, a former landfill site for materials from the industrial era. Eventually, it will be completely secured by sealing it off. “It is rare to have an option of this sort on a site to be developed," states Vanessa Villeneuve. Normally, polluted soil is exported abroad! In Belval, AGORA has taken the opportunity presented by this installation to plan the creation of a green space integrated into the existing park system.”

Moving infrastructures forward

As soon as the demolition and remediation work is finished, a vast construction site opens up, within which engineers and building workers work closely together. In order to develop Belval, it was vital to secure and move networks and relocate railway tracks. Many power supply lines also had to be diverted and buried. "A series of very delicate operations, countless technical constraints, and large-scale work to be carried out within a precise timeframe," recalls Jean-Claude Huberty.

That's not all. In parallel, we also had to start construction of the Micheville link tunnel linking Belval to the French border. "The tunnel was Belval's first major structural work. It was carried out in parallel with the construction site of the emblematic building of the Banque Internationale à Luxembourg (BIL)," emphasises the project leader engineer. Then comes the installation of the urban road network, heating and power supply networks for the entire site. “We had to start from scratch. It was an enormous project!”

A quarter developed quickly!

In Luxembourg, due to the country's great attractiveness and its economic and demographic growth, the residential property market is very dynamic. Supply must constantly adapt to growing demand. With the opening of Belval, many enthusiastic property developers very quickly saw the opportunity to have new quality development spaces in the very original universe created on the land of the former flagship of Luxembourg industry.

A first step was taken in 2008 with the delivery of the first homes directly on the Blast Furnace Terrace, then in the residential quarter of Belval Nord. "The masterplan planned totally innovative forms of housing linked to an original quarter unlike any other in the Grand Duchy. In a country that is open to innovation, the concept became attractive in no time at all. It turned into an immediate success," explains Robert Kocian, Director of Marketing and Development.

And the tertiary followed. Although in the first instance it was necessary to convince decision-makers of the benefit of developing their activity outside the traditional hubs. At the time, there were no other projects of this scale in Europe. The arguments in favour of Belval, however, quickly superseded first impressions. Diversity, accessibility, transport, public services, green spaces, shopping and restaurant facilities, and a large development capacity, Belval has quickly established itself.

In less than 20 years, the site has risen to become the fifth largest tertiary sector centre in the country with a stock of more than 215,000 m2 of office space already delivered. The trend is gradually gaining momentum, particularly since the inauguration of the university campus in 2015 and the commissioning of the Micheville link tunnel, which provides a direct link between Belval and the border area.

Developed on the communes of Esch-sur-Alzette and Sanem, the Belval site is today the link between two strong and rapidly expanding identities. Both Communes have suffered greatly from the industrial crisis of the late 1990s, "But both, without denying their culture strongly linked to the steel industry, have managed to adapt, rebound and enhance their development capabilities through research, the knowledge economy and its new vectors," Vincent Delwiche is delighted to say.

“This is not just a local development. It corresponds to the needs of the country and, beyond that, of the whole of Europe. In Belval, AGORA creates the best conditions to access these new horizons. ”

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