How Europe’s cities are overhauling their docklands

Europe’s disused docklands have become ripe for redevelopment – and in some cases now offer the most sought after residential and office locations in town.

13 novembre 2018

Across Europe, major port cities are redeveloping former docks areas to create vibrant spaces for 21st century living and working.

Rising demand for housing and offices, coupled with a growing focus on mixed-use destinations, are encouraging developers and city authorities to unlock the potential of the land – and in some cases, the buildings that remain.

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are two Dutch cities looking to their docks areas to meet the needs of locals and companies.

“Local municipalities are usually very willing to convert former docks,” says Sven Bertens, research director at JLL Netherlands. “They see the value it has in providing more living and work space for people who want to be close to the city center – that’s been the same for both Amsterdam and Rotterdam.”

To the west of Amsterdam, in the Sloterdijk area, the Haven-Stad project will build as many as 70,000 homes, joining the existing industrial and commercial buildings still in operation in the area. Meanwhile, in Rotterdam, new high-rise waterfront developments have been aiming to modernize the port city since the 1980s with areas such as Kop van Zuid rising from its industrial past to provide high-quality housing, recreational facilities, hotels and other amenities that complement the city centre.

Food and beverage and retail, along with office and residential developments, is often, says Bertens, a recipe for success: “It’s new, it’s fresh and often then entices other occupiers to the area.”

Designing for modern life

However, an attractive – but poorly connected – district is a missed opportunity.

“Infrastructure in the immediate facility can be a challenge but it’s one of the most important things for a redevelopment project to have a positive, long-lasting impact,” says Bertens. “Accessibility is crucial.”

Something the nearby Amsterdam district of Houthavens has worked hard to improve – with public transport routes redirected to improve commute times. This year, PVH Europe, whose brands include Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, moved into two newly-built glass-fronted waterfront buildings in the district.

And while some companies are seeking a modern look, Bertens believes the historic side of the ports is equally attractive for real estate developers and investors – as well as the companies and people looking to rent or buy the buildings.

“The offer of unique or quirky space in the older dock buildings is a big part of the dock space proposition,” says Bertens. “Often, the rawness of the building reflects the rawness of the occupier. Tech, media, creative industries – usually the early movers – look for these characteristics. Amsterdam, with its strong start-up scene, is not short of such tenants.”

In Liverpool, the city’s historic Royal Albert Dock has gone through several revamps in its 170-year past, at times running the risk of losing much of its original features through modern plastering or vinyl flooring. However, as Keiran Melfi, building consultancy director at JLL explains, the dock’s rediscovered original stone floors and exposed brick walls have attracted a new wave of tenant in search of a more authentic feel.

“For a retail or food and beverage outlet, the chance to serve customers in such a stripped-back setting is alluring,” he says.

However, that’s not to say that dealing with such original features does not come without challenges. “Dealing with a listed building means respecting its fabric, while communicating fully with preservation and conservation societies,” says Melfi.

A UNESCO world heritage site, Royal Albert Dock has ditched its tired souvenir shop past for a more artisanal feel, with bakeries and handbag makers, as well as pop up fashion stores, taking space.

Elsewhere, CARGO, a retail section of Bristol’s Wapping Wharftakes the idea of merging a dock’s past with its present in a different direction with a shopping complex made entirely of converted shipping containers.

“Dock refurbishment is complete when you have transformed the types of businesses operating there,” says Melfi. “It’s an investment and takes time, but the benefits are there in the long-term, both for the community and for the owner.”

Taking the longer-term view

Long-term thinking is something Hamburg knows well. The development of its HafenCity project is being phased over decades, rather than years, with as many as 40,000 people expected to work in the area upon completion between 2025 and 2030 and some 12,000 people expected to live in the district.

Hotels, shops and dining will also form part of the ambitious scheme. So far, tenants from a range of sectors have moved to the area, including shipping firm Kühne & Nagel, publisher Spiegel and consumer goods giant Unilever.

Done well, the redevelopment of docklands can make for some of the most sought-after residential addresses in town too. London Dock, a new residential district in Wapping, is being marketed in phases, with delivery of 1,800 apartments priced up to GBP 2 million expected by late 2021.

As land values across Europe continue to rise and more people flock to cities to live and work, derelict or underused docks are proving too valuable an asset for cities to leave lying dormant.

In Dublin, the city’s Docklands district is a growing mix of residential and office property, spread across several waterfront locations including the EXO office tower and North Docks scheme. The area recently attracted Irish property developer Johnny Ronan and US investment group Colony Capital, with the joint venture paying €180 million for Project Waterfront at a time of increased redevelopment of the Irish capital.

“Regeneration is going hand-in-hand with the growth of new business – and population,” says Bertens. “In many cases, docks are once again key hubs of activity in cities.”