From commercial core to lively core in Tongeren

The city of Tongeren recently presented the spatial implementation draft plan 'Centrum II. There are some very interesting aspects in this plan. For instance, it will allow vacant commercial premises to be converted into housing, but also aims to preserve and guard the patrimonial character of the city centre to the maximum extent possible.

Long-term vision as policy guideline

A spatial implementation plan (RUP) sets the long-term planning outlines within which an urban or inner-city area can further grow and be developed. What functions do we want where and which preconditions or measures do we want to take? A question that we deal with on a daily basis within the spatial economics pillar within CityD.

The answer to that question is specifically described in the spatial implementation plan. Such a plan is of course imperative to provide the necessary legal certainty to owners, investors and entrepreneurs. This is where the problem lies. Legal certainty is for the long term, while everyone is talking about transition, about changing living, shopping and visiting behaviour, not least stimulated by recent developments such as COVID, the energy crisis, e-commerce, etc.

It is to its credit that the city of Tongeren is already responding to these developments after an earlier RUP 'Centrum' of 2015 and wishes to re-examine its framework. A commercial core anno 2023 has long since ceased to stand or fall with shops and catering establishments alone. Various terms then appear, such as bustling centres or facilities centres. We then quickly bridge the gap to commercial vacancy, which is often concentrated and therefore visible in city centres in particular.

Seeing and seizing opportunities

Tongeren is the 'oldest city in the country'. It's much smarter to call yourself the 'first city in the country'. Then you are a frunt runner and Tongeren has been that for several years, very consistently. If you as a board notice that many buildings have been vacant for a long time, you should ask yourself why this is the case and how you can give new impetus to your city centre with targeted measures, adapted to the needs of the time.

Older commercial cores with many smaller and outdated commercial properties are extra vulnerable to vacancy everywhere in Flanders. Shops are systematically getting bigger, investors do not want commercial properties with many small rooms, but straightforward buildings with a large and beautiful facade. Buildings must also be able to be renovated in an energy-friendly manner. In short, many buildings are unsuitable for new commercial use. Moreover, all governments in Flanders are in trouble and larger commercial concentrations have emerged everywhere in the country, outside the commercial cores. Add to that the 10% purchases via the internet and you don't have to be a great mathematician to determine that the supply of properties may exceed demand. It is therefore the duty of every local government to coat according to their cloth and do what is expected, namely: embrace the transition and make it possible.

Destination change as a solution for vacancy

Tongeren is often mentioned as a city centre with high vacancy rates, but figures show that vacancy in Tongeren is not higher than in comparable city centres. It is only more visible in some locations and that is bad for their image. In recent years, the city council has approved many zoning changes from commercial to residential or another function in the broader centre. For example, 23 buildings have lost their commercial function in recent years. This is now also possible in the shopping centre, albeit under certain conditions.

There is a lot of demand to live in a well-equipped city centre. Families are becoming smaller, with fewer children, car use is increasingly criticized and residents want more 'action' in the neighbourhood. Living in the city centre is hip. If buildings can be transformed into cozy town homes, surrounded by shops and catering establishments, add some beautiful flowers and an attractive facade; why not? Of course there are rules to be taken into account, but it is possible.

Preserving the city's charisma

What the city of Tongeren also wants is to secure its DNA. More than 400 'characterful' buildings have been selected that contribute to the special charm of the 'first' city. Here too, it is best to adopt a pragmatic attitude because vacant buildings remain unattractive, no matter how beautiful or characterful the facade may be.

But today it is perfectly possible to integrate typical elements into a new design and still adapt the rest of the building to the wishes of the investor or entrepreneur. So heritage has an important role to play here, but this should not lead to excessively strict recommendations that actually undermine every new destination. Then perhaps the government itself should consider acquiring essential properties. After all, real estate is capital and as an owner you want to have your hands free to secure this capital, also for the medium term! Without investment dynamics, there are also no vibrant centres in which to live, stay, work or shop.

On behalf of the city of Tongeren, we launched the 'Entrepreneurs with Character' project. We worked with a group of ambassadors to strengthen the economic centre of the city. This includes support measures for existing traders and the campaign 'Tongeren is looking for entrepreneurs with the AmbioriX factor' to attract new businesses.

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