View from the University of Luxembourg to an abandoned blast furnace. The former steel works of Belval, a district of Esch-sur-Alzette, are being converted into a modern city quarter - Belval, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg
History lesson: the blast furnace seen from the new university campus © Getty

In the south of Luxembourg, along the border with France, a former steelworks site is offering a template for brownfield redevelopment that according to its advocates is attracting interest from observers across Europe.

For a century, Belval was a massive steelworks site operated by Arbed, now part of ArcelorMittal, with six blast furnaces and employing thousands of people at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Now the site situated between the country’s second city, Esch-sur-Alzette, and neighbouring Sanem is home to Luxembourg’s university, its only purpose-built rock music venue, and a thriving start-up scene.

“We have already seen visitors come from countries such as Belgium and Poland to understand how we did it,” says Gilles Feider, vice-chairman of Agora, the public-private partnership redeveloping the site. “And it is still a work in progress.”

After the steelmaker switched to electric steel production and shut down its blast furnaces, Agora was created in 2000 to create a new urban district on the site. First came the Rockhal, which opened in 2005 to host large-scale pop music concerts by the likes of Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams and Shakira.

This was followed by an office opening for Banque Internationale à Luxembourg and a commercial complex with shopping mall, cafés, restaurants and a multiplex cinema. Belval will eventually also include housing for 7,000 people. Two blast furnaces remain on the site as a symbol of the area’s industrial heritage and a tourist attraction, renovated and maintained by the state.

“Originally, we thought we could complete the project in 15 years, but ultimately it will be more like 25.” says Mr Feider. “In the beginning it was difficult to attract developers to the site, but today there is no longer a problem.”

He acknowledges that there was concern over a development seen as too far and too isolated from Luxembourg City, the country’s economic hub.

Critical mass has come with the establishment in Belval of the main campus of the University of Luxembourg and a railway connection. A biomedicine facility was the first to open in Belval in 2011, with the first undergraduates arriving in September 2015.

“The university gave us the final impulsion that we needed, to bring the diversity of young people and their teachers alongside the people living and working there,” Mr Feider says. “Today we also have retirement homes, so all parts of society are represented. In the past the commercial centre was fairly empty at weekends, but now it is full of people.”

Residents, students and local workers say the project has its teething troubles. Undergraduates complain that there is insufficient accommodation available nearby and a shortage of affordable entertainment as well as a lack of green spaces. In common with much of Luxembourg, Belval suffers from a shortage of car parking and big events at the Rockhal create large traffic jams.

Mr Feider acknowledges that there is still work to do. “In the middle the Belval Square Mile, the heart of the whole site, is only now being developed.”

Belval’s aim is to create synergies between the university and the Technoport incubator facility, installed in a former steel industry site under the guidance of Luxinnovation, the national innovation agency.

These efforts are starting to bear fruit, according to Patrizia Luchetta, an adviser to IT and biotech businesses setting up in Luxembourg, many of which have premises in Belval. “It was a political decision to put the university in Belval, and it’s hard to start something like that from scratch, but it is amazing what they have achieved,” she says.

The Technoport is largely full, while the intended mingling between those working at the university and adjacent industrial zones is occurring, adds Ms Luchetta. taking off. “While it’s true that Belval is still less lively at weekends than the city, it’s just a matter of time.”

Mr Feider says the Belval project has had to be self-financing. “Agora is not a promoter that needs to make a particular margin, but the project should at least pay for itself and make a bit of profit,” he says. “Over time we moved out of the red and into the black.”

Lessons from Belval will be applied to the redevelopment of another former steelworks site a few miles to the east in Schifflange, he adds.

“In Belval some stakeholders felt left out, especially the general public, so the planning process will be more open for Schifflange.”

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