Strenghtening inner cities with attractive architecture

Things are moving fast for ION. Several projects in West Flanders – the province that accounts for half of its project portfolio – illustrate the Waregem-based project developer’s outlook on ‘living and working in the future’. Managing Partner Davy Demuynck sheds some light on ION’s philosophy and the major challenges and sensitivities a project developer has to overcome.

Bart Vancauwenberghe, freelance journalist

What is the main focus of ION’s projects?

Davy Demuynck: “It’s very important to us to develop and deliver beautiful projects. We want to make a clear departure from the numerous projects built between the 1960s and 80s that were anything but aesthetically pleasing, as the focus was then mainly on speed and efficiency. Of course, those aspects are still important today, but we really want to shift the focus to progressive architecture. New projects should not only provide added value to the inhabitants; they should be attractive to the whole environment. That’s why we prefer to work together with consultancy firms that also have a modern take on the optimal use of property. For the Groenling project in Roeselare, for instance, we have joined forces with Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, because the Nordic countries are veritable trailblazers in terms of progressive architecture.”

How important is the West Flemish market for your projects?

“West Flanders has been a flourishing property market for many years now, and it accounts for about half of our projects. The coastal region is obviously important, but there’s an entrepreneurial dynamic in many cities: Waregem, Kortrijk, Roeselare, Nieuwpoort, Knokke, Veurne, the list goes on.”

How do you decide which projects to choose? Is your choice based on the type of property, such as economic versus residential property?

“We take some 400 projects into consideration every year, and we end up buying maybe a dozen. Our selection is based on thorough analysis of the projects’ specific potential and possibilities. We always ask ourselves which product can be developed at this location in the current market, and at what price point it can be sold or rented out. We do that all over the country, with projects in almost all of the Flemish provinces (except Limburg), in Brussels and in the Walloon province of Hainaut. Besides residential property (basically anything you can put a bed in), we also develop commercial property (shops, offices, industrial/logistics buildings and infrastructure). Since last year, we’ve added Build-to-suit property as a third pillar. Through our Build-to-suit offering, we design and build custom solutions for forward-thinking customers looking to buy or rent, who already have a pretty good idea of where they want to be located in two years from now, and we completely tailor the project to their needs.”

What would you say are the specific challenges in apartment construction?

“It’s vital to take everything into account from an early stage. For the Waterfront project in Waregem, for instance, which includes two residential towers, we’re having a Dutch consultancy firm carry out a wind study, because our neighbours to the north have much more experience with the impact of wind on high-rise buildings. This allows us to minimize any inconvenience caused by wind for both inhabitants and visitors. Although we have various projects where we design traditional residential neighbourhoods subdivided into housing plots, we do expect apartments to become more popular. And not just with senior citizens, but also with young couples and even families with children. While a great many people still dream of a detached house in the countryside, that dream is becoming increasingly unattainable. Strengthening the inner-city fabric and making it more appealing will draw a growing number of people back to dynamic (smaller) cities with a bustling, attractive city centre.”

How much freedom do you have as a project developer when designing a building site?

“When you participate in a competition, your freedom of choice as a project developer is very limited; based on the specifications, the jury decides on the specific destination the site will get. But of course, you can decide on the architecture. As there is so little greenfield land left, there is more and more ‘brownfield’ construction nowadays, often characterized by fragmented ownership structures. Large-scale projects are mostly awarded through competitions. Since it’s so important to have a strong team to convince a jury, we tend to partner up with other companies so that we can combine our expertise. And you always learn something from the partners you work with.”

For many projects, there’s an absolute requirement for a certain amount of parking space. What does that entail for you?

“If any existing parking space is cut in a new design for a site, you have to offset that with extra space, for instance by erecting a parking tower. Parking space is typically a loss-making element for project developers. However, it’s absolutely necessary to observe parking availability ratios and ensure enhanced liveability. As urban mobility evolves, with many families moving away from car ownership towards more sustainable alternatives, such as carpooling, we actually expect to see a diminished need for parking space in the future. And at the same time, our ever-increasing traffic congestion spurs demand for local high-quality office developments.”


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