Arriving by train, you are immediately confronted with pile of rubble number one, Project Gent-Sint-Pieters. For the total makeover of the train station, millions of euros of transportation and station development were released in 2004. The major project, originally to be finished by 2014, has now been given a 2018 expected completion date, apparently due to complications with Belgian railway infrastructure manager Infrabel.
The old station was constructed in preparation for the 1913 World's Fair. Soon, more than a 100 years later, the new station is getting ready to take over. The ambitious project promises to be not only stunning but also very practical, hopefully encouraging more travellers to switch to public transport. For this lofty goal, 10,000 bike racks and remarkably improved tram and bus areas are promised for the ever-growing commuter population.
Ghent has the most train transfers in all of Flanders, and the new station needs to be ready to provide capacity and facilities to accommodate these numbers. To top off the project on a grand scale, there will be shiny new office spaces and apartments in the mix.
The project designers are a regular all-star line-up, including Jacques Voncke of Eurostation, who is responsible for the awesome underground structure beneath Antwerp's Central Station. This is proof that he can work modernity and function around a protected building like Gent-Sint-Pieters. In addition, French landscape architect Alain Maguerit, who has designed numerous green areas from Paris to Marseilles, will give his expert advice in and around Ghent’s station. Then the architect team of Poponcini and Lootens, who are more like conceptual designers, could add some flair according to a dynamic 3D image.
Every city needs an attractive entry point, and, as Maritine De Regger, Deputy Mayor for Public Works, says: “The neighbourhood is very sad at the moment and could use a lift.”
A project of this scale will not only energise the appearance of a slightly dull neighbourhood that is flanked by the lovely Citadelpark in contrast, but it will also boost activity and commerce in the area.
Now if only the citizens of Ghent can try to have the patience of saints until 2018.
Leaving the station and heading towards central Ghent used to be easy – hop on Tram 1 towards the historic city centre and step off at the Korenmarkt, where you could take in the towering Sint- Niklaas Church, Belfort, Sint-Baafs Cathedral and Duivelsteen all in one sweeping panoramic view. But Tram 1 doesn't reach there now; instead it drops off travellers at the old courthouse near Veldstraat, the city’s shopping street. From there it takes a solid seven minutes by foot to reach the main squares and 15 to the Vlasmarkt nightlife corner, all the while stepping carefully on temporary plank walkways and past construction barriers.
What are we to expect from such a huge undertaking? Why tolerate such major disruption of this grand scale? De Regger responds with genuine enthusiasm, “It had to be done! These areas and squares are the heart of our city. They were tired, and the non-pedestrian nature of how they were organised... a disaster. We needed to re-evaluate the master plan of our public spaces and bind them all together for easier accessibility.”
De Regger continues in a more careful tone. “There will be controversy and critique. The new City Hall, for example, will have a walk-through tunnel. Scepticism is all around, but I believe it will be an invaluable point of interest for our city centre.” The KoBra Project was 15 years in the making. It begins with “Ko”, referring to the Korenmarkt, and ends with a combination of Emile Braunplein and Belfortstraat.
The first phase, The Korenmarkt, is finished except for the arrival of some sculptures to enhance the square’s markedly more stately atmosphere. The grand total for this first phase hits the roof at €6 million (This also includes a bicycle shelter at the Sint-Michiels bridge. There seems to be encouragement on all levels to increase the use of two-wheeled, non-motorised vehicles all over the city).
Next up, Cataloniëstraat, Veldstraat and Sint- Niklaasstraat. This is where the new arrangement for the public transport comes to light, which will bind Sint-Pieters Station with the city centre. “This was necessary. We had to restructure the tram lines to accommodate the new longer trams that will run at a higher frequency. Our city is growing in activity, and we need to embrace it,” says De Regger.
When asked how the local residents and businesses took the news of the coming construction and incontinence, she answers curtly. “We prepared and informed everyone. It’s a shame, really, but in an undertaking this complex, you have to continue. But I believe that commerce will improve steadily after completion.”
One resident of the neighbourhood, Tom Lezaire says that he can't sleep anymore. "My whole building rattles with the passing trucks, and parking places are constantly blocked for arriving materials... It is too much. I hope it’s worth it.” So maybe everyone is not as happy as the government claims? De Regger reiterates: “It's a painful process. But it will be appreciated in the end because it is so necessary.”
Surely to be appreciated will be the Emile Braunplein. The spot between the Belfort and the Sint-Niklaas Church, currently used as a parking lot, is to be transformed into a sloping green, open park with a modern wooden pavilion and, what else, a bicycle shelter and café.
But once again, eager residents will have to be patient as this undertaking is set to be completed sometime in 2011 – at the earliest. In the meantime, archaeological finds have researchers sifting through the rubble of 800-year-old remains found in the cellars of buildings past. Good news is that these discoveries, although slowing the whole process now, are sure to enrich the square’s historical value in the long run.
Just when you thought the projects in Ghent could not get more impressive, you are handed a pamphlet on De Waalse Krook. This is the site of the "Library of the Future and the Centre for New Media". And according to the three-dimensional voyage through the structure made by Brussels’ HOOOX Media, it is breathtaking indeed. “It is here you are supposed to experience, experiment and communicate with media you have only dreamed of,” according to the website. The extensive new city library, the Centre for New Media and the Flemish Institute for Archiving, will be an all-in-one house of knowledge, meant to modernise the way the people think about libraries.
It is hard to imagine this as a reality, however, when wandering through the dilapidated present neighbourhood whose entry alley reeks of urine. And great care will have to be given to the preservation of the site’s historical building. Nonetheless, nestled into this space where the canal bends around and heads towards the well-known performance venue Vooruit, the location couldn’t be more perfect. And it is sure to drastically change the overall view when looking from south or central Ghent.
But what about Ghent’s public library at Zuid? The current library just across the canal averages about 2,500 visitors per day; it is ill equipped to handle such capacity, and this is what spawned the whole idea to build a new one.
The developers of the project like to call it a complex puzzle, where priorities must be set, not only for the ultra-modern library, but for the re-development of the entire quarter. Once again, the Ghent spirit favours pedestrians and cyclists, with non-motor vehicle bridges connecting the area to the inner city. There will be night- as well as daytime activities, to prevent the neighbourhood from becoming a dead-zone at any time. And finally, the open spaces need to be attractive enough to draw people in.
Set to open in 2015, the new library should beat Sint-Pieters Station by three years.
Ghent has always been lovely, but it’s a challenge to maintain that image in the midst of so many ambitious development projects. Look past the mats covering the ground to protect visitors from the mud, and look past all the rubble. Instead, raise your eyes to the cranes dotting the skyline and see that the city is in motion. For now, all Ghent can offer are 3D images and promises. But she seems to be keeping them.