Uplace founder and CEO Bart Verhaeghe, also chair of Club Brugge, signed an agreement in 2009 with the Flemish government to take over part of the brownfield site in Machelen under the Vilvoorde viaduct. The land was polluted by former industrial activity, and part of the deal was that Uplace would clean up the site for its 190,000 square-metre project. Uplace would provide a shopping centre, restaurants, a hotel and living accommodation.
In 2010 the municipality of Machelen gave the go-ahead for the business. In 2011, Flanders’ planning minister Philippe Muyters granted the project a construction permit, but the province of Flemish Brabant refused an environmental permit. Uplace appealed the decision, which is how the dossier came to land on Schauvliege’s desk. Following long delays as opposition grew, she announced her decision last week. Opposition to the Uplace project is based on three main issues:
Mobility It is estimated that the complex will attract some 8,000 cars a day to the Brussels Ring, which is already burdened by heavy traffic. Public transport links to the site would cost an estimated €56 million – several times the annual budget of De Lijn.
Environment The Uplace site is currently one of the worst spots in Flanders for fine particulate pollution caused by vehicle exhaust, and additional motor traffic will make it worse.
Social impact The project is opposed by a consortium of municipalities in Flemish Brabant, including neighbouring Vilvoorde and Leuven, which fear that a giant shopping centre will take business away from city centres, where shops are already suffering because of the economic crisis.
Schauvliege said that, according to the Flemish roads and traffic administration, the project would have only a slightly negative effect on Ring road traffic. She also granted the permit on the condition that Uplace contribute €12 million to the cost of installing public transport links.
She said that the effects could be slightly to moderately negative for the environment, but that the effect would be lessened by the implementation of the public transport measures. She made no reference to the question of the project’s social impact on other towns, which falls outside of her remit.
Opponents, including Leuven mayor Louis Tobback and Unizo, the organisation that represents small businesses, promised to take the decision before the Council of State. A trio of environmental groups – Greenpeace, the Union for a Better Environment and the Brussels environmental council Bral – are weighing the possibility of legal action.
Peter Swinnen, the bouwmeester, or official Flemish region architect, said that the granting of a permit to Uplace was “a missed opportunity” to use the former industrial site for the development of innovative industry, the original purpose of the brownfield legislation. The Flemish Brabant provincial deputation, which originally refused the permit, said the decision was a “major disappointment”.
Tom Dehaene, son of the former prime minister and head of the list for provincial elections in Vilvoorde, noted that Schauvliege had little room to manoeuvre. “The mistakes were all made long ago,” he said. Vilvoorde mayor Marc Van Asch said the decision was “a black day for Vilvoorde”.
There were, however, a few smiles on the faces of supporters. Machelen’s mayor Jean-Pierre De Groef said he was “delighted” and called the decision “courageous”. Flemish chamber of commerce Voka said that the ruling was “a form of legal security for anyone who plans to make large investments in Flanders”.
Verhaeghe, meanwhile, called it “a shot in the arm for enterprise in Flanders. The Flemish government has shown itself to be a trustworthy partner that takes resolute and durable decisions. Schauvliege followed all the rules, notwithstanding the mediagenic opponents of the project.”