Amstel III is the result of twenty years of public-private short-term thinking. In the last throes of functionalist urban planning, this office area of Amsterdam has become the victim of the perverse effects of the boom period. The result is a mono-functional, indifferent field of offices on a carpet of parking space, devoid of quality of place, opportunities to meet others, facilities or space for visitors. Barriers are needed to separate the public and private spheres. Competition has increased due to the construction of new office space elsewhere and the decline in demand as a result of flexible office working. Amstel III has not been able to keep up with these developments and is slowly emptying.
At present the municipality of Amsterdam and property owners have reached deadlock as they search for stimulatory measures, payment settlements or new lease constructions. These will not be enough to turn the tide for Amstel III, however. To do this will require that public and private responsibilities are separated again and that the solutions to the problems are not made dependent on developments elsewhere in Amsterdam. Amstel III’s problems must be solved in Amstel III. Which is perfectly possible.
On the regional scale Amstel III is a fantastic location. Metro and Intercity rail connections are located within a 500m radius, and direct motorway links with the A2 and the A9 make this one of the most accessible areas in the Netherlands. The centre of Amsterdam is just 15 minutes away by metro, making Amstel III a location with amazing potential. The lively real estate trade in the area is evidence that this is not just wishful thinking. Enquiry at the Land Registry Office reveals that two of the seven buildings in the study area changed hands in 2010. Some sold and cut their losses; others bought, taking advantage of perceived new opportunities.
To realise this potential a development strategy is required that limits risks and minimises mutual dependencies, whether spatial, financial or organisational. All property owners have their own issues and particular interests, but also their own operating style. They all deserve a chance to deal with their empty buildings and decline in value in their own way and at their own pace.
Moreover, the strategy for transforming Amstel III must be based on the current dynamic of the area. In practice, buildings that are sold are modernised by the new owner and rented again as offices. Although the municipality of Amsterdam has set its sights on transforming property in Amstel III into housing (thus reducing the supply of office space), the reality is different and this wish is therefore impossible to fulfil. Aiming solely for the (technically and financially) laborious transformation into residential accommodation is going against the current and, more to the point, offers few prospects for the further development of Amstel III.
Instead of focusing on transforming buildings, the strategy is aimed at transformation of the area. The first focus is on the people who do still work in the area. It’s important that they remain in Amstel III. This means satisfying the basic need, not only for a pleasant place of work, but also for pleasant surroundings. Any attempt to create quality of place is doomed to failure, however, if it is not embedded in a broader spatial framework. Only then it is possible to create public space that also becomes public domain.
Once this has been achieved it also becomes possible to create opportunities for further growth. But even then, the focus should be on adding functions rather than on transformation. There is plenty of space in the area for primary facilities and housing without complex building transformations having to take place. This space just needs to be made available. Thus Amstel III will once more become able to compete with other locations and gradually new renters will be attracted for the existing offices. At the same time a start can be made on restructuring so that – ultimately – Amstel III is transformed into an attractive residential and working area. By starting with small changes that add quality and functions – but which offer the prospect of more – the area can evolve in the long run into a more compact urban quarter.
Herein lies the real challenge for Amstel III: to devise a development strategy that makes it possible to create a sense of place in the short term, which simultaneously transforms the empty space between the buildings into potential development area’s and opens up opportunities for further growth of the area so that it can evolve into a lively urban district. This development strategy combines the most elementary building block of urban planning – the street – with a tried and tested method from the Dutch planning tradition: reparcelling by barter.
A new street will link up the entrances of the existing buildings, and provides them with an address and identity. The street defines the boundary between the public and the private, giving each a place. The street makes a distinction between ‘mine and thine’, creating value for both. The street is the spatial context in which social bonding arises, as liveliness becomes concentrated and opportunities for meeting grow. At the same time, the new street provides the foundation for a new access structure, which is finely meshed, making the plots to be developed accessible in small steps. This structure meshes well with the fine grain of the current construction and joins the old with the new. It is also this fine grain that determines the intrinsic quality of the current structure and which literally sets the standard for the further growth of Amstel III.
The parcel exchange forms the organisational framework for the development strategy. In order to make the street possible, and to position each plot on the street, Amstel III’s spatial layout has to be unravelled. In a joint, non-financial transaction, lessees bring in their lease rights so that these can be redivided to form new plots. And they do this, not so that they can undertake joint exploitation of the area in the coming years (which would involve relations of mutual dependency), but precisely so that they can operate independently of each other. After bartering, lessees can follow their own individual (financial) strategy at their own pace. Reparcelling by barter is a simple administrative step, as a result of which nothing changes – number of square metres and parking spaces don’t need to be adjusted – and at the same time everything can change direction. The reparcelling can be carried out for each individual sub-district. Not more than four to seven lessees need to participate for a new stretch of street to be created, thus contributing to the development of the new district. The municipality facilitates the process and offers the prospect of more lenient interpretation of the zoning plan to participants. After all, one good turn deserves another. In this way space is literally created that can be used for individual initiative and development opportunities.
The street is also the symbol of a new start for Amstel III. It creates a fresh prospect of a district that is allowed to grow and be transformed over time. This is a growth process where the parameters, in terms of both functions and space, are set by the current situation. Amstel III can be extended, but the quality in the here and now will not be made dependent on growth. Our proposal does not solve Amsterdam’s problem of empty office space, but it does offer the city the opportunity to create a district that will be allowed to grow slowly over time, without having to invest in costly infrastructure and without having to mortgage the future.
Niels Tilanus, Jelte Boeijenga, Corine Erades, Joost Brands