Setting the bar high
Jeroen van der Toolen, of Ghelamco – a Belgian real estate developer, ponders over the Warsaw office market developing at a breakneck pace, the last couple of years for his company and the future. Interview by Morten Lindholm
WBJ: You have been with Ghelamco Poland for almost 20 years. Looking back over the two decades what are the projects you are most proud of?
Jeroen van der Toolen: Well, we are sitting here on the 41st floor of the Warsaw Spire building. Of course, this is Ghelamco’s and my landmark project. Something that I am extremely proud of. However, looking back on time there have been many nice and interesting milestones for the company. The project on Bitwy Warszawskiej 1920 r. street was a big step for Ghelamco coming from the dense Mokotów office market in southern Warsaw closer to the city center and attracting top tenants such as Commercial Union [Aviva] and Gerling [HDI Global SE]. An unusual but complicated boutique project was the Zaułek Piękna – at the crossroads of Krucza and Piękna streets. When we dug up the ground there, we stumbled upon many special things that we had to take good care of.
However, developing Warsaw Spire and Plac Europejski and all the community responsibility around it was a special achievement. It was our first tower project. We had so far been constructing small buildings. Even in this light, it makes our soonto- be-ready projects The Warsaw HUB and Warsaw Unit easier to comprehend because we have erected a tower already.
Tell us more about The Warsaw HUB and Warsaw Unit.
The HUB is close to being opened. The project will be delivered in Q2 2020. It is currently about 80 percent rented. Actually, the HUB is a more complicated project than Warsaw Spire. You think we have finished one tower so the second would be easy. But this one is also like the first time for us because in the HUB every function, I can think of, has been included. There will be two hotels, including one of the biggest hotels in Warsaw, with two different entrances and logistics involved. We have secured full integration with retail on the -1 level and it is directly linked to a metro station and the public transport connections to that.
How about the Unit?
With Warsaw Unit, it is a little bit different. It is like nine months behind the HUB. Many people said the recession is coming and the Warsaw office market overheating. Considering the comments we decided to lay the foundation so that we could quickly move up when we could see the demand was there. Today we have leased 45 percent of the building out that actually will be higher than the Warsaw Spire. The Spire is 220m tall but has 40 meters of spires at the top. The roof of the Unit will be at a level of 202m above ground. A strong and attractive project from an architectural point of view.
In Poland, you are famous for creating a whole new central business district (CBD) in Warsaw around Rondo Daszyńskiego. In the future, will Warsaw still be your main target market? Is there space to create such a visionary impact still?
Warsaw is growing and will still grow. Compare Warsaw to other major capital cities around and you will see we have come far but there is still a long way to go. Everything developed here at Daszyńskiego roundabout – not only by us but other developers too – has a very special urban feel to it, something great for the city. I believe Warsaw has a couple of areas where you will see new promising districts. Maybe not in the CBD but still centric as the center grows. They will develop into new strong areas like Wola [western Warsaw] because the city has space for it. These areas will probably be mainly residential but with retail and office space as well. But these are attractive solutions for the future. Our main focus is on office space. However, we have secured a potential 100,000 sq m for residential space, in the pipeline.
You won the MIPIM awards for Warsaw Spire and sold it last year at a record-breaking transaction deal. This sets the bar very high?
Winning MIPIM awards was really special. No project in Poland had ever won the award. Our competitors and other agents from Poland voted for us. Warsaw is, of course, a very important city for us but we are very active in Belgium as well. We are building a multi-use tower there and a stadium. We are active in Luxembourg and in Moscow through logistics projects. Recently, we bought a company in London. So we have many projects and areas to focus on. We are investing a lot in sustainable elements and green elements of the upcoming buildings. There will be more and more requirements because of the Paris Treaty [an agreement on climate change within the United Nations Framework Convention]. And we are investing to be at the forefront of this.
But you have more plots secured here in the center of the city?
Yes, we can build towers. We are in the stage of getting permits at the moment and we would like to start one of them very soon. But don’t forget we have started a project in Kraków recently. Soon we will start in Łódź – a central, multifunctional-usage project of 80,000 sq m near the main train station. There is also a residential project in Gdynia and one office in Katowice in the pipeline.
Urban space and placemaking through mixed-use projects have been trending for the last few years. What is your point of view?
We set the trend in Warsaw with plac Europejski. We won a lot of awards – from the residents of Warsaw and from architectural organizations. We, therefore, consulted with the best-in-class experts to help us develop a place that has sand, trees and fountains with underground nozzles so that children can play in the water. We have permanent outdoor exhibitions, an ice-skating rink in winter and an outdoor cinema in summer. We have upgraded this public space. We want to invest in this because we want to make the places we build better for everybody – workers and residents alike. Therefore, we now spend a lot of time analyzing data before we decide what is needed for the locals and for making the project a long-term success.
And what about mixed-use projects?
Mixed-use depends on the size of the projects. When it is big enough, of course, we want to have mixed-use of complementing functions where life and work stay in harmony. 15 years ago it was different than it is today. Warsaw was just getting its first quality office building. Today employees’ expectations are different. And a couple of years from now they will be also different. Today we observe that our new tenants choose us, localities or buildings based on how they can best suit their employees’ needs and satisfaction. It demandssomething else from developers and changes our analysis.