WBJ: It took about 10 years to build the modern Norblin Factory project – did you expect that?
Kinga Nowakowska: It actually took longer than 10 years. We bought the plot and the factory in 2008, and we just opened last year in autumn 2021. So it was basically 13 years and obviously no one expects that anything can take so long.
Personally, I was really surprised. My background is in customer service in another industry from an operational site where things had to happen fast. This is a much bolder approach, requiring years to create and invest in something so big, while in the meantime so many things can happen.
Actually, in the case of the Norblin Factory project many things have happened since it was first conceived and the concept has changed several times. In the beginning, we worked with an architectural firm and started with the idea of a building that would also include residential apartments, but after a while we realized that living in such a busy place might not be particularly enticing and that the plot was also quite small in comparison, for example, to Browary.
From 2008, apartment sales were in crisis, and the office building business was taking off in Warsaw’s center. This finally changed our point of view and we prepared a project for offices and mixed-use. From the start, the mixed-use part was particularly focused on retail. Then COVID arrived and the market changed once again, as consumer buying behaviour drastically transformed, and shopping increasingly moved online.
Of course, great retail brands need flagship stores in prime locations, but we couldn't compete with Westfield’s Galeria Mokotow or Arkadia, because we are smaller. So in order to differentiate our offer, we decided to become truly unique. And, at the end of the day, it's great because we have many completely new concepts that are exclusively available at Norblin Factory.
As a whole, the final project is a complex and creative solution that showcases unique art, design and entertainment ideas, and distinctive store concepts.
Getting the building permit took nearly a decade. Building during COVID times was a challenge, both with regard to protecting people from the virus and creating a safe workspace. Also, as you know, [during this time] the world ground to a stop and the delivery chain was broken. So we had to wait much longer for everything.
When entering a project, no one ever takes such a long view because it’s impossible to try to make an Excel budget for the next 13 years - you need to be more optimistic to invest in this kind of project.
Do you plan to sell it?
Our mission is to develop investment project and add value to them. As you can see from our history, we like challenging projects, it is in our DNA.
When we originally bought Eurocentrum Office Complex on Al. Jerozolimskie in Warsaw it was a single tower that had an underground parking area sufficient for three towers. We completely redesigned the project, made it much more efficient and then developed it into a high class office center, still using the underground parking. It was quite a challenging project and required a lot of courage.
When we bought the plot for Royal Wilanów from Skanska in 2008 all our advisors said no, it's a stupid idea, people only sleep in the suburbs. However, today everything is occupied, every square meter is leased, and all of the retail and office spaces are full. We have companies and entrepreneurs waiting for the next space to open up.
But you did not sell Royal Wilanow?
Not yet. We want a good price. We were ready to sign an agreement, yes. But then the war started, and that changed the game a little bit, investors put their decisions on hold. Now rent is with indexation, this is a good inflation hedge and we are managing the building. Plus, people love it, especially everyone living in Wilanow. In contrast with other offices in the business district, the building was already full two months after the long lockdown ended. We didn’t have any problem attracting people back to the premises and none of our tenants have had any problem getting people to come into the office.
Again, with Norblin Factory, what started as a challenging and crazy idea has now, since the world has changed, become a big success. We bought a plot of two hectares in the central business district with 11 old buildings, 9 registered protected monuments and one listed monument plus nearly 50 machines from the old factory. Of course, at the moment of purchase, it’s difficult to calculate how long everything will take, what challenges will arise, and how much you will spend on protecting the monuments.
We had a lot of limitations with this project including the fact the new office buildings couldn't be taller than 42 meters high, requiring us to actually dig 35 meters down, almost the same construction up and down.
When you bring old buildings back to life and recognize their history, they become something more than they were before.
Did you re-use materials from the old building for the renovation?
We used materials and bricks from the 19th century. We conducted thorough research, consulting with expert conservators on every brick. It was really a special experience. Even the wall around the plot is built and restored with the original bricks.
Some parts of the restoration were necessary because the buildings were registered as historical monuments and thus protected for conservation. But we did much more, because we wanted to re-use and maintain this heritage site as much as possible.
It's been a huge investment. There was a moment when there were approximately 100 conservators with different specialties working on the site. There was a specialist for the windows, someone else for the doors, conservators for the machines, and others for the bricks and the protection of the buildings. We conserved around 1.7 million bricks.
In BioBazar, you can see an entire bar made from materials salvaged from one of the old factory machines, in the Piano Bar you can find a lot of elements from the old buildings. The same goes for outside the buildings, where benches and tracks are made from old machines and left-overs from the factory buildings because we want to protect them and enrich them. And that is the whole reason behind our approach because a space like this becomes interesting when you give it new life.
Likely many investors and developers will question whether it is worthwhile to make all of these investments up front?
I think it will pay off. Let me explain why. The entire office part was immediately rented out, and we were able to charge slightly higher rent than the market average. This has never happened to us before. When you build something unique by paying attention to the details and creating a fulfilling atmosphere, it shows. People will flock to this type of development and are ready to pay a little bit more to be there.
This is a landmark in and for Warsaw. You must be very proud of it.
This is the kind of success that comes from the collaborative efforts of a creative team who spent their time together sharing ideas and engaging with each other. We also chose our tenants very carefully. We asked them to create something unique. We do not have the usual shopping center brands in Norblin Factory. We do have Medicover Dentists, but they were asked to create their clinic in style, which they did using industrial design elements. When you enter, you don't know if you are in an art gallery or a clinic. It is the same with PKO Bank Polski, when you enter, it's more like an art gallery than a bank. We appreciate that our tenants are willing to play along with us.
As I said earlier, we also have many partners and tenants whose presence is exclusive to Norblin Factory. The Art Box Experience is the first immersive and digital art gallery in Poland, and the Apple Museum Poland has the largest collection of Apple products in Europe. We also have KinoGram – a cinema complex with live music and an art gallery. Our food hall, Food Town, is the biggest gastronomic zone in Poland with 23 vendors, 6 bars and several separate restaurants. BioBazar is an eco-market with certified products.
In the middle of October, Smart Kids Planet will be opening. This is a very good educational provider with a unique concept for education, games and play for kids and youngsters up to 10 years old.
You told me already that certain things during the project process were changed or optimized. Is there anything you regret?
No, I am extremely proud of what we created. What we didn’t have was luck. Because of COVID and the outbreak of the war – many consumer and working habits have changed things that neither we nor anyone else could predict. Let me give you an example – do you see the big outdoor poster on the full façade over there, promoting the new movie Broad Peak? It premiered in the cinema last week and, as of yesterday, you can see it on Netflix. This is a clear example of the fast changing environment. It is also a new challenge for cinema operators, and we must work with our partners to find a solution for it.
I attended your opening conference about one year ago in KinoGram, where you introduced many talented people from different associations with whom you work in the Norblin Factory Foundation. This organization has established visionary projects centered around art, design, music and film.
Yeah, this is a little bit my job and vision. But of course, the idea comes from many contributors. I'm not the only one who thinks that we can do great things, something utterly unique, in this amazing environment. Because honestly, real estate without a creative spark is boring. Hopefully we can make an impact with our efforts and invite others to bring creativity and life into the buildings.
In Royal Wilanow, we created outdoor and sports facilities for kids and families to relax and enjoy. This was a great investment, it created a sense of attachment and connection to the building and its facilities. In Norblin Factory, we have no space for outdoor fields, etc., so we searched for another solution. But here we have the building’s history to lean on, so this became our focus point – the incredible history of the people who ran this factory in the past.
German and French families set up the factory and produced the platters that were sold all over the world. They also promoted art. Jean Pierre Norblin, the first Norblin here, was a famous painter and his works are now in the Polish National Museum. The next Norblin, 100 years later, was Stefan Norblin, a very famous poster artist, whose posters are now available in the Museum of Posters in Wilanow.
The families was highly focused on charity work, and also supported both art and education; as a tribute to the Norblins' and Werners’ cultural legacy we want to continue this. We want to continue their work and we try to re-establish the identity of the Norblin Factory out of the culture and history that remain here as the Norblin Factory Museum. That is why we are focusing on art and the promotion of talented young people.
What about the foot traffic in the buildings? Do you measure it?
Yes, we measure traffic at the entries to the buildings.
Inside we have over 300,000 visitors per month, so in fact it is likely much more, as people not entering the buildings are not measured. However, it is quite important traffic. We have also big numbers through Google search, and the Norblin Factory is googled 1,500,000 times per month.
Furthermore, more than 66,000 people have downloaded our app on their phone so we can communicate with them.
I am positive that the numbers will continue to grow as we are adding more and more attractions. So we can easily double the number of visits.
What about the tenants of the food and entertainment part of the project in particular. Are they happy?
During the summer, we had a lot of visitors. People came here, they spent time eating, having drinks and enjoying the music and entertainment. The tenants are very happy.
Now we are ready to create a promotion around the idea that you can come here for shopping also. We will start to regularly promote the BioBazar and all our shops as a place for shopping and family entertainment.
Due to our wide variety of mixed options, we also now invite schools to come during the day, because venues like the Apple Museum, KinoGram (cinema), the Artbox Experience, and the Norblin Factory Museum help schools give their students a rewarding experience.
Success creates the demand for more. What can we expect next from Capital Park?
We are now moving a little more in the direction of apartments and residential spaces. We have just bought a nice old building in Szczecin and we are also investing in Polski Hak which is a beautiful plot in front of the Gdansk Old Town. Situated right where the rivers meet, this is an exceptional place for apartments with unique views.
But we are also looking for something larger. We want to create places and whole parts of cities with different functions that are open to people. Right now we are still looking. We do have some ongoing projects and plot options but we are discussing them with investors.
Has the international media paid attention to your success?
We have won several awards both locally and regionally. We have some news from Europe and the world, but for now I have to keep it to myself. Yes, the international media also appreciate these kind of investments and we have really good feedback. So I think we will be seeing international appreciation of our work, which is great also for Poland, especially during this war, because now we are seen as a country that is a little bit too close to the action.
Can we talk a little bit about sustainability and your efforts in this space?
We did as much as we could. Of course, we are certified BREEAM and it was always our focus. All our new buildings were certified. We were one of the first to really focus on the ECO certification for buildings in Warsaw with Eurocentrum Office Complex. First it was LEED, and then we succeeded with BREEAM certification in Royal Wilanow.
Now we are evaluating whether to build solar panels on Norblin Factory. We can do it, we have the space, and it is the sensible choice.
Other than that, we have used sustainable technology such as low-reflecting glass and the walls feature elements visible to birds to avoid collisions. We have bees on the roof of course, like always. Other solutions include LED lighting and lighting control that adapts to dusk and the presence of users, there is heat recovery from the service and commercial part, energy storage, rainwater is collected and used for watering greenery and flushing toilets, there is energy recovery from elevators, and chargers for electric vehicles.
We are also very focused on bicycles, and encourage our tenants and visitors to use the bikes by offering an automatic underground parking and suitable infrastructure such as showers and lockers for those who come to work here by bicycle.
One last question, can you tell us something you haven’t told anyone about the Norblin Factory before?
We had a dream that an entire facade of the office buildings could be made of plants - a huge green wall. It was a former factory site and a heavily industrialized area, so it lacked an active ecosystem. We considered how to incorporate as much greenery as possible in our project. We took this topic to the workshop where we made analyses and valuations, but it turned out that our atmospheric conditions make it impossible to develop and maintain such a large area with living plants. However, we came up with another idea for introducing plants to the Norblin Factory, and, as a result, we have planted more than 100 trees there, which grow not only in the streets of the complex, but also on all the office terraces up to the eighth floor. And we also introduced green walls on smaller parts of the buildings.