Usquare.brussels: new phase in conversion of former Fritz Toussaint barracks

13 January 2021
In blue: the buildings that are the subject of the long lease granted by the Region to ULB and VUB for the development of the university and academic part of Usquare.brussels. © sau-msi.brussels (Simon Schmitt - www.globalview.be)The buildings that are the subject of the long lease granted by the Region to ULB and VUB are at the corner of Boulevard Général Jacques and Avenue de la Couronne in Ixelles. © sau-msi.brussels (Reporters)The Brussels Minister-President and the rectors of VUB and ULB signed documents relating to the long lease that the Region has granted to the two universities. © Cabinet Rudi Vervoort Usquare.brussels: new phase in conversion of former Fritz Toussaint barracks

The Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, Rudi Vervoort, and the rectors of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Annemie Schaus, and of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Caroline Pauwels, held a meeting yesterday to move forward Usquare.brussels, the project for the conversion of the former Fritz Toussaint barracks in Ixelles. During the meeting they signed documents relating to the long lease that the Region has granted to the two universities free of charge for a period of 50 years.

The lease relates to the six buildings with a total floor space of 10,805 m2 that ULB and VUB will occupy along Boulevard Général Jacques and on the corner of the old barracks site at the start of Avenue de la Couronne. Under the terms of the lease, the regional authorities maintain control of the property, but the universities have been granted the right to renovate, restore, transform and repurpose the buildings as an innovative university centre integrating university facilities and accommodation for researchers. These buildings represent the university and academic part of the redevelopment of the 22 buildings of the former barracks, totalling 56,500 m2. A new district will be created that is open, diverse and dynamic, urban and welcoming, sustainable and innovative; it will also include affordable student accommodation, public family housing, a food court and local amenities. The Urban Development Corporation (SAU) is coordinating the site’s conversion.

Minister-President Rudi Vervoort was conscious of the symbolic significance of the signing of the lease with the universities. He stressed that ‘In recent months, Usquare.brussels has taken some important steps forward: the regional government voted in favour of the definitive Territorial Development Plan last November; the Region issued the first planning permits last October for the universities’ project and for the Urban Development Corporation’s first project, both of which are due to begin in autumn 2021; the Housing Corporation of the Brussels-Capital Region (SLRB-BGHM) launched the public procurement process last October for the first of the public housing operations that are planned for the site; and the temporary occupation programme See U, initiated by the SAU, will be reconfigured in light of the start of conversion work in the second half of 2021. I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the SAU and the See U team on the Visit.brussels Award that the temporary occupation programme won last December.’

Rudi Vervoort also pointed out that ‘In addition to the budgets released by the Brussels-Capital Region and by the universities, part of the conversion work on the former barracks has received substantial financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The funding in question is for:
- the university and academic part of the barracks conversion which is being supervised by ULB and VUB, for which the ERDF is contributing 9,033,200 euros;
- and the future conversion into a sustainable food court of the arena where horse-riders used to be trained. The SAU is the project manager for this part of Usquare.brussels, and the ERDF is contributing 1,391,398.10 euros.’

The significant financial support granted as a long-term investment has enabled the promoters to mobilise ERDF resources around an integrated programme that gives the site’s development an initial boost.

The universities’ role in the life of the city and in sustainable development

In the view of the rector of the Université libre de Bruxelles, Annemie Schaus: ‘The university plays a key role in the life of the city, and as such, it must both serve as a model of participation in the creation of a sustainable city and contribute the services of its own experts to this process. For example, pilot projects have already taken shape at Usquare in geothermal eco-drilling and the use of recycled materials, which strongly contribute to urban resilience and sustainability.’

The rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Caroline Pauwels, commented: ‘With Usquare, we are aiming to break down the barriers permanently. Between researchers and students from VUB and ULB. But also between the two universities, the city and the world. In addition, Usquare must become a venue for international encounters and exchanges. The relationship between ULB and VUB makes it possible to marshal Brussels’ strengths and develop a fruitful synergy for major projects such as Usquare.brussels. We will set up partnerships in the fields of sustainability, entrepreneurship, innovation and co-creation. The project will also have an international dimension, with accommodation for students and researchers and an international reception area.’

The signing of the long lease for ULB and VUB is a moment of symbolic significance for the Brussels-Capital Region and the two universities. During the See U temporary occupation phase, the universities set up joint ULB-VUB FabLabs and started using temporary teaching premises, including a large auditorium in the Kinograph cinema. These projects are the concrete starting point for synergies between the city and the universities on the Usquare.brussels site. At the same time, the organisation of future projects such as the Brussels Research Open Lab, the citizen science-oriented Research Centre, the Brussels Research Institute and the International Reception Centre has allowed the universities to refine their vision and to translate into an architectural project their ambition to create links, open up and engage in exchanges with the community.

Things are now being taken a step further still. Planning permission was issued to the universities in October 2020 for the renovation and repurposing of the buildings as university facilities and accommodation for researchers. The public procurement notice with a view to appointing a general contractor for the construction work was published immediately afterwards, and the contract should be awarded in May of this year. The universities and the SAU plan to start the work in October 2021, and it is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

Extension and reconfiguration of the See U temporary occupation programme

Gilles Delforge, Director of the Urban Development Corporation, explained that ‘the SAU, as well as acting as the regional developer tasked with the overall coordination of the conversion of the former Fritz Toussaint barracks, is currently working on four very concrete components of Usquare.brussels:
- having obtained planning permission we are preparing to make a start this autumn on the conversion of the arena where horse-riders used to be trained into a sustainable food court;
- we are working closely with the two universities on the launch in the coming months of a public procurement process for the development of student accommodation in a series of buildings located inside the site (over which the Region will also maintain long-term ownership and control through a long lease arrangement);
- we have initiated a participatory process for the design of the public spaces for the entire site with the current and future occupants and local residents;
- and finally, in view of the university and SAU construction work which will begin by the autumn and the departure of the federal police from the last buildings they occupied, we are working on a reconfiguration of the temporary occupation programme See U, which it will be possible to extend for longer than initially envisaged. This is very good news given its success, which brought it a Visit.brussels Award at the end of 2020.’

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