From industrial wasteland to welcoming space

The real estate industry is creating playing fields in the Metropolis Ruhr for new developments, expanding businesses and private investors.

Sailing boats glide along the water, while cyclists and joggers keep fit on the banks. Right next to this scene, white office buildings stand alongside terraced houses and apartment blocks. An idyll has been created on the banks of the lake known as Phoenix See, just a few minutes’ drive from Dortmund city centre. ‘The attractive location by the water is clearly a unique selling point,’ says Marc Wiegand from the public utility subsidiary DSW21, which has developed and marketed the project. He is more than happy with the outcome: 381 plots have been marketed since 2010, the remaining four are reserved.

Twenty years ago, young people in Dortmund would have only reluctantly moved to the working-class suburb of Hörde. Two big steelworks used to stand on the site of the newly created lake. Smoke billowed from the chimneys, while the works spluttered and blazed. When they closed down after 160 years, a brownfield site the size of 100 football pitches is all that remained. This is where the public utility company Stadtwerke Dortmund got together with the regional water cooperative Emschergenossenschaft to create the living and working quarter known as ‘Breeze Living’.

New life breathed into disused land

The project is not just one of many that reflect the dynamism of the real estate industry in the region. It also shows how former industrial sites can be revamped with a little imagination. Real estate developers are making use of dozens of sites on which furnaces, head frames and factories once stood. The disused sites provide reserves that do not exist in other conurbations and they can give an additional boost to the real estate market in the Ruhr region.

Thanks to the comparatively good availability of space and the low interest rates, the key market of construction and housing has become a stable pillar of the economy in the metropolitan region. More than 191,000 people were employed in the construction, interior design and real estate industries here in 2017 – a rise of three per cent on the previous year. This means that more than eleven per cent of all employees liable to social security contributions in the Ruhr Metropolis work in these industries.

Brisk demand for residential and commercial sites

The real estate industry is generally a key barometer of a region’s development, because businesspeople only invest in long-term construction and housing projects if they envisage favourable conditions over the coming years. ‘Overall demand is good, especially for residential and commercial sites,’ confirms Stephan Conrad from RAG Montan Immobilien GmbH. The subsidiary of the former coal mining company develops sites throughout the Ruhr region. And its list of planned projects is long: technology parks are featured alongside residential quarters and logistics centres.

Many of the sites now being redeveloped by RAG Montan were originally used for coal mining. One such project is based in Neukirchen-Vluyn, not far from Krefeld, where the company is developing four residential quarters for 900 people as well as commercial and mixed-use space, of which 40,000 square metres have already been marketed. It is the former site of the Niederberg colliery, where coal was still being mined as late as 2001. Just one old head frame provides a reminder of the site’s industrial past and this will be preserved as a monument. Fields and pathways now occupy the surrounding area and 360 trees have been planted. Interest in the homes, offices and commercial spaces has been immense, explains Conrad. ‘All plots were reserved within a matter of days.’

Plenty of free space and innovative living concepts

In conurbations such as Munich and Stuttgart there is hardly any space left in the city centres. It’s a different situation in the Ruhr Metropolis. That’s because residents and investors have a choice thanks to the diverse and decentralised structure. ‘Anyone who is no longer able to find the property they are looking for in their preferred location can switch to a neighbouring town without having to worry about long journeys,’ says Torsten Bölting, CEO of the Bochum-based real estate consulting institute InWIS.

However, it takes more than just suitable sites to ensure that a city centre remains attractive. Good ideas are also needed – like those of Reinhard Wiesemann. The businessman has developed a multigenerational property in Essen’s pedestrian zone. It bears the name ‘Generationenkult-Haus’ and is aimed at people of various ages from diverse backgrounds. The property has a co-working floor for business founders and freelancers. It also has 15 apartments suitable for elderly people, 30 rooms for a flat-sharing community, a lounge floor and roof terraces. Unlike comparable properties, the project is deliberately designed for people who are building a career and wish to establish networks. ‘For me personally, the idea behind the Generationenkult-Haus is the question of how I myself would like to grow old,’ says Wiesemann, who is promoting his project on a Facebook page. As far as the rent is concerned, a simple principle applies: anyone who is unable to contribute their time to work within the complex must pay more.

Modern living space required

Real estate consultant Bölting expects demand for living space suitable for elderly people will continue to rise due to demographic change. A study undertaken by his institute revealed that 200,000 extra homes suitable for elderly people are needed in Essen alone. He is going on the assumption that the figures are similar in other cities in the region.

Property developers are also encountering greater demand for modern homes in the Ruhr region because a new middle class is emerging. ‘The traditional working-class milieu is dying out,’ says Bölting. Companies in the technology sector are attracting well-qualified employees who are seeking high-quality living space – and not just to rent. Buyers are clearly benefiting from the advantages of the location, because property prices in the Ruhr Metropolis are still comparatively moderate. The living atlas published by the Postbank also rates the Ruhr region as an attractive place to buy a home: in 13 of 15 areas surveyed in the atlas, buying a property is cheaper than renting.

Anyone who is no longer able to find the property they are looking for in their preferred location can switch to a neighbouring town without having to worry about long journeys

Torsten Bölting, CEO of the InWIS Institute

Germany’s second-largest market for office space

In most cases, developers combine spaces for living and working. This partly captures the zeitgeist, but the market for office space is especially interesting. With 16.8 million square metres of office space at the end of 2017, the Ruhr Metropolis was Germany’s second-largest market in this sector after Berlin. In the same year, 470,000 square metres were either sold or rented – more than in Stuttgart, Cologne or Düsseldorf. The office rents may not be as high as they are in Munich or Hamburg, but the top locations in Essen, Dortmund and Duisburg can still command 13.70 euros per square metre, which promises healthy returns.

Large office buildings are currently being built in a number of cities across the Ruhr region. In Oberhausen, for example, another investor is building on the former site of the energy company Babcock Borsig Steinmüller. The development will have offices as well as space for commercial use and production facilities and workshops. ‘Quartier 231’ offers large spaces for companies, areas for co-working, fully equipped individual offices and pure desk space. At the end of 2019, 1,500 people will once again be able to work on the ‘MARK 51°7’ site, formerly the location of the Opel plant in Bochum. All commercial spaces in the first construction phase have already been sold to notable investors or reserved.

Online search for partners

Not all industrial sites in the Ruhr Metropolis are as well known as the former Opel plant. It is therefore important for investors to find the right location in a region that extends across some 4,435 square kilometres. The start-up Brownfield 24 gives them the necessary transparency in the form of an online platform that allows the industry to network, trade vacant space and share information.

One of the first success stories for Brownfield 24 involves the site of the former Glunz sawmill in Duisburg. Several partners got together via the online platform, where they laid the foundations for ‘Gewerbepark Duisburg’. VCK Logistics SCS Projects GmbH has since moved there. The start-up has also set another project in motion: the former Knepper coal-fired power station near Castrop-Rauxel is being demolished and is set to be replaced by new buildings soon – just like on many other industrial sites in the Ruhr Metropolis.

Heimo Fischer

Autor: Heimo Fischer

Heimo Fischer is a business journalist and writes for popular newspapers, magazines and corporate publications. He is very familiar with the business of media : He was a founding member of the Financial Times Germany, for which he reported over 7 year as a correspondent from Paris and London.