The battle for the plinth and the leafy sidewalk

The battle for the plinth and the leafy sidewalk

High-rise buildings, whether shiny or not, are beautiful additions to the skyline of a city. But if there is nothing to do on the streets and sidewalks, we pass the city around. "The city at eye level" is the leitmotiv in this story. The Rotterdam Central District, the gateway to the city center of Rotterdam, must become a 'forest' at eye level, with a river rippling through and birds chirping. Name it the Rotterdam Walking District.

It is an intriguing nook, a kind of a courtyard with some greenery. The wind has died down and the sun is casting a meager beam on the lawn in front of the head office of the energy company Greenchoice. The striking round building, virtually invisible to the people of Rotterdam, dates from the time of the city reconstruction when it was designed by the architect Joost Willemsen Cornelis Boks. It is one of the few green spots in the Rotterdam Central District (RCD) where you, as a passer-by, feel "a little protected". The rest of the RCD may be grand and compelling, but definitely not snug and cozy. The inner area behind the first office building and the future icon of MVRDV, The Modernist, is sometimes used during the lunch break by the employees of Greenchoice, as known by Joost van der Hout of Premier Suites. The lobby of his apartment hotel faces outside but is not used. Is that possible?

Jeroen Laven stops in front of the lawn with a waving grass and looks around. He will say that the “city at eye level” has originated here, but you can see from the expression on his face that it is still far from reaching perfection. He calls the park a hidden gem, but it is not yet a place to stay at. Laven co-wrote “The City at eye level - lessons for street plinths”. It has become a kind of a bible filled with examples for the people working on inner cities. Laven: "Architectural high-rise buildings may have something, but if they don't correspond to anything at eye level, they are of no use."

While walking through the Rotterdam Central District, Laven makes clear what needs to be done in the coming decades: “It is still dimensioned from the car. You can see that clearly at Weena and Schiekade. These roads are burdened by the busy car traffic. Much more work will have to be done to the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists. You see that the pedestrian is gradually starting to reclaim the city from the car. The city lounge solutions will also have to gain a foothold in the RCD: more terraces and more places to meet. It means that the quality of the outdoor space must reach up to and include the first few floors (the Rotterdam layer, see box / ed.). In RCD this runs up to 25 to 30 meters. The ground floor is often only 10 percent of a property, but it determines 90 percent of how it is experienced. There must be more units and doors substituting one large function-unit with only one door, so that there is only interaction at specific points along the building. ”

Laven speaks of "wadable" buildings when he walks across Weena towards Hofplein. There is not a hint of a decent base-level Rotterdam, many windows being sealed with plastic. “You can hardly see anything through a building – the lack of passage. It is therefore terribly anonymous. The plinth lacks a lively public function. Our experience shows that making the so-called hybrid zones – combining public and private – less divided helps to improve the outdoor space. These are the places where private ownership is often informal. In a city at eye level, the building owners, tenants, and the municipality all must show ownership and feel responsible for the sidewalks. This is where 80 percent of the meetings take place in the public space. A plinth manager would therefore be a great resource for the RCD.”

A building must also be a “ground scraper”

In Rotterdam the experts point to the Wijnhaven area when it comes to the issue of the plinth and sidewalk. Beautiful high-rise apartments have been built there, but not enough attention has been paid to the plinth - the city at eye level. It is calm and deserted when you walk there and at night it is completely empty. The Rotterdam High-Rise Vision 2019 and the Rotterdam Central District Structural Vision therefore devote ample attention to the plinth. The Structural Vision on this issue: “By making the substructure wider, attractive and unattractive functions in the plinth can be better distributed. Functions that contribute to liveliness, such as homes, shops and catering, must prevail.”

In addition to a skyscraper, a building must also be a groundscraper, as can be read in the high-rise vision. “The ground scraper stands for the goal of high-profile innovative high-rise buildings also contributing to an appealing life on the sidewalks. A life where private and public life are not mutually exclusive, and buildings "communicate" with the city dwellers and the streets. This means a farewell to the stand-alone tower.”

Professor of Urban Design and a PosadMaxwan employee Rients Dijkstra nods in agreement the description of the plinth in the Structural Vision Rotterdam Central District. He has been a supervisor for development and outdoor spaces at the RCD for almost thirteen years. All plans pass through his desk. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic he cannot walk through the area, but can tell us how he envisions the arrival to the Central Station.

The area around the majestic station is not thought of as an oasis of greenery and cool air with plenty of space to stroll around. It is stony, bare, windy, surrounded by blank walls, mirrored windows or ugly entrances to parking garages: there is no hint of the base-level Rotterdam. Like Jeroen Laven, he points to the entrances to the Delftse Poort office building, which are prominently located on the Delftseplein, but remind of black holes of rotten teeth. A study called Sense of Place has shown that it pays off financially to work on this space. Dijkstra: “With the arrival of Tree House, the owner of Delftse Poort (CBRE Dutch Office Fund, an investment fund of CBRE Global Investors / ed.) has a detailed idea of what will happen in the future. For now, the rear-ends dominate. There are, therefore, plans in development to break open the plinths of this former NN building and relocate the entrance to the garage. A closed plinth and a parking garage entrance will suddenly become a front-end, increasing the value for the real estate owner.”

Take the left exit

Dijkstra's big hope is for the left exit of Central Station to become a second main exit. At the moment, most of the people go straight ahead and enter the city via Kruisplein or Mauritsweg / Westersingel. “They then skip the northern part of the Lijnbaan to enter the center,” says Dijkstra. “If people who work and live there take the left exit, this part of the Lijnbaan, which also belongs to the RCD, comes to life. Many people are not familiar with it.”

This city maker easily finds the pain spot and puts his finger on it: there is no city at eye level. “To experience the City at Eye Level you have to get somewhere first. RCD is a place you never came to before. Now people are coming because it is an exciting part of town. But it's not there yet. ” His message is to be patient for at least another 12 years, “but then the dead spots and skirting boards will have been converted into attractive lively places which you would want to visit. Look at the lobby of Tree House and the area around it, it will become a place where the working day will be hosted. It will be one of the city's meeting places. ”

What the famous American urban sociologist and city maker Bruce Katz said about the RCD is quoted by Dijkstra. “It's a great area, but you need a lot of patience to develop it. You have to be able to think far ahead. There are small steps to long-term success. When the plinth of the Delftseplein opens and becomes the front facade, the neighbors will be left scratching their heads. You can also throw open the base of Central Post and in due time this will be one of the busiest places in the city.” Bruce Katz advised steadily, but cautiously, to continue working on this innovation district in 2018. He is a worldwide expert in urban leadership and political and economic innovation. Katz advocates for innovative urban change and the introduction of the "next" economy. In his view, the RCD is an example of it: “The RCD is a precious pearl where local and global companies settle with start-ups and scale-ups among them, and at the same time where people live and coexist. Planning this area up is very difficult, but a promising environment has already arisen here. Don't let that evaporate. ”

What, according to Dijkstra, will also help to get more people 'through that left exit' – he speaks of seducing them – are the future developments of the Pompenburg and the Zomerhofkwartier (ZOHO): “We will connect the Schiekade block by a bridge of 'Erasmus bridge-like quality 'with Rotterdam's bicycle and pedestrian network. In the Oude Noorden (ZOHO) you take the stairs up and you enter the RCD without having to cross Hofplein. Awesome!"

Water and green

Will the RCD be finished after the construction of Tree House, The Modernist and the redevelopment of the Schiekadeblok and Conradstraat? The short answer is no. To achieve an enjoyable city at eye level, the outdoor space must also be considered in the coming decade, both Laven and Dijkstra emphasize. Laven speaks of a challenge to “make it a pleasant strolling area” in the coming decades. Dijkstra says the task will change now that almost all empty lots have been filled and the direction has been set. “To achieve those pleasant streets and squares, a wave of attention must be devoted to climate-consciousness, circularity, water management and energy transition. To make them attractive with lots of trees, plants and water. It contributes to a healthy, enticing living environment. It is tinkering with a moving train. ” The corona era has shown how important parks, squares and other green spaces are for the inhabitants of a city. Greenery and trees provide peace in the area and that is especially important now. Climate change is making our inner cities warmer and warmer. It has now been shown that trees are the "best air conditioners", because of how they cool the city.

It is therefore a good investment to make Schouwburgplein greener and to make the Hofplein fountain a place where you can sit and enjoy a cup of tea. City makers argue that green is the new gold, since the new urban dwellers, like the future residents of Tree House, The Modernist and Schiekadeblok, will seek hideouts much more often than the residents of the suburbs. Chairman of the Rotterdam Central District Association Hans de Jonge, the advocate for this innovation district, points to two projects in America in connection with the costly operation of making the area climate-adaptive: “Do it alongside with private parties. Post Office Square - Norman B. Leventhal Park - and Bryant Park in New York have been made greener through public / private partnerships. The climate has become more pleasant and the value of the real estate has also increased. ”

The Rotterdam base-layer

The plinth is about the city at eye level: the place where the public space next to and in front of the buildings facilitates interaction. The public sides of high-rise buildings are essential for an attractive city. The "Rotterdam base-layer" of the high-rises is therefore crucial. The height of this layer (substructure - the ground floors) differs per location in the city. This can be roughly set at 15 to 25 meters. By making the Rotterdam base-layer a part of the building, a robust connection to the adjacent buildings is created. Continuity of walls, streets, squares and boulevards emerges. The development of the Rotterdam base-layer must contribute to the improving urban dynamics and the cohesion of the cityscape. Think of office lobbies, home entrances, spaces serving commercial and social functions. Attention to detail and transparency of these layers is an important aspect of the street scene.

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