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Culture

EU Building Zeal Threatens Brussels’ Traditions

As the EU expands, so does its need for office space in the glitzy Leopold Quarter of Brussels. But local residents are now fighting to save their oldest train station from being swallowed by the EU’s construction drive.

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Glinting skycrapers of steel and glass - the European Parliament building in the Leopold Quarter in Brussels

The heart of political Europe beats in its federal capital, Brussels. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the Leopold Quarter in the north-east of the city.

Overrun by bureaucrats, eurocrats, business people, diplomatic staff from all over the world and dominated by steel and glass skyscrapers and grand edifices, the district is today the epicentre of European power.

Built by Leopold II, then shaped by EU

It’s a far cry from the area chosen in 1860 by King Leopold II for Brussels to expand and so ease its congestion. Then the Leopold quarter was a place with wide open spaces, where life only revolved around its bustling train station.

Gradually Leopold II shaped the neighbourhood into a upper class residential neighbourhood with wide boulevards. In time a string of sophisticated bars, bistros and traditional cafes sprung up.

In the 1960s and 1970s the area saw an onslaught of construction as glass and concrete office space was erected to house the European Commission, the European Council of Ministers and a venue for the European Parliament when not meeting in Strasbourg.

As property prices spiralled, the area took on a more savvy tone, as business-suited executives and EU diplomats populated the newly-sprung up trendy bars and restaurants.

EU cramping style and flair of the district

Today not much remains of the traditionally stylish flair of the Leopold Quarter, apart from a few historic cafés such as "À la ville de Dinant" which lies in the shadow of the European Parliament. Most of the restaurants on the famous Place de Luxembourg now cater mainly to the eurocrats.

Local residents nostalgically bemoan the loss of the traditional Parisian-style character of their neighbourhood developed by Leopold II.

"Many of the bars have had to close, those that are left have adapted to serve the EU office workers. The waiters in the restaurants all speak English. And come evening, the whole area’s completely deserted", says Gwenael Brees, a resident.

Residents outraged at EU plan

But the latest expansion plans of the EU in the Leopold Quarter seem to have gone too far.

Residents are now bracing themselves for a run-in with EU officials as they plan to defend the last remaining trace of the architectural heritage of their neighbourhood– the train station.

The Leopold or Luxembourg train station on the Place de Luxembourg is Belgium’s oldest railway station and one of the oldest remaining in the whole of Europe. Built in 1855 by architect Gustave Saintenoy, the station has a elegant facade and Royal Banquet rooms elaborately embellished with stucco, stained glass and marble pillars.

The European Parliament now plans to build two more office blocks on either side of the station, demolish the station and leave just the historic facade intact.

Yaron Pesztat, a local councillor of the city says, "EU expansion means more office space is needed in Brussels to house more parliamentarians, more bureaucrats and office staff. So noise pollution from the building sites will continue for years to come. More than 40,000 square metres of office space are planned left and right of the old station. The buildings are colossal."

Residents are outraged at the European Parliament’s refusal to relocate on the outskirts of the city and instead as they see it callously disregard the district’s heritage.

EU going against its own professed principles?

The European Parliament also stands accused of going against competition rules and favouring the firm, Société Espace Leopold or SEL that built the recently completed buildings of the European Parliament, in awarding the latest railway contract.

Julian-Gordon Priestly, General-Secretary of the European Parliament defends the decision, "We’ve looked at all the options and the express wish of the parliament and its groupings is clear. It wants all institutions to be located close to each other. And clearly, choices are limited here. In this regard, we’ve begun discussions with the Société Espace Leopold, because they’re in the position t offer the closest piece of real-estate."

But residents are crying foul and saying that the European Parliament is violating its own tenets of promoting competition and preserving local architectural heritage.

"Public building commissions always go to the same firms, who always work with the same architects. Architectural competitions or open calls for applications simply don’t exist in Brussels", says Gwenael Brees.

It looks like dark days are in store for the Leopold Quarter. With high-profile interests and property deals weighing in heavily, The EU's latest project may well succeed in devouring the last traditional remnant of the district.