Controversy in Duisburg over shopping center on site of Love Parade tragedy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.03.2017
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Controversy in Duisburg over shopping center on site of Love Parade tragedy

The city of Duisburg has approved plans to build a designer outlet center on the property where 21 people died in a stampede in 2010. Families of the victims worry about what that would mean for a memorial.

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Love Parade memorial threatened by designer outlet

Twenty-one crosses line the narrow stairs that thousands of young men and women tried to reach on July 24, 2010, when crowds were pushing onto the Love Parade grounds from all sides and several hundred people were injured in the stampede. Each cross bears a name and an age. Fabian, 18. Kathinka, 19. Kevin, 18. Giulia, 21. Svenja, 22. And 16 more.

There are picture frames, flowers, lanterns, a scarf, bracelets. Two letters from Svenja's father, headlined "Svenja - my angel." A little stuffed mouse with a heart that says "I miss you" in German. Some fear that this is where shoppers could walk to their cars in just a couple of years.

"Right away there was the question of what would happen to the memorial," said Jürgen Widera, a Protestant pastor and Duisburg's ombudsman for those who got injured in the Love Parade stampede and for the families of the victims.

Duisburg Designer Outlet Center (DW/C. Bleiker)

Widera: everyone desperately tried to reach these stairs

Widera slowly walked past the crosses and the candles and talked about how he told anxious parents not to worry after the outlet center plans were announced.

"It was always clear that the property would eventually be used for something," Widera said. "People come here on the anniversary of the disaster, on their loved ones' birthdays, on Christmas. I tell the families that this place is very important to the city as well. But, of course, there's the fear of not knowing what will happen to the memorial if the property is sold [to developers]." 

Duisburg's trauma

When the conversation turns to the Love Parade memorial, which is on the edge of the property where the city wants the designer outlet center to be, Oliver Hallscheidt speaks slowly and carefully. The executive secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) group in Duisburg's city council doesn't hide how silly he thinks the Green party's opposition to the outlet center is. But he's clearly aware that the concerns of the Love Parade families deserve attention.

"The Love Parade disaster traumatized the whole city," he said. "Our goal is to continue to help the relatives. It's important to take their concerns seriously and that's part of the planning."

Duisburg Designer Outlet Center (DW/C. Bleiker)

The former freight station where the Love Parade took place and where the shopping center could be built

At this early stage, it isn't clear yet where exactly the shopping center would be built. It is also unclear how or whether it would encroach on the area where relatives come to grieve and remember their loved ones, and where the city erected two large steel plates with the words "Love never ends" on the tragedy's fifth anniversary.

The city council has only recently voted to approve initial steps that could lead to Germany's largest designer outlet center being built on the grounds of the former freight station. One hope is that Duisburg, a city of just under half a million people, would be thought of as a shopping Mecca with 175 designer outlet stores.

As of right now, the city at the heart of western Germany's industrial Ruhr region is still associated internationally with the Love Parade, the techno-dance party turned tragedy where people were literally crushed to death when overcrowding around the entrance and exit area led to mass panic.


Duisburg Love Parade Massenpanik 2010 (picture-alliance/dpa/E. Wiffers)

Twenty-one people died and more than 500 were injured in the stampede at the ramp leading to the Love Parade grounds

While Mayor Sören Link's Social Democrats in the city council are in favor of the plans to build the 30,000-square-meter (322,900-square-foot) center, several other groups have expressed criticism for the move.

Representatives of the Greens and the Left Party as well as downtown shop owners have presented city authorities with a petition for a referendum against the outlet center.

Grieving families and happy shoppers side-by-side?

Claudia Leisse has been one of the most vocal opponents of the planned outlet center. The leader of the Green Party group in Duisburg's city council still vividly remembers being on vacation in Britain in July 2010 and receiving a call from her son, who told her he didn't get hurt in the Love Parade.

She said she finds the plans to build a shopping center so close to the memorial problematic.

"People go there to grieve and to deal with what they've experienced," Leisse said. "This quiet area would be affected if there's happy hustle and bustle going on next to it."

Duisburg Designer Outlet Center (DW/C. Bleiker)

Families and friends of those who died left personal items for their loved ones at the memorial

Another factor in the outlet debate that the two sides disagree on is what the shopping center would mean for downtown Duisburg.

SPD secretary Hallscheidt said the former freight station right by the Autobahn and close to the train station is an "excellent spot" for a designer outlet center: "Shoppers will be coming from far away and it'll be a perfect addition to our downtown stores."

But Leisse said she doubts people would really make their way from the outlet center to the stores in the center of Duisburg, which is roughly two kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

Wilhelm Bommann said he doesn't believe that either. The director of the Lower Rhine area's Retailers Association predicted that the shopping center would have negative consequences for downtown Duisburg.

"If customers get pulled away from downtown [by the outlet center], some of the stores in the city center will have to close," Bommann said.

He is confident that Duisburg citizens realize how detrimental the outlet center would be to their city and hopes that enough people would vote against it in a referendum. The coming months will show whether such a vote will even come to pass.

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