Pioneer in sustainable site reconversion celebrates its 20 year anniversary
Source: Ondernemers Voka Oost-Vlaanderen, Jan Van Gyseghem, December 2022: "PSR: 'duurzaam' ontwikkelen gaat over meer dan saneren, bestemmen en bouwen" - https://www.voka.be/publicaties/oost-vlaanderen-ondernemers-202212.
Portrait Julie De Nul and Johan Geeroms © Wim Kempenaers
Julie De Nul and Johan Geeroms almost simultaneously opened the interview saying: “The name change is no green washing” “We are really aiming at realizing a number of social purposes”
Johan: “Right from day 1 PSR is active in environmental care and reconversion of brownfields. In fact, you can say we are an old hand in the business and we have been working for 20 years on climate stability on our sites and buildings. We dedicate ourselves to sustainable transformation of existing sites and we are deliberately not using new open spaces.”
Julie: “Originally we saw PSR as a tool for our remediation division Envisan, specialised in soil remediation and water treatment. By now PSR has taken its own independent position in the market.”
Within Jan De Nul Group, strong synergies are at play. Environmental experts and structural engineering specialists may find each other quickly and easily. Can one see it an advantage to step into projects?
Johan: “Certainly, project development is known for its multiple, often diverse facets. Our group can count on a broad know-how, which is allowing us to better assess the risks of investment and manage a smoother project coordination. The group also gives ways for PSR to position itself as an independent developer in the search for partners.”
Brownfield development is in PSR’s DNA and this is where most of the expertise is to be found. In the course of time, this expertise was broadened to 4 domains: brownfields, complex projects, and regular real estate development as well as reconversion projects (linked to heritage).
Julie: “We start from a problem definition and unburden our clients. The client may be a (former) company, a local administration or other stakeholders seeking to give a new destination to a site or to create a new vibe or environment.”
Johan: “PSR prefers looking for complex suburban or urban projects of a considerable scope. It is in this particular market segment that we distinguish ourselves from our competitors. After all, the traditional real estate market is quite low key, and there are many active players. We focus on assignments that are challenging in the field of ecology, engineering and licensing requirements, where we really can be of added value with PSR.
Being a long-term developer, PSR is relatively crisis-resistant. Long processing time is normal: the development of a product easily takes 5 to 6 years. If needed, a project is put on hold for a certain period or it can be accelerated.
Johan: “This is a luxury we can rely on thanks to the familial shareholder. At the end of the year, we do not have to pay out returns or pay back obligations. This long-term vision is also favourable for the project. These aspects put us in a rather unique position in the market.”
Despite the efforts of successive ministers for administrative simplification, procedures have only become more complex.
Managing Director at PSR
At PSR, development projects usually start with a company that – as vendor – is stuck with an obsolete site.
Julie: “Such companies are often stuck due to historical contaminations, vacancy taxes, industrial heritage, repurposing issues, etc. We buy the site and look what may be the best fit for repurposing, in coordination with all parties involved. In this way, we unburden, unlock and develop both client and site. Besides companies, also cities or other governmental departments can be requesting to rejuvenate a location.”
Due to the complexity and large scale, this type of assignments cannot be realized without involving governmental departments. In many cases this results in a blended project in which the local government is participating in the process. However, a governmental department is often a delaying factor.
Johan: “We would love to see faster building permit process...”
Julie: “… and clarity! Our call for more speed and transparency in the administrative handling of building projects applies to the whole of Flanders and to the whole sector. – not only for our projects.
Johan: “In 2021 the average waiting time for obtaining a building permit in Flanders was no less than 44 months. Next to this, over 54% of the developers had to face an appeal procedure. It’s time to act. We intend to make the real estate supply more sustainable, but the permits just won’t come. This inertia is putting a brake on many developers’ enthusiasm and delivery of new homes and space needed in the market.”
This all too easy access to appeal procedures is a thorn in the flesh for developers, but legally it remains a sacred house…
Julie: “Today there is no barrier at all. For merely 40 € you can file an appeal against a real estate project at the provincial government.”
Johan: “Despite the efforts of successive ministers for administrative simplification, procedures have only become more complex. The list of required regulation is inexhaustible.”
Yet in some communities, projects go a lot smoother. In Mechelen, PSR experiences how things can be improved. Governance and administration are heading in the same direction and they are well aware what might be the consequences of “non-decision”.
Julie: “In fact you just need some people who want to go for it and say: “Let’s do this”.
Today, there is no barrier. For about 40 euros, you go to the administration office and file an appeal against a construction project.
Julie De Nul
CEO Jan De Nul Dredging nv
With this rebranding, PSR is emphasizing even more than before how “sustainability” is a key factor on all levels in the company.
Julie: “We see Sustainability (note: with the S of Sustainability) broadly. It is not only about sustainable construction. PSR includes sustainability in each phase of the development project and process. We reactivate underexploited sites, we realize an energy efficient end product, but we also look for the most optimal destination of a site as part of its environment. Sustainability is a frequently used word and, unfortunately, it is not always applied correctly. We take concrete steps with an immediate impact on our projects and stakeholders. For example: we engaged to help deploy a materials passport for construction and real estate projects in Belgium, having as final purpose reusing materials.”
Johan: “The R in PSR stands for reconversion, also inseparably linked to the S of Sustainability. We never start from a blank page, but from an existing situation. It often happens that we take along elements from the past. In this way we can immediately put a face on a new concept.”
Does this broad expertise within Jan De Nul Group enable PSR to act as a more interesting and swifter partner on the financial plane, compared to competitors?
Julie: “We certainly are faster and better!” (is laughing)
Johan: “In Belgium we hold a unique position: the developer, remediation expert and contractor belong to the same financially solid group. Next to the long-term shareholders’ added value, we also strive for a clear social added value. Therefore we do not take the intake of new projects lightly. This is not always the case on the market. Some players on the market buy contaminated industrial sites assuming without the benefit of our in-house expertise that the remediation cost won’t be too bad. Which is not the case, the PFAS issues were new to them.
Julie: “The euphoria of rising real estate will undoubtedly have driven some players to underestimate the burden of soil remediation at the moment of buying a site.”
PSR is standing at the brink of realizing 3 large projects with in total about 400 residential units. A nice ground position. One of these projects, at the station of Mechelen, also includes 20,000 m² for office space, next to other functions such as horeca and residential function.
Johan: “The office landscape has strongly evolved. People do not longer need an office space, they need a place to live. In the vicinity of their work place they want to find the opportunity to eat, sport and ideally go shopping. Our new realisations have to comply with these future needs.”
Kaaidistrict is a large-scale renovation project in your hometown Aalst, this has to work out fine?
Julie: “We took the challenge to turn an underestimated part of the city into a unique neighbourhood adding value. It is a unique lot on a unique location, unexploited for years. Unfortunately, the realisation largely exceeds the average time period of 44 months... We engaged in the project in 2017. This is madness.”
Johan: “By the end of the year we expect the subdivision permit, a first step in the licensing process. In parallel with this, we are working on the application for the environmental permit. We hope to break ground early 2024.”
Kaaidistrict is a mixed project, residential with additional functions: offices, horeca, local shopping.
Johan: “Aalst is not a large city of offices, but we do believe in this project given the immediate proximity to the railway station. The government as well as the market (large companies) indicate they don’t want to be located only on “car locations”. Moreover, Kaaidistrict will be more than a place to live with offices; we create a new “meeting spot” along the Dender river and, together with Vlaamse Waterweg (“Flemish Waterway), we are looking for the possibility to facilitate a new marina.”
Julie: “And this is how we turn a deprived, unexploited site into a new and vibrant part of the city.”