In October 2016, Docks Bruxsel was the first new shopping centre to open in Brussels in over 30 years. Built in the Schaerbeek neighbourhood, in the north part of Brussels, it received much acclaim by local politicians at its inaugural opening. The then mayor Yvan Mayeur thanked the real estate developer, Equilis as well as the investors behind the project who had injected 210 million euro into the project, saying it offered “new alternatives for Brussels citizens to go shopping outside the city centre despite the dominant position of Rue Neuve as the major commercial axis of Brussels, and went on to state how the project would offer new employment and business opportunities.” The project was timely, since commerce in the city centre had been in decline, due to the still ongoing pedestrianisation works.
The developers looked for local entrepreneurs that they could partner with, to open shops in the brand new complex. In various communiqués, the developers presented forecasts of 5 million visitors per year to tempt new business tenants. These forecasts even predicted that “after 3 to 5 years, the yearly visits will rise to 8 million”.
However, within a few months of the opening, it became clear that the centre did not get the public success that had been anticipated, and several shops had to close doors. One local business owner who opened a sports store in the shopping centre and wishes to remain anonymous recounts, “they say that 5 million consumers have visited the shopping centre in the first year, but how do they count, we the shop owners have been here and some days it was completely empty.”
Two years after the opening, the complex is still having difficulties obtaining certain planning permits to develop the transportation facilities around it, a factor that may partly explain the low number of visitors. “Although the rents were high – 4000 euro per month for an area of just 50 square metre – I was impressed with the plans, when I talked to the developers. On paper it was very ambitious and substantial budgets were supposed to be set aside for marketing, However, the marketing campaigns did not materialise as promised and within a year, twelve of my neighbouring shop-owners left Docks, they can’t force people to come but one has to be honest with the shopkeepers,” explained a former tenant.
Next to his shop, a Flemish business man had been convinced to expand his clothing chain ‘Nuit de folie’, his 10th store in Belgium, however he explained it was by far his worst performing shop, “a total disaster, nobody is coming”.
When we all saw that nobody was coming to the shopping centre, we discussed with the developers about the possibility to lower the rents, the former shop owner explained. “They agreed to halve the monthly rents for 2017, and that one could reimburse the money when business would pick up later, thus giving us some new hope. I had invested so much time and lot of my personal savings in this project, so I didn’t want to give up. I wanted it to succeed.” However, after three months, the newly concluded rental decision was retracted and shopkeepers were told to pay the full price and even reimburse for the months since the new negotiated decision was concluded.
“This brought me to bankruptcy as well, and the last unpaid rents were even tripled when accounting for extra fees and late payment penalties. The official visitor numbers are lies, any of the shop keepers will say the same. We the tenants were thrown under the bus as the whole project didn’t go according to plan and we suffered the consequences and took the blame. We were never partners in this project, but were played by the investors,” the shop owner says.
Contacted by The Brussels Times for a comment and the questioning of the official visitor numbers, Helga Cosyns head of the retail management for Docks says that Docks Bruxsel looks back on a very successful end-of-year period. “We use sophisticated cameras to monitor visitor numbers and deliver an accurate footfall count,” she explains. “It is normal for a totally new shopping centre to see some tenants leave within the first triennium,” she adds.
By May 2018, Docks Bruxsel was sold to Portus Retail, a retail property specialist and Alberta Investment Management Corporation for 300 million euros. The new investors have announced plans for a new strategic marketing programme and a proactive leasing campaign to attract new tenants.
The Brussels Times