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Entrance to the Toison d’Or shopping mall, 2023 © Edm

The Avenue de la Toison d’Or and Boulevard de Waterloo which run side by side, together form one of the most emblematic parts and one of Brussels’ main commercial hubs.

Often compared to the legendary Champs-Élysées in Paris, it is an iconic artery in Brussels, with its lined trees and high-end retail shops, great architecture and a pretty little park off the Boulevard de Waterloo.

Sitting in one of the cafés in the area, you can experience the hustle and bustle of the boulevard, but also have a great view of the Porte de Hal, a beautiful, mediaeval city gate.

This wide, multi-lane boulevard, which connects the Chaussée d’Ixelles with the Porte de Hal, is quite central in the heart of the city. The avenue is part of the inner ring road designed by engineer Jean-Baptiste Vifqua in 1819 to replace the second city wall of Brussels, which was demolished in 1785. The design of this large boulevard linking the old city gates of Namur and Hal began in 1823, coordinating with and forming an integral part of the plans for the elegant Louise district.

The avenue was formerly called Esplanade, Glacis de Waterloo, then Boulevard extérieur de Waterloo and Boulevard extérieur du Régent. In 1851, it received its current name in reference to the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded in Bruges in 1430 by Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy.

In the late 1850s, the boulevard was planted with trees and the area thoroughly levelled and cleared of the old remains of former 16th and 17th century defensive bastions.

Jean-Baptiste Vifquin © Wikicommons

The oldest buildings in the street were those on the Avenue Louise side, on the old bastion of Sainte-Gudule. Between 1860 and 1870, a particularly intense building phase began, with neoclassical town houses and eclectic mansions. The oldest building on the avenue is the Church of the Discalced Carmelites , built in 1861. The neighbourhood was mainly inhabited by the upper middle classes and people with liberal professions, attracted mainly by its proximity to the Palace of Justice (located at one end of the avenue).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the residential character of the avenue began to fade. The old bourgeois houses and villas were gradually replaced by fancy retail shops, offices, cinemas and hotels. Unfortunately, many of the trees of the old promenade disappeared to make way for large traffic lanes in the 1950s.

Entrance to the Galerie Louise shopping mall, 2023 ©

Only a few of the old buildings remain today. The Cinéma Capitole, number 8, was designed by the architect Gaston Ide in 1918, renovated and extended several times and now houses the UGC Toison d’Or cinema. However, most of the buildings, such as the Palais de Trocadéro with its magnificent façade in the style of Louis XVI, designed in 1864 by the architect Wynand Janssens, were demolished to make way for more modern and functional buildings. At the end of the 1930s, the first residential buildings were erected on the boulevard. (Source: monument.

The demolition frenzy in this area was also encouraged by the success of the Louise Galleries project. Designed by architects Ide, Somers and de Montigny, the Louise Galleries were a modern covered shopping street with about fifty shops and a two-storey car park. The Porte Louise galleries on Avenue de la Toison d’Or followed in 1963-1964 and formed a large covered shopping and pedestrian area linking Place Stéphanie, Avenue Louise and the Toison d’Or.

Although the Louise Galleries are a significant and iconic part of the heritage of this Upper Town business district, they have lost their appeal over time. In recent years, an extensive renovation process has been initiated, with architect Francis Metzger appointed to lead this important project for the city’s image. His aim was to preserve the original touch of the work, also using noble materials (cream-coloured stone, carbon steel frames and brass surrounds), perfect lighting and graphic harmony. Some of the spaces were merged to create larger areas for today’s commercial needs. The project was scheduled for completion at the end of 2020. But we are now in 2023, and the Louise Galleries are still closed to the public… construction work is still under way.

Today’s Gallerie Louise entrance

But what most visitors and tourists to the region may not know is that the renovation of the Louise Galleries is just the tip of the iceberg.
In a press release from 2022, the office of Pascal Smet, Brussels Secretary of State for Urban Planning and Heritage, announced that the permit application submitted in 2019 for a new redesign project for the Boulevard de Waterloo and the Toison d’Or has been validated.
Pascal Smet tweeted on 20 July 2022: ‘Building permit ‘Toison d’Or’ granted! One of Brussels’ most important shopping areas will become a high-quality promenade with more space for pedestrians, cyclists and trees.”
According to these plans, the upper part of the city will radically change its face in the coming years. The Brussels Region has obtained planning permission for the transformation of the two major axes in the upper part of the city. This urban motorway will be transformed into an urban boulevard where most of the space will be given back to cyclists and pedestrians at the expense of car traffic.

Brussels State Secretary for Town Planning and Heritage, Pascal Smet © Wikicommons

“It has not been easy, there have been many obstacles since I presented the project in April 2019,” explained Pascal Smet. “It is a real change that will take place in this area. The city of tomorrow will take shape. Priority for pedestrians and cyclists. With this project, we will move to a city on a human scale. This street, intended for luxury shops, has a right to a high-quality transformation. It is also a question of the attractiveness of our region on a national and international level. Today’s approval is the result of intensive and discreet consultation with the owners of the shops, hotels and car parks, as well as the three municipalities concerned. The project is now ready for implementation. With Schuman and Place Royale, the entire neighbourhood is about to be revamped,” Pascal Smet added in an interview at the time.

Indeed, the road to this project was not an easy one, for there were, and still are many who are against it.
An opinion poll in which 4,568 voters participated showed that only 26 per cent saw the project as a great one that would restore the upper part of the city to its former glory. Most people (52 per cent) responded that they were ashamed of the idea as it would most likely lead to more congestion. About 19 per cent were still reluctant and wanted to wait for the results before forming an opinion.
The promoters claim that an active dialogue and public survey took place in February 2021 and that the plans were changed following these meetings to best meet the public’s wishes. After community validation and informal consultations with traders, hoteliers and car park owners, the amended plans were presented in March 2022 and received urban planning approval.

The Brussels Region wants to give a new face to the Avenue de la Toison d’Or and the Boulevard de Waterloo between the Porte de Namur and the Louise roundabout. The idea is to transform the neighbourhood according to the needs of residents, business people and tourists, while strengthening its role as a landmark in the capital.

Architect Pierre Allemand’s « Demain Egmond » projects for the Toison d’Or area © D.R. Pierre Lallemand

The aim is to give pedestrians and cyclists back the space currently monopolised by cars. And also to nature; 47 additional trees will be planted. The redesign project aims to create a new vision of car use, provide more safety when approaching intersections and drastically reduce parking spaces. I think this is exactly why many of the project’s opponents, and especially shop owners are against it. Since the boulevard is full of high-end retail shops, it is assumed that many of their customers will arrive by car and then conveniently park nearby. With the removal of these parking spaces, some may change their minds.

The main aim of this project is to make the upper part of the city, which has long suffered from comparison with the lower part, more pedestrian-friendly and attract more people and visitors. According to the architects, the final project will also make car traffic more fluid, with two lanes planned between the Cliquet and Louise roundabouts and a wide strip between Louise and the Porte de Namur. Car traffic will be concentrated in the middle of the boulevard, leaving plenty of space on the sides for pedestrians and cyclists (two bi-directional cycle lanes four metres wide to complete the cycle path along the ‘Petite Ceinture’).

A project by architect Francis Metzger and Ma² for the new shopping mall © Metzger

The project, led by Brussels Mobility as part of the Region’s Good Move and Good Living plans, is being implemented by the federal body Beliris (a collaboration between the federal authority and the Brussels Capital Region to promote the image of Brussels as the Belgian and European capital). The initial cost of the work is estimated at 16 million euros and it is unlikely to be completed before the end of 2025.
Elke Van den Brandt, Brussels Minister for Mobility and Public Works, said in a statement to “After very long consultations, I am really happy that this project will soon be completed. The Avenue de la Toison d’or is a very important artery for the attractiveness and the economy of Brussels. This project will make it possible to give much more space to customers, visitors and residents. By transforming this impassable urban motorway into an inviting urban boulevard, the new Toison d’or will also bring the upper and lower parts of the city closer together”.

Brussels Minister for Mobility and Public Works, Elke Van den Brandt © Facebook

The project includes resurfacing, reorganisation of car, bicycle and pedestrian traffic, creation of new green spaces, new public lighting and installation of one or more works of art. The final redesign project was selected from five proposals after a major architectural competition.
Among the main stated objectives of the urban development was the need to create a public space with a strong identity and landscape quality adapted to today’s functions. The new design will create a better connection between the two sides of the inner ring road and the neighbourhoods, between the eastern part of the ‘Petite Ceinture’ and Egmont Park, the Sablon and the city centre, boost trade in the area and attract new businesses, and hopefully create an attractive tourist environment.

The project aims to breathe new life into the area and make it welcoming for all. Pedestrians will be able to move around most of the space between the façades as well as in the new square that is being created, making it easier to get to the other side. The space will be enhanced by new trees and flowerbeds, pedestrian areas, kiosks and small pavilions that will house small shops.

A view of Place Louise, 2023 © Edm

In order to remove ambiguities and perhaps gain the approval and support of as many citizens of the Belgian capital as possible, the initiators and promoters of this far-reaching project have set up a website https://toisondorguldenvlies. brussels, which collects information about the project and makes it possible to follow the various phases of the project.

Good Move is the regional mobility plan for the Brussels-Capital Region. Adopted by the Brussels government in 2020, it sets out the main policy guidelines in the field of mobility, aiming to improve the living environment of the Brussels population while supporting demographic and economic development in the capital. The plan envisages peaceful neighbourhoods connected by intermodal structural corridors, with efficient public transport and improved traffic flow.
However, the Brussels Liberals are often criticised for launching new mobility projects without offering a real alternative to car transport. The measures are sometimes seen as too drastic and radical.

Therefore, even in the case of this redevelopment project for an emblematic area of the Belgian capital, the ideas met with rejection and even fear. The traders and economic actors of the neighbourhood asked the Agora research office to carry out a count of the vehicles passing or parking in the area to check the feasibility of the project. The conclusions were apparently disastrous, as the project raises fears of traffic clogging the neighbourhood due to the single one-way street planned along the two arterial roads. Even more reasons, then, to reject the project. Only time will tell which part was right.
Change is generally viewed with suspicion and resistance, but it is the only way to progress.

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