It is a special project, Wonderwoods, but at real estate developer G&S Vastgoed it fits perfectly in the development series. Of course, it looks different because it will be one of the first overgrown high-rise buildings in the Netherlands. For G&S it is also a bit different, because the two towers will be mixed-use, with both office space and living space. Moreover, it will be publicly accessible by adding Nowhere, the first immersive digital art space in Europe.
Add something that isn’t there yet
According to Jason Blackmore, Wonderwoods fits in perfectly with G&S Vastgoed. ‘In a market of abundance, we always try to create scarcity by developing something that isn’t there yet. We did this in the ’80s and ’90s by building high-tech buildings in Amsterdam Southeast that were popular with internet companies at the time. The inspiration for this was taken from the US. On the Zuidas we realized buildings of an un-Dutch scale and quality in the 00s and 10s. We worked together with international architects such as Toyo Ito, Rafael Viñoly and Michael Graves, at that time unknown in the Netherlands. Wonderwoods was designed by the Italian architectural firm Stefano Boeri Architetti and the Dutch MVSA Architects, and such a green building is unique for Utrecht.’
Blackmore has been managing director of G&S Vastgoed since 2011. At the time, he succeeded Chris Gongriep, who founded the company in 1978. Blackmore had been working at G&S for over 10 years, focusing on the commercial side of the development profession. According to Blackmore, the ghost of Gongriep, who died four years ago, still haunts the office on the Zuidas. Blackmore: ‘You can see that, for example, in the closeness of the team that we gather around us. We have worked with ZZP for a long time and now with MVSA Architects. We still take architects and their designs very seriously. In terms of backgrounds, that team is also very diverse, which in turn enhances creativity. Here at the office, for example, the male-female ratio is 50-50, and that’s no coincidence’.
The fact that VolkerWessels now owns the construction branch and participates in G&S Vastgoed does not change this. Blackmore: ‘VolkerWessels is like a big brother in the background, who not only has a strong capital position, but also thinks along with us. For example, I just had a brainstorm with Dick Boers (member of RvB VolkerWessels, ed.) about a large development location. Now that VolkerWessels has been taken off the stock exchange again, there is even more room for entrepreneurship in the company. The lines of communication have become shorter, because there are less eyes watching now. Of course, that does not mean that everything goes less carefully’. An owner with a good capital position is no sinecure in these times of corona. In any case, Blackmore is convinced that the changes that were already in the air will now come to the market more quickly. I definitely didn’t see Corona coming, but I did see that the prices paid for the offices were no longer determined by the underlying factors. Then things could only get worse, and so we did indeed sell everything’.
That’s good luck in case of an accident, but the changes go beyond the amounts paid for office space. Blackmore has been seeing the world change for some time now. Living conditions and health have become increasingly important issues for corona as well. Blackmore: ‘If a company wants to rent a building, what does it choose? Certainly with the acquired corona experience? That’s not an outdated building, but a safe building with clean air or, for example, more elevators so that people can be dispersed’.
In addition, according to Blackmore, the user will choose a building that allows his employees to work in as few square meters as possible, and in as safe as possible way. After all, a higher density means that even fewer meters need to be rented, but also that a higher investment can be made per square meter. G&S is working with BNP Paribas Real Estate and MMEK on REDEFINE, a philosophy of creating a healthy, safe and productive working environment. This vision is translated into a concrete housing program. Basically, of course, people should be able to go to the office safely, but REDEFINE goes further than that. The goal is that REDEFINE continuously improves itself and that more and more ‘balanced advice’ can be given regarding housing. Not only on economic grounds, but also in the field of sustainability, health, safety and technology. REDEFINE will be applied for the first time in Wonderwoods.
It is not only the innovative character that makes
that Wonderwoods in G&S Real Estate development series fits, but so does the way of financing the project. A large part of the project, both the offices and the homes and facilities, has already been sold to ASR Real Estate. The sale of the owner-occupied homes will start soon. Blackmore: ‘It has always been our strategy to sell quickly. Of course we’ll let money run, but we’ll also run less risk. Anyway, we’re not going for the most commercial deal possible; we’re not going for the highest price. That attracts namely at the front immediately a change on the project. Given the duration of our projects, there is always a moment when you have to look each other in the eyes.
The outcome must be that staying together is more enjoyable than splitting up’. He explains his statement: ‘Look, our project is just one of the projects the investor has in his portfolio. In bad periods, that investor will always have to say goodbye taking certain projects. We don’t want our project to be at the top of the list’. G&S certainly has experience with bad periods. The developments in the Zuidas were visionary in the sense that the developer took up ground positions at an early stage, because Gongriep and Blackmore saw that the companies in the city center were getting more difficulties. But in 2005, when the buildings were completed, the vacancy rate on the Zuidas was 70%. Blackmore: ‘At the time, we didn’t believe in it either. We had already sold, but still got a decent exit’. Even then, it turned out that there were advantages to having a lot of power behind you. Gongriep, as a major shareholder, helped the company out of the fire.
Offices and homes
What also changed are the development segments which G&S Vastgoed deals with. Started as a purely office developer, all the residential towers have been developed on the Zuidas, including a row of ground-level houses. In Utrecht the developer is now also involved in the development of a new piece of city in the Merwedekanaal zone. Together with Round Hill Capital and Boelens de Gruyter, it has acquired a position where some 1100 homes can be built. Blackmore: ‘Although my focus has always been on offices, our company is attracting more and more people who have a passion for housing. I believe in providing space for people and so we are heading in that direction. And that works very well.