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The demand for flexible office space and co-working spaces is growing fast and it’s more than a fleeting trend. There are signs of this everywhere in and around Rotterdam Central District (RCD). In a square mile around one of the best train stations of Europe, all major flex providers are renting out workspace and temporary offices. But you also find boutique flex spaces here, where you might just witness the creation of a new medicine, software or some other high-tech gadget. Behind the walls and windows in RCD, it’s buzzing with creativity and entrepreneurship.
The large round table on the first floor has a stunning view over the square in front of Rotterdam Central Station, but also overlooking the whole of Weena. Here in Tribes Inspiring Workplaces, it’s a great spot to sit with a cup of coffee or tea. Watch the cyclists – like dedicated ants – work their way through traffic and into the entrance of the underground bicycle garage. From the FIRST Rotterdam building, where Robeco and NautaDutilh have their offices, you’ll see men and women trailing their carry-on trolleys as they head for the Intercity Direct to Schiphol or downtown Amsterdam. A young lad just makes it into the tram after a short sprint. The sounds of the city are kept outside with the double windows. It has something New York-ish, but then with a Rotterdam attitude.
For the Chief and Founder of Tribes, Eduard Schaepman, this location directly across from the ultramodern station came like a godsend. Next to the new FIRST Rotterdam office and the Premier Suites, you can’t get more central than this. Meanwhile, he has set up four locations of his striking flexible office concept in Rotterdam. This one is in the theme of the Huli, a tribe from Papua New Guinea. “For the new generation of workers, RCD is a fantastic spot. They no longer own property, so no car and they usually come by public transport or take the bike. Just look at all the different modes of transport coming in here. It’s unique. And it’s super important.” Tall-as-a-tree Mitchel Martis confirms this, as he stares across the square from where he stands on the first floor. With his law firm, Almonte Leclerc, specialised in immigration law he chose this spot for its accessibility. “Our offices in The Hague and Amsterdam can be very easily reached from here by car as well as public transport. Our clients enjoy visiting this location and are amazed by the story of the Huli.”

From this vantage point on the first floor, Schaepman sees another important aspect of this area: the mix of nationalities that make up Rotterdam. “It is a colourful environment. You see everything walking around here. It is exactly that young talent that feels right at home in such a dynamic environment. These digital nomads, in Rotterdam a group of at least 80,000, want to work and to spend money at places where they feel inspired. Take a look around you. Everything you see in this district plays a part in that. And it’s in the Rotterdam mentality, too: work hard, play hard. Something that appeals to the Americans. In our Tribes location at the Coolsingel, with the Mursi tribe as theme, we have been able to accommodate an American organisation for exactly that reason. What also plays a role for foreign parties is that, in RCD, our Tribes is right next door to the Premier Suites. The combination of work with short- or long-term accommodations is important for foreign parties. With these types of companies, you see that housing for employees is not a residual item.”
Whether you ask the Dutch or foreigners about RCD, they all mention its accessibility due to the new station, opened on 13 March 2014 by the King Willem Alexander. A tremendous advantage. The last improvement to the station was completed in April 2018. A separate platform was built especially for the speedy Eurostar taking you to St Pancras in the heart of London, and now also – from the same platform – the Thalys to the Gare du Nord in Paris.
It’s no coincidence that, in March 2018, the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis praised this public transport hub in a large international study. According to Arcadis, Rotterdam Central is the fifth best station worldwide and number 2 in Europe. In this ranking, our Central Station has only New York Grand Central, Washington Union Station, Hong Kong HKU Station and Gare du Nord in Paris ahead of it. Arcadis explains in the study ‘Improving Quality of Life through Transit Hubs’: “Rotterdam Central Station has been undergoing a large transformation and development the past decade, which contributes to an improving benchmark. Property prices around the station have increased, it performs high on qualitative and integrated urban environment, and its connectivity standards such as facilities within the station itself, multimodality and transit quality.”
Not bad, such a compliment, for a port city that even today is still rebuilding after the devastating bombing by the Germans on 14 May 1940. The Arcadis research compares 27 prominent stations all over the world. Rotterdam Central even scored number 1 worldwide in terms of transit possibilities.
Noteworthy is that Arcadis not only investigated the transit possibilities between all forms of public transport, bicycle and car, but also looked at sustainability, social placemaking – “Rotterdam combines the station with a quality walking route leading you into the city centre.” – and economic development. The Arcadis engineers feel there is one particular area RCD and Rotterdam really need to get moving: to generate more economic development. The area around the station does not rank in the top 10, which is headed by Washington Union Station, where the presence of many government buildings has created a strong economic climate. “The economic development indicator sees New York’s Grand Central and Washington D.C.’s Union Station leading the way, with high scores across prosperity and property values. High scores in economic development reflect the importance of transit hubs within the city, and highlights differences of these metropoles with the country average. Most striking is the significant variance with business employment.”

In love with Rotterdam
A thick Scottish accent fills the air. Packed with rolling luggage, the stainless-steel lift shoots down to the ground floor, to the monumental foyer of the Groot Handelsgebouw. Two men have had a discussion at the Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC) on the fourth floor and are now headed to the Schiphol airport and on to Edinburgh. Melissa Ablett smiles when she hears the men talking about the great accessibility of the area, but there’s more to it than that for her. The Boston-born Ablett manages the first CIC office beyond American borders, where it already has six offices. In this high-tech, co-working environment, she brings local and various foreign start-ups, scale-ups and investors in contact with each other. Ablett: “Our strength is our focus on innovation.”
The Venture Café, hosted every Thursday evening by CIC’s non-profit sister organisation, Venture Café Foundation, is by now a popular meeting point for entrepreneurs. Business is not the only thing discussed over a slice of pizza and a beer. Break-out sessions and workshops are also part of the programme and between company presentations, there is enough time for small talk, the glue that holds any (professional) relationship together.
With the financial support of the Rotterdam municipality, this community – where the average age is under 35 – continues to grow. During a guided tour of the recently completed expansion – the CIC now occupies nearly 8,300 square metres – she points to the companies that have just acquired money from investors to be able to continue their work on a particular product or service. “With this growth, we see six to seven companies moving to a bigger office each week. Here, for example, is where the Rotterdam corporation, Woonstad, has installed its innovation department. They want to look into what you can achieve with IoT (Internet of Things) in homes. More large companies such as AkzoNobel are bringing their innovation departments over, too, because the fourth floor here ‘breathes innovation’.”
Company inspirator CIC has its origins in the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (Boston), where it was founded in 1999 by Tim Rowe with the purpose of giving tech entrepreneurs a ‘shove’ in the right direction. “Our ecosystem – which we’ve been building up since that first year – is tremendous, and the more than 160 companies in CIC Rotterdam can benefit from that,” explains Melissa Ablett, who in the meantime is now back in the enormous central foyer. She takes another moment to tell us about the work of the Rotterdam design agency, Studio Spass, the creative minds behind a communal area that has become a kind of urban jungle.
War on talent
Paul Wessels is not at all surprised by what is happening in Rotterdam Central District (RCD). He is partner and founding editor of PropertyNL and works with property developments on a daily basis. He sees the presence of so much enterprise per square metre as ‘a kind of indicator for success’. “This type of environment is highly appealing to young professionals. Think about the Zuidas in Amsterdam, where you also see knowledge being bundled together. Over the past years, the Rotterdam municipality has worked hard to improve the image of the city. The former ‘workers city’ image had had its best days. Together with the new station and the walkway into town, the investment will be worth it. The area will even serve as a nice alternative to Amsterdam, where the prices are sky-high and there is a pending shortage of decent properties for offices.”

Wessels, who adds to what was said earlier by Schaepman, explains in other words: “There is currently a war on talent. Companies will do just about anything, by means of such workspace concepts, to attract young employees and keep them working there.”
The world’s greatest advisory and investment agency for commercial real estate, CBRE, sees that the demand for flexible office space is growing and that it is a persistent trend. For the past ten years, the global market for flexible office space has increased by an average 13 percent per year. The advisor also sees this development in the Netherlands, particularly in large cities like Rotterdam. “Flexible concepts are no longer merely regarded by office users as way to cut costs, but also increasingly as a way to innovate, to collaborate with other entrepreneurs, and to hold on to talent,” says Rudolf de Boer, Managing Director CBRE in the Netherlands. “Flexible offices are making it possible for large companies to introduce a ‘flexible layer’ in accommodating their employees. This means that they can respond more quickly to changing market conditions. Above all, flexible offices often offer high-quality at lower prices since the space is used more efficiently.”
The new generation of workers wants to meet up with each other, but then in a casual setting. “There has to be something to do in a building like this, but then something interesting enough to make it worthwhile to spend time there,” explains Wessels. Working together can then unfold more organically. In each of the concepts, the barista (m/f) from a trendy coffee bar plays a vital role. There is a reason why one of the many nicknames for this group of professionals between the ages of 20 and 40 is ‘generation latte’. The ‘coffee makers’ are the connectors among the typically young people working here. Hostess Donna van den Berg at Spaces at Hofplein knows (almost) every one of her tenants by name and their clients’ preferred beverage. Spaces calls it the ‘retailisation’ of its offices. Carsten van Rossen takes full advantage of this. He rents an office for his company, Local Media, on the fifth floor with a view over Hofplein. “I can receive my clients in the café. They like coming here, even if only for the view over Hofplein.”
Martijn Roordink, director and co-founder of Spaces, speaks highly of the former Shell office, built between 1973 and 1976. Where the building is concerned, he describes the ‘authentic’ and instant ‘hands-on’ culture in the facility. “It is exactly buildings like this one where we want to roll out our rental concept. It has a certain look and feel to it that makes it an appealing workspace for large and small companies, as well as quite a lot of freelancers. To make it into what it is today, we took on the ground floor and put in large windows to bring in more natural light. What makes this spot in RCD so interesting, is that it is right at the heart of Rotterdam, but also because every route through town comes together at Hofplein. Additionally, with companies like Shell, Unilever, Nationale-Nederlanden and Coolblue, it is the city’s business district, whereby attracting and retaining human capital is incredibly important. So, the workplace really matters.”
Spaces also takes into account that the new generation of workers places more importance on a dynamic environment, strong network and challenging work than having a high salary and a company car. The high-speed technological developments have made way for a drastic new approach to working (together) – often called ‘agile’ – and communicating in the workplace.
A great example of this can be found at Schiphol Rijk, where Spaces joined Microsoft to redesign the headquarters of this American software giant. Soon they will offer an entirely new (work) environment, as an incubator for co-creation and networking. But the real collaboration takes place between clients, partners and employees of both companies. And speaking of networking, the employees of Rabobank make use of Spaces to strengthen their network.
Spaces, together with parties such as Regus, owned by International Workplace Group, keeps an especially close watch over the trends in the world in the area of flexible office rentals. Like CBRE, they recognise a development that is here to stay. Roordink has another theory to explain this trend. Cities are going to grow more and more over the coming decades. In 20 years’ time, there will be more megacities than there are now. This will happen in Rotterdam, too. In the next 20 to 30 years, the city centre will have to become incredibly compact. The ambition, carrying the name City Lounge, is to build ten ­thousand homes in and around the city centre. “Living and working will grow closer together because of this increasing density. You also see this in RCD, where eventually apartments will be built to accommodate all of the workers in the area. Incidentally, you already see that Generations Y and Z are studying and growing up in the cities. That is why our building at Hofplein is so important, because it is ‘directly connected to the city’. Like minds eventually find each other in Spaces.” says Roordink.
A pearl of growth
Kleinhandel is a true pearl. You could easily call it the boutique of the providers of flex workspaces. What was once a small area of the Groot Handelsgebouw, has grown to what is by now approximately 10,000 square metres. The story of their early phase reads like an exciting book for young boys. Three years ago, the two founders of Kleinhandel, Brendan Jansen op de Haar and Sem Carree, ran into a problem. Their location at Delftseplein was to be demolished to make way for a hotel. They began looking around, but Jansen op de Haar and Carree didn’t want to relocate to another area. But where could they go? “Then we came across the Groot Handelsgebouw to begin a co-working space: Kleinhandel. From our network, we eventually rounded up enough tenants to start out with 450 square metres in the former bicycle parking area on the first floor,” Sem Carree explains, as he walks the hallways of the Groot Handelsgebouw. He waves to people and has a quick chat with some as he passes and, via a special built-in stairway up to the second floor, Kleinhandel continues on. The word ‘cool’ is used extensively (in Dutch: ‘tof’), also by Sebastiaan Linden­hof, tenant and co-founder of the new animation company Pitch-Parrot. “It’s just a cool place with cool companies where cool things get made by cool people: so, all-in-all, pretty cool.”
The name Kleinhandel, meaning ‘retail’ (or literally: small enterprise), is a humorous reference to the name of the building, Groot Handel, meaning ‘wholesale’ (or literally: big enterprise). Just like CIC a few floors up, each of the spaces has its own ‘soul’ to encourage collaboration. “Knowing everyone is part of our formula. We have a selection process for any candidate tenants interested in renting office space here. Diversity is important. We definitely want to avoid having too many from any one profession. What you see is that companies like new kid on the block The Good Music Company settle here and, one-by-one, they excel and grow, grow, grow: it’s because of the eco­system here. And since these companies want to stay at the Groot Handelsgebouw, this then means that Kleinhandel grows, too.”
A nice ‘plinth’, please It’s wonderful to wander through Rotterdam Central District (RCD), from the square in front of the train station, you’re a short walk away from the Lijnbaan, the shopping monument of the post-war reconstruction. And the area is slowly becoming greener, but there’s one thing that deserves attention according to many: the plinth. It’s real estate jargon for the shops and shop windows at ground level. You also find the term in the Arcadis study of the station, in the context of social placemaking and strengthening the local economy. It is exactly this new generation of professionals who are also looking for an exciting outdoor environment. The current offering in this respect is meager.
For Eduard Schaepman from Tribes, there is no doubt about it. He puts developers from the area in a plane to New York. “Look how different! The Meatpacking District in NY is a nice example of change. It is a production area converted into a service and residential area with a fantastic bar on the roof of Hotel Gansevoort.” Sem Carree from Kleinhandel can confirm this. “Introduce a kind of Pakhuis de Zwijger [an independent platform in Amsterdam for creation and innovation in the city] that also provides a weekend programme.”
Martijn Roordink looks out over the arches of the Hofbogen, the former railway viaduct behind his Spaces at Hofplein. To further reinforce RCD, the Hofbogen should be linked up with the area. Already, there is a yellow pedestrian bridge that connects them to RCD, but the Spaces founder feels that it could be set more strongly at the base. “There are wonderful bars and restaurants there, including two by François Geurds with Michelin stars.” •
19 november 2019
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