»Whoa, here on this piece of wasteland someone has ventured to launch a socio-cultural experiment«

Interview: Mechthild Harting
Twenty-five years after the first resolution by the City of Offenbach to transform an industrial site with its striking harbor island into a new neighborhood, people now live, work, and relax there, and soon creative professionals will be educated there – all with a view of the River Main.

Symbol of Offenbach Harbor: the blue crane

An interview with Daniela Matha and Bozica Niermann, the two women who at the head of the municipal development company were responsible for giving a total area of some 260,000 sqm and an expanse of water measuring 60,000 sqm a new lease of life – and still are to some extent.

Daniela Matha, can you still remember your first visit to the Offenbach Harbor site?

DM: That was back in 2001 during my job interview. We drove onto the harbor island itself – right up to the tip. First though, a barrier had to be opened and then closed again immediately afterwards so that no unauthorized persons could access the wasteland. Finally, there was a six-meter-high quay wall separating the island from the river. I reached the island’s tip and standing amongst wild blackberries turned to gaze at the Frankfurt skyline. And we talked about the immense potential the site had. It was summer, and the weather couldn’t have been better. It was a very special moment.

Didn’t you wonder how it would ever be possible to realize offices, apartments, playgrounds, and parks on a site used for decades for the transshipment of mineral oil?

DM: No, from the very first moment I thought: what an enormous opportunity. The fact that the site was contaminated didn’t alter the possibilities it offered, located virtually midstream in the Main and looking out to Frankfurt. One way or another, the site had to decontaminated. As the owners of the area, we at the municipal authorities were aware of that. I really only saw the opportunities this very special location offered.

Bozica Niermann, what was your first impression? You came on board in 2005.

BN: I don’t recall anything about my first official visit. While out cycling along the Main after work – the cycle path runs right through the district to this day – I happened to notice the old locomotive shed. A striking building that had been converted to Harbor 2, a privately run center for independent art and music, hosting readings, film­ evenings, and a cafe. I remember thinking: “Whoa, here on this piece of wasteland someone has ventured to launch a socio-cultural experiment.”

Did that impress you? There was nothing but site hoardings and old warehouses all around…

BN: I didn’t see it like that at all. At the time I was working in real estate and was quick to realize that Offenbach was about to embark on something really bold. At the beginning of the Noughties when commercial real estate was on a downward trend, Offen­bach ventured to create a vision: to plan a large urban development project. Four-story residential buildings are more what you would expect here. Yet the city and Mainviertel Offenbach GmbH opted to realize something in the direct vicinity of Frankfurt that would act as a contrast. That motivated me as a project developer to get involved and spend years shaping a new district with a balanced mix of residential and commercial use.

Were you quick to envisage what it might look like in 20 years’ time?

BN: I come from the Ruhr district myself. In the 1990s, we had the IBA Emscher Park development there, a show that demonstrated how industrial wasteland can be managed with a view to the new and how it can be transformed into a wonderful vision. However, the Offenbach project presented immense challenges, and it was clear it was not going to be a sure-fire success. It did have potential though: a huge area in the middle of the Rhine-Main region, a central, waterfront location in a city that needs to expand.

How did local people respond on hearing that a new district was to be built on what had been the harbor area?

DM: There was very little enthusiasm – not only in Offenbach but also in the entire Rhine-Main region. To be honest, the mood was very pessimistic and hardly anyone believed our idea could be a success. People in Frankfurt acknowledged our intentions, but their response was somewhat derisive, along the lines of: “They’ll never manage it anyhow.” However, you need to bear in mind that an urban development plan on this scale is years in the making. At the end of the 1990s it was decided by the Offenbach administration – back then headed by Lord Mayer Gerhard Grandke – to stop using the old industrial port as a harbor and put it to new use. However, presumably given the seclusion of the site, this idea and the start of planning largely went unnoticed by the general public. In retrospect, one sure reason for the success of the harbor development is the fact that Jochen Böger, then Managing Director of the municipal utility company, installed a strong supervisory board with the respective lord mayor as chair. This configuration was arguably the key to all decisions being passed unanimously over the years. Lord Mayor Horst Schneider placed the focus on housing; Felix Schwenke is now focusing heavily on commercial development. It has been extremely useful that, despite all the difficulties we’ve faced, we could always be sure of the support of the supervisory board.

How did you respond to the initial reticence from the real-estate sector?

DM: We developed the idea of an annual symposium that took place from 2005 onwards in the old locomotive shed in Harbor 2. Our idea was: Let’s get views about Offen­bach from outsiders, invite observers from other cities and from all over Europe – people came from Finland, from Iceland – to get their attention and listen to their opinions. Experts, in other words, who don’t see things through the Frankfurt-Offenbach spectacles. After all, we were convinced that we had a good idea. The great thing was that they agreed with us. Looking back, it was to our advantage that there wasn’t a great public awareness of the situation and that we in Offenbach and the Rhine-Main region operated beneath the radar with our ideas and developments. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have been able to realize many of the things the way we did and that make up a large part of the success.

Many people initially got to know Offenbach Harbor through Harbor 2 and the King Kamehameha Beach Club at the tip of the harbor island that opened in 2004. Oh, and also through Box Club Hall Hafen 19, a showcase project of national renown that works for the integration of kids and youngsters from the disadvantaged sections of society. What was your motivation?

DM: We wanted to create places people would like to go to. Inject something positive into the place, create things to attract them – at different levels. The one aspect was more club culture and leisure while Harbor 2 has a social and cultural dimension. In addition, we organized art festivals, either ourselves or in collaboration with the HfG, like the festival of young talents. We participated in the light and culture festival Luminale with several very impressive activities. And the hall for the Box Club was intended to attract people from other sections of society. Unless they work as architects or the like, very few people are capable of reading architectural plans and understanding how they will translate into reality. We wanted to show that we wish to give the city back a piece of land that, owing to its previous industrial use, simply didn’t exist in people’s minds as being part of Offenbach – that went for the authorities, too.

Were those all your ideas?

DM: We have always seen ourselves as people who provide ideas, inspiration, and ensure that experience and best practices from experts working outside the project are incorporated. Of course, we didn’t do it all ourselves. We were a good team within the municipal utility company, but also in the administration that was creative and above all interdisciplinary. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Did you succeed in fostering public acceptance of Offenbach Harbor?

BN: Nobody would have thought back then that these so-called pop-up usages would have been so successful. Harbor 2 still exists today, but at a different location in the harbor. The Box Club has moved to a private building in the harbor. Only the Beach Club no longer exists, but it was so successful for ten years that people of a certain generation still talk about it today. That garnered Offenbach Harbor a lot of attention – even from Frankfurters.

That makes it sound as if Offenbach Harbor was a huge success. Was that the case?

BN: I’d like to say it was. However, the commercial sector was struggling at the time and there wasn’t such a high demand for residential land in the Rhine-Main region as there is today. Moreover, we were forced to realize that Offenbach wasn’t seen as a good or interesting place to live. People didn’t move to Offenbach back then.

But there was a lot of talk about what could be done there: For example, it was suggested that Frankfurt’s Museum of World Cultures, which is very short of space, be moved to its neighboring city.

DM: When in 2008 Prof. Bernd Kracke, President of the HfG, first suggested building a new university at the location where Offenbach, it was said, was re-inventing itself, I found his proposal much more encouraging, as well as being more realistic. Kracke’s idea was to propose the harbor tip, i.e., the place with a view of the Frankfurt skyline, as the location for the new HfG. He had initiated a student competition for a new building in cooperation with the Architecture Faculty at Darmstadt Technical University and showed us the submissions. We hadn’t envisaged that. I suspect he simply saw the idea and the opportunity to realize a flagship project for the university there. He knew the university was bursting at the seams at its existing location and that it wouldn’t be possible to realize a new building at the old site or in the immediate vicinity.

BN: At the time, there were also plans in Zurich to redevelop its University of the Arts as a new building on what was known as the Toni Areal, the site of a onetime milk factory. Perhaps that was a kind of inspiration and made us think something like that could also be feasible for Offenbach.

And then various plots in the harbor were examined at the tip of the quay, definitely the most spectacular location, but also on the harbor square and on the land side opposite the Heyne factory.

DM: We felt it too daunting a task to develop the entire area at once, so instead we divided it into three building phases and decided to proceed gradually. The tip of the quay was to be the third construction phase. It would have been extremely complicated and expensive for us to continue the development right up to the front immediately. Which is why we suggested to Prof. Kracke that he consider the site abutting the existing Nordend district in order to forge a stronger link to the city. And so it was that the State of Hessen acquired a plot on the mainland. And since Ludwigstrasse, which leads to the new location, is also now perceived as a creative district in Offenbach, the university will be created at exactly the right place.

Let’s go back a step: Things got off to a somewhat sluggish start, but then in 2008 the City of Frankfurt municipal housing association, the ABG, purchased the first plot and announced it intended to build 178 apartments there.

DM: We thought, now things are taking off, and the fact that Frankfurt’s big housing association should want to build in Offenbach of all places was a good omen considering the notorious rivalry between the two neighboring cities.

But in 2009 the Offenbach Harbor project suffered a severe setback.

DM: Our idea was initially to develop the banana-shaped harbor island on the Main side so as to provide a protective sound barrier for the core around the quiet harbor base. The thing is, on the opposite side of the river you have Frankfurt’s Oberhafen (Upper Harbor), which is home to large logistics firms who have permission to work around the clock. This initial development would have been realized by the ABG.

What was the surprise?

DM: Tenants and people who own land in Frankfurt’s Upper Harbor took legal action against the development plan in 2008 and were successful in the first stage in the Administrative Court in Kassel in April 2009. I would not say they won, because subsequently we did in fact reach a settlement in a tough legal battle that lasted from April to November. In other words, the lawsuit wasn’t successful, but ultimately, they were able to assert their interests.

What was the compromise?

DM: The apartments on the Main side were only allowed to have windows that can’t be opened. This was an acceptable solution because at the time the ABG was only building passive-energy houses, so they didn’t consider this condition problematic. All the apartments and their balconies face south. In other words, the settlement we reached didn’t impact on the quality of the apartments.

Did this legal dispute mark a turning point?

DM: When the lawsuit was brought against us, we were relatively relaxed about it to begin with. We believed we had done everything according to the book; after all, we’d been given legal advice with regard to building law. We didn’t even begin to see this coming. After the trial in April, I thought: That’s it. The project is dead.

BN: The strange thing is that it’s very unlikely the claimants wanted with their litigation to bring the entire development of the Offenbach Harbor site to a stop. And incidentally, once we’d come to an agreement, we never received any further legal complaints.

And the ABG was able to start building. It was the first investor on the harbor island. It kicked things off.

DM: We realized at an early stage that when we talked to investors, they weren’t very trusting when we spoke about the quality of urban planning. To demonstrate our good will and show that it wasn’t simply talk, we decided to invest early on in the development and public space. We wanted to gain their trust in us in advance. In 2012, we created the Oberer Molenpark, and, in 2013, we installed the wide, spacious harbor steps leading right down to the water.

You took up the topic of water.

DM: More than anything else, we wanted to create connections and show walking routes. That’s how we designed the first small elements [of the project]. And ultimately, the finished quality succeeded in convincing many people who didn’t think us capable of producing something like this before. They realized that the simulations they had seen upfront didn’t differ from what actually came about. That brought us a lot of trust.

The open space planning has won numerous awards.

BN: It’s something special that all the waterside areas are open to the public. And the tip of the island, which is the most expensive piece of land from a real-estate perspective, will become a public park that is set to open soon. That is a difference compared to other cities. The city has demonstrated that it is serious about the project of making Offenbach more attractive for its residents. The Nordend district is very densely populated, and now these residents will also have access to green spaces. Moreover, with the harbor square and its restaurants and stores they will get a new center. People from very different backgrounds will mingle on the harbor square, something that rarely happens today.

DM: And that should always be your aim: to create a high-quality project that is also accepted by the locals. When the first complaints came, saying that after a weekend the harbor steps were always full of rubbish, I was really happy. We knew that our concept of opening up the district to everyone and making more space available to local citizens was proving popular. And of course we installed more litter bins.

How far are you with the development of Offenbach Harbor district?

DM: So, we have finished in one respect, but not in another. Some plots have been sold but haven’t been developed yet because of the state of the market. We have taken back some plots and are starting to develop them again. Some places are definitely finished, but there are others where we feel we haven’t even got started yet.

BN: The residential development is completely finished. Offenbach Harbor is a district that is already up and running. And the commercial sector is gradually following as well. It’s now getting a huge boost with the commercial Rocky Wood complex, where the Box Club also has its premises – ensuring it can continue to operate. Letting is going really well in Rocky Wood, and it will further strengthen Offenbach Harbor as a commercial location. Rocky Wood will also give the HfG a great neighbor.

How important is the new building for Offenbach University of Art and Design?

DM: It’s extremely important for Offenbach, very important for the HfG, and not to be underestimated for the harbor development overall. Once the students are there and show their creative potential, once they influence the location, you will get a really special atmosphere. We love that idea and are delighted that the HfG is coming with its students. I believe it will give the university an additional boost, not only because it will have a different, more modern location and much more space, but simply because it can present itself differently in the city. And everyone will benefit from that. Plus, it will alter the face of Offenbach, the HfG but also Offenbach Harbor.

BN: This will also have a positive impact on the entire region. After the settlement in 2009, we weren’t allowed to alter the development plan anymore. This meant it wasn’t easy to create a convincing design for the new university building while sticking to the original planning. The winning architecture team whose design will also be implemented has managed to get the best out of the location and the neighborhood. It will also be more interesting for firms to be located in the harbor, close to the university where they will perhaps be able to recruit interns or even their future workforce.