How do you keep LEVS off the streets?

  • 09 July 2021
  • By Marianne Loof
On January 18, 2007, in Bussum, during a February storm, the tall chimney of the Bensdorp chocolate factory toppled with a thunderous roar. The chimney had been wobbling in the wind, as if unsure which way to fall. Finally, it fell over agonizingly slow, into the field, and in its fall took an old shed with it. Only a stump remained standing.

At one time, this chimney was the symbol of the factory's activity: Bensdorp chocolate was a world-renowned quality product and, until production was permanently halted and moved to Belgium in 2002, the Bros bars were produced here. When the chimney toppled over five years later, it had become a symbol of the factory's neglect and decay. However, this warning that industrial heritage cannot sit empty for years with impunity and wait for redevelopment did not speed up the development process. On the contrary, the fall in 2007 was only the beginning of even more years of stagnation and deterioration of this industrial heritage. In the end, this meant that only the Bros building and a few small halls could be saved. But despite that, the soul of Bensdorp had been preserved and the complex continues to fulfill its imposing role in Bussum, visible from all sides.

In the recently published book Bensdorp, Bussum, Bovenaan! by Bim Bensdorp and Hans Jonker, which describes the history of the family business, the perils preceding the establishment of Bensdorp in Bussum in 1884 are discussed. After forty years the company wanted to leave the city center of Amsterdam and settle in Bussum along the new Oosterspoorlijn. The plots were not in a built-up area, but there were already plans for the villa park Het Spiegel. In 1882 the developer of Het Spiegel lodged a strong objection to the establishment of Bensdorp and the municipality refused the building permit. The Council of State finally annulled this decision for 'procedural reasons'. The struggle that the village had fought in 1882 against the arrival of Bensdorp and also against any subsequent expansion or change, would prove representative of the struggles that marked the redevelopment one hundred and thirty years later.

In our anniversary year of 2019, Bensdorp will be completed and with fifteen years it will be our longest running project. For half of our office life, we have designed Bensdorp, talked about it, calculated on it, mourned about it in the face of setbacks, and then picked up the thread again with full conviction. Bensdorp 2.0 will be special, but for us it is not only the result that counts; it is the road taken that makes our achievement most tangible. Compare it to the Elfstedentocht. At the start, every participant is standing at the start line, with the finish line only four hundred meters behind them. And yet a journey of two hundred kilometers is made, full of cold, hardship and exhaustion. They have to skate under bridges and there are potholes that have to be skimmed around. In every city a stamp has to be collected and if you miss one, you have to skate back. And then there is also that terrible part from Bartlehiem to Dokkum and back again: when you are almost finished you have to skate another 25 kilometers up and down, to end up at the same point again. But once in sight of the finish line, all fatigue seems to have disappeared and you cross the line exuberantly. And indeed, to find that the four hundred meters between start and finish could have been done on foot.

The Elfstedentocht Bensdorp started with the sale of the factory and site by the then owner Callebaut. In June 2004, together with the combination Dudok/AM, we made a beautiful sketch vision for a bid on the terrain. In this sketch vision, the preservation of the factory was central: the still recently built green factory halls were demolished, three buildings were preserved and the characteristic buildings, demolished in 1995, were the starting point for the new construction, with a varied residential program in a considerable density. It was quite an ambitious plan. It differed from the plan submitted by ING, which provided for the complete demolition and construction of single-family homes. The owner of Bensdorp chose our plan and Dudok/AM acquired the land.

The plan soon became a victim of the high stakes itself. After ambitious preservation of the industrial heritage had triumphed over easy demolition plans, a few overconfident local council officials made the well-known mistake of imposing even more demands on the plan. On the other side of the track were two more development plots and an 'arrow' carelessly drawn by the municipality appeared to imply the ambition to build an immense parking garage under these locations, connected to Bensdorp via a (3.2 million euro) tunnel under the track, in order to change the traffic circulation in Bussum. And of course this had to be financed by the plans for Bensdorp and the two development sites.

But despite this complicating factor, the sketch vision was worked out into a zoning plan and an environmental permit with concerted effort. The stream of objections from the neighborhood soon tempered the original vigor; a form of metal fatigue set in. Despite the fact that new objections were dealt with extensively and a far-reaching investment in the tunnel was promised, fundamental forces continued to oppose any form of plan. In the end it was no longer about real objections, but a legal wrangle with the neighborhood and the municipality which, except for alderman Gouka, seemed unwilling to take a position and therefore ultimately became paralyzed. The building crisis finally offered a way out of the quagmire. The plan became unfeasible after all faith in developments larger than twenty houses disappeared in 2008. Bensdorp stood empty and impoverished further. The fall of the chimney had become a symbol of the hopeless situation. There were break-ins, demolitions, walls collapsing. For years the owners Dudok/AM paid a manager who was the only one to save Bensdorp from ruin.

The broadening of the Bensdorp assignment to include the two development sites on the other side of the railroad ultimately proved to be a stroke of luck. In the meantime, on behalf of other developers, we had drawn up a master plan for living and working on the former Koster grounds and the municipal regional offices, which could be implemented in phases. This 'forgotten' piece of Bussum, a messy old industrial site, became an intimate and attractive living area. The involvement of the client, the passion and the 'don't bullshit, but build' approach were a relief after years of wrangling, in which plans were talked to death.

In the crisis years, Bensdorp and the last building spot on the Gewestlocatie had become orphan sites. They still had legal, but no longer committed owners. For developers like AM and corporations like Dudok, a new reality had arisen in which sites had to be disposed of. The developer of the Koster terrain, like many in the construction industry at the time, had started to roam and ended up with Bouwbedrijf Noordersluis. And as always, Noordersluis was not easily taken in. Although he was not yet the owner of these orphan sites, in 2013 we began to collect, together and unpaid, the debris of the pre-crisis plans, to look at how we could bring these orphan sites back to life with common sense. Models, counting studies, a new vision on the preservation of Bensdorp, all options could and should be put on the table. It was clear that different conditions now applied than before the crisis, and what a relief. Density was no longer a solution in the crisis, the only thing that made plans feasible was to offer quality: good housing, large balconies and a good balance between housing and parking. The design for the three white regional villas is an outstanding example of this. Noordersluis eventually became the new owner of Bensdorp and the last building spot on the Gewestlocatie. The white villas could be realized for investor Delta Lloyd.

The 'diluted' version of Bensdorp increased the feasibility, but, after years of vacancy and pauperization and within a new reality, it was necessary to say goodbye to the striking Building E. Yet this very apparent loss became an inspiration for yet another new vision of redevelopment. Where previously we only saw the extremes of demolition or preservation as a possibility, now space arose for other concepts, such as 'free reconstruction'. We no longer considered this a weakness or a sin with regard to the authenticity of heritage, but in the context of Bensdorp as a legitimate concept of authenticity. After all, at Bensdorp, the cultural-historical value is not only in the physical matter, which, incidentally, has never been constant: between 1884 and 2002, every decade the factory has changed, expanded, torn down, become larger, lower, wider, and in every way badly disfigured by pragmatic factory needs. The only constant is the ever-changing shape and large scale of the factory site in relation to the small-scale villa district. Moreover, in addition to the cultural-historical value of Bensdorp, the emotional and social values of the large factory in the small village count above all. In the final elaboration of the new vision of redevelopment, all intermediate forms of restoration, renovation to 'free reconstruction', with preservation of original ornamentation, and new construction were applied without dogma.

In the latest round of redevelopment, starting in 2013, Bouwbedrijf Noordersluis has taken up the gauntlet and, based on the new plans, 'adopted' or bought the orphan sites. The owners of Bouwbedrijf Noordersluis, Lammert and Alinda Boeve, will reach the finishing line with their self-willed but involved way of working, but vigilance remains necessary, because objections from the neighborhood, municipal requirements and ambitions are sometimes difficult to reconcile with the feasibility. Gradually, the support base has grown and Bensdorp is supported by the neighborhood. But Bensdorp would not be Bensdorp if the remaining few were not to litigate right up to the last possible objection. In vain. Would the curse between factory and village finally be lifted after 135 years?

Epilogue

Between the writing and production of this book, Noordersluis Construction Company unexpectedly went bankrupt. The tragic irony is that the story is therefore not finished and the finishing line has not (yet) been reached. In the metaphor of the Elfstedentocht: with the finish line in sight. Various parties, owners and the municipality are currently working hard to find a solution to jointly finish off Bensdorp.

Epilogue: finally enjoying Bensdorp again

In 2019, the client and contractor of project Spoorzone Bensdorp, Noordersluis, went bankrupt and hopes for successful construction seemed dashed. The major construction and restoration work had been done, but the finishing touches were missing: the layout of the site, the entrance gate and the finishing touches all around. However, it soon became apparent that the various small and large owners did not want to give up. We just wanted to keep on going, after all, we have been working here with great dedication since 2004. It is a complex job and a complex cooperation, and we are puzzling on all sides. Bit by bit the end is now in sight: the restored bros building, the industrial buildings with black balconies and Brooklyn-like fa├žade staircases, the corten steel shed and the flowery public space in between. What an Elfstedentocht of a process it has been, but also: what a result!