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“Can you believe this was almost knocked down?” Belgian entrepreneur Stefan Bostoen strolls through the quiet, cobbled, car-free piazza that lies at the heart of Pakt, the latest regeneration project in Antwerp. The site, which used to be a construction yard, is hemmed in between the new luxury real-estate project Het Groen Kwartier (the Green Quarter) and Antwerp’s historic Jewish neighbourhood. Now this development of beautifully renovated three-storey buildings is home to a series of handpicked independent businesses and topped with lush roof gardens.

Bostoen is one of the driving forces behind Pakt, along with Yusuf and Ismaïl Yaman: the two owners of the project. Bostoen guided the brothers after they bought the abandoned site back in 2006 and had helped them transform it into its new incarnation, which celebrated its official launch in September 2017. Before then it was nothing more than a well-hidden series of derelict warehouses. “Initially the brothers’ idea was to create spacious lofts and to sell and rent them out,” says Bostoen. But the city’s building regulations prevented this and, for a while, nothing much happened apart from a few spaces being rented out to entrepreneurs. “In 2014 they stepped away from the original real-estate plan and came up with the idea of converting the site into a hub for creative businesses.”

It took the trio some time to determine the concept and two years to renovate the site, which covers 7,000 sq m. The Pakt team worked with Belgian architect Roel Vermeesch to transform the warehouses into workspaces without interfering with the essence of the place. Building restrictions again forced them to rethink certain details but they fought hard to keep as many original features as possible. One example is the old windows in the offices of Bagaar, a Belgian app developer that recently moved to Pakt. “We kept the concrete structure of the windows and installed double glazing in bubble glass behind the frame so it still looks original but also complies with regulations,” says Yusuf. Some heritage additions were also made by the Yamans, including an old bridge that now hangs above the courtyard, connecting the rooftops.

Up here is the cherry on top of the Pakt development: rooftop vegetable and herb gardens covering about 1,800 sq m, with 200 sq m of greenhouses – the largest of their kind in Belgium. Farmer and agriculture expert Bram Stessels and urban-greenery specialist Maarten Weemaes helped the Pakt team design the gardens, which feature both aquaponics and rain-collection systems. Tomatoes in the greenhouse get their compost from the waste produced by fish in tanks below. One section of the roof is reserved for restaurant The Jane, which grows a variety of herbs and edible flowers for its kitchen. More Antwerp chefs are buying vegetables and herbs from Stessels, who also keeps a few boxes on the roof that anybody can rent for a small monthly fee.

Claudio Minnai is the owner of fashion agency Ulla Models and one of the tenants in the workspaces below. Many of his staff have a vegetable plot on the roof and leave the office every evening laden with freshly picked organic greens. “We used to be based in Brussels but in 2016 I decided I had had enough of the capital; in the past couple of years it has deteriorated in terms of quality of life and work,” he says. The concept behind Pakt immediately attracted him. “You need more than just one person or one business to create something unique. Pakt is a combination of interesting and creative businesses, often very different in background but all with the same mindset.”

He’s right: there is a wonderful sense of coexistence among the businesses here. The CrossFit gym, the oldest tenant, has a training exercise that involves carrying bags of coffee beans up to the roaster of on-site café Caffènation; the coffee-bean husks are then used as organic fertiliser for the rooftop garden. And there are plans afoot to use the heat generated by the huge oven in pizza restaurant Standard to keep the greenhouses warm in winter. In this way, it’s still a work in progress. “Pakt is a neverending story,” says Bostoen. “We want this project to evolve organically and inspire people in an unpretentious way. There’s always room to improve but that’s the charm and the challenge of a venture like this.”

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