Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Central Brussels makeover planned

By Dominic Hughes
BBC News, Brussels

Grand Place - historic gabled buildings
Ornate buildings are a lasting reminder of merchants' affluence

Brussels City Council is poised to launch a campaign to smarten up the streets around its tourist showcase, the Grand Place.

The central square in the heart of the Belgian capital is a Unesco World Heritage site. Dating from the 15th Century, it is lined by guild houses, built in a riot of different styles, from Gothic to Renaissance.

And yet if you wander less than 100 metres from the square it is a very different story.

On side streets derelict buildings are boarded up and covered in graffiti. Small trees are poking out of the roof and smashed windows on the upper floors. It is decay in the heart of the city.


A tour of Brussels' less picturesque features

Urban neglect

On the pavement outside one crumbling facade local journalist Peter Philp says he is convinced local landlords are deliberately letting properties slide into disrepair.

"This is a typical example of an owner trying to let the place crumble so much that he's not obliged to fix it up quite as expensively as if he was to tear the whole place down and build an office block, " he says.

Grand Place - historic gabled buildings
The fine buildings overshadow some dingy streets nearby

"People who come here as tourists will see the Grand Place and will think, wow, what a beautiful city. And then as soon as you move away from it you'll find that it's actually pretty devoid of population."

And it is not just decaying buildings. Just around the corner, the pretty sounding Rue du Marche aux Fromages is better known as "Kebab Alley". The street is full of bright neon signs and huge oversized menus.

So now the council wants to either force landlords to restore derelict buildings or buy them up itself. It is also issuing new licences to restaurants that mean they will have to smarten up.

The garish signs and menus will go, and the rag-tag of awnings will be replaced by smart new designs in the green and red of the Brussels coat of arms.

The Mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, told me: "We are thinking of coming up with a contract that we are trying with the owners of the places around here, because we think we could re-do parts of the area and give it a lustre again that might be proper for a Unesco area.

"And I think we'll succeed because we've done it in other parts of the city."

All this could take a decade, according Mayor Thielemans. Much of the historic heart of Brussels has already been sacrificed to modern development. The battle is now on to save the streets around the Grand Place.

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