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Three options on the table for USG's new stadium in Forest

Illustration shows 'Stade Joseph-Marien - Joseph Marienstadion' stadium of Royale Union Saint-Gilloise at the Dudenpark - Parc Duden in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO VIRGINIE LEFOUR)
06:09 27/01/2022

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise has wanted to build a new stadium for some time and, on Tuesday, representatives of the Brussels football club sat down with officials from the regional government and the municipality of Forest to discuss taking the next step towards that goal.

There are three options on the table: an extension of the team’s current home at the Stade Joseph Marien, the Bertelson site and the Bempt site. According to a study by planning agency Perspective.brussels, the latter option is the most interesting and viable.

Despite the limited renovation of the Joseph Marien stadium a few years ago, it is clear that the infrastructure is too outdated to continue to play football at the highest level in the long term. Union is currently top of the Belgian first division and may soon even start dreaming about European football. With this in mind, the club must have a stadium within a few years which is capable of hosting top-tier matches.

The club itself prefers to stay in Brussels and has already looked at some sites in Forest, but the cooperation with the municipality has not always been smooth. When Union started looking at possibilities outside the Brussels region, including in Drogenbos, the mayor of Forest was reluctant to engage in discussions due to the ongoing study into the options for a new stadium in his municipality. This study by Perspective.brussels has now been completed and was discussed on Tuesday with the club, the municipality of Forest and the region.

The regional agency investigated the advantages and disadvantages of the three options on offer: an extension of the current stadium in Duden Park, a new stadium on the Bertelson site behind Forest National and a new stadium on the Bempt site.

The first option is already difficult to achieve, according to Perspective.brussels. The current Joseph Marien stadium is the club’s historical home and, according to chief executive Philippe Bormans, that will always be the case. It is a stadium that the Union supporters are very attached to.

In addition to the emotional and historical connection, in practical terms, the stadium is easily accessible by public transport, more so than the other two options currently on the table. "But an extension of the current stadium is not realistic, since several parts, including the facade, the VIP room and the main entrance, are heritage protected, as is the Duden Park," noted Perspective.brussels in its study. The stadium, with a capacity of around 8,000 supporters, currently does not meet Uefa standards. An extension would cause traffic problems and other disruptions for the neighbourhood.

The regional zoning plan also does not offer enough space for a new stadium in Duden Park. On the Bertelson site, there would be enough space. There is already a very outdated stadium there that is currently used by some sports clubs.

On this site, near Forest National, a new stadium would fit better into the urban fabric, but there are also a lot of disadvantages associated with the Bertelson site. For example, the district is densely populated, and the impact would be too great, especially if a concert in Forest National and a football match in the stadium were to take place at the same time.

Then there is the Bempt site, near the Ring and the Audi manufacturing plant in Forest. For that site, Union itself had already had a model of a new stadium drawn up. That project would meet the requirements of Uefa, with a capacity of 14,000 supporters in a first phase, which would eventually be expanded to 21,000 seats, of which 17,000 would be seated.

The stadium itself would take up a total of 22,470m². In addition, there would be VIP parking of about 4,000m². For parking spaces for supporters, Union would consider the existing parking at Audi Forest. The football club would also like to build a hotel next to the new stadium with 100 to 150 rooms on an area of 2,120m². The stadium itself would share the club with the national rugby team and concerts could also take place there.

"Union's project demonstrates great ambitions in terms of ecology and sustainability, through the use of wood and sustainable energy," Perspective.brussels said, praising Union's plans for the Bertelson site. According to the regional agency, however, further research needs to be done into how other organisations and sports clubs could also use the new stadium. "The addition of a crèche or youth centre could also be worth exploring."

As far as the Bempt site itself is concerned, Perspective.brussels sees more advantages than disadvantages. The regional zoning plan provides more than enough space for the construction of a new stadium. Moreover, unlike the other two sites, this is not a densely populated district, but a neighbourhood surrounded by industrial infrastructure.

Here, a new stadium would cause less traffic nuisance. The site is located near exit 17 of the ring and the stadium would be visible from there. However, a solution should be found for the container park on the site. That service would have to move.

"The Bempt site seems to have the most potential for a new, modern stadium," concluded Perspective.brussels. "There are some points to consider, such as sharing the infrastructure with other actors, accessibility by public transport, parking and the treatment of current activities on the site."

Union itself is leaving the conclusions of the study for others to consider. "The file is in the hands of the politicians," the club has said. Brussels state secretary for urban planning and heritage Pascal Smet, who commissioned the study together with minister-president Vervoort, has already responded positively.

"We would prefer the Joseph Marien stadium to remain union's home stadium, but that is not possible for urban planning reasons, but also the environment," Smet said. "Due to its location, the Bempt site has the most potential."

By mid-February, a report must be drawn up that once again makes it clear why Bempt is the most viable option. "Everyone should have the opportunity to look at the study and then hopefully make a decision before the Easter holidays," says Smet. "It is not every day that a private investor wants to invest €60-70 million in a new stadium. It's not going to cost the municipality or the region anything."

Acting mayor of forest Mariam El Hamidine, who is deputising during mayor Stéphane Roberti's leave of absence, has reacted cautiously to the study. Whether an agreement before the Easter holidays is feasible, she does not dare to say. She does confirm that the municipality will meet again with the region and the club in mid-February.

"We don't have a preferred track yet. Nothing has been decided," said El Hamidine. "We still want to see what the impact will be in terms of mobility. And then there is the opinion of the residents and supporters. We know they are divided. Those conversations have yet to take place."

"The construction of a new stadium involves a lot of work,” added El Hamidine. “It took a while before the study was finished. And there is another college with which we have to make decisions. We're going to take a look at it now."

If there is a new stadium on the Bempt site, it obviously does not mean that the protected Joseph Marien stadium will disappear. Union would like its women's and youth teams to continue to play football there.

Written by Nick Amies