Warsaw’s Wola district finds itself at a unique crossroads in time, says TFN’s Alex Webber
Once noted for its shabby housing quarters, disintegrating factories and empty, overgrown plots, the Warsaw district of Wola was, not long back, a by-word for stagnancy, an area arguably best-known for its grim associations with the 1944 Uprising and the resulting massacre of its civilians.
Memories of the past linger still, something apparent not just by the bullet holes that still scar many of the walls, but the presence of what most view as the city’s most important cultural institution: The Warsaw Rising Museum. Annually attracting in excess of 700,000 visitors per year, its role in thrusting Wola into the public eye has not gone unnoticed.
However, it is not the district’s history that is now the principal talking point, but its future. In the process of establishing itself as the city’s new financial heart, it has bloomed into a dynamic business hub whose regeneration has been underscored by a flourishing office sector and booming residential market. Further, this has been achieved whilst maintaining a balanced plan of sustainable development.
So what went right?
According to Łukasz Dziedzic, a senior analyst at JLL’s Research & Consultancy Department, Wola’s renaissance lies rooted in the construction of a second metro line.
“Without doubt,” he tells TFN, “the single biggest factor in Wola’s emergence was the decision to build a second metro line running through the district – that was the area’s defining moment.”
With transport links regarded as key to an area’s viability as a business location, the metro gave a timely boost to a suburb already well-linked to the rest of the city by bus and tram infrastructure, whilst the prevalence of vacant lots provided ample room for the city’s existing centre to expand westwards and into the derelict wastes of Wola.
“Such is the density of the rest of central Warsaw, this was the only natural direction in which the city could develop,” says Dziedzic.
A landmark moment was reached – quite literally – with the 2016 unmasking of the Warsaw Spire, a project anchored by a 220-metre skyscraper that was immediately installed as the tallest office building in the country.
The work of Ghelamco Poland, fears voiced by pessimists that it would be a white elephant have proven spectacularly inaccurate, with the venture instead becoming a calling card for Warsaw’s corporate credentials.
Featuring, among other things, a scenic public square touting tinkling water features and pristine, curling pathways, its universally hailed design saw it crowned the Best Office & Business Development at the 2017 edition of MIPIM, the world’s most prestigious real estate awards.
“It was considered a brave project at the time,” says Dziedzic, “but you could see the belief that Ghelamco Poland had in it. Its success paved the way for other developers and now we have a situation where every player on the commercial real estate market wants to be present in Wola.”
Resounding to the constant thump of construction, developments have come thick and fast with the skies dominated by rising towers and clanking cranes. “This has become ‘the place to be’ and we do not see this changing,” says Dziedzic, “there’s plenty of pipeline projects to come and still space to develop.”
“Wola has been attractive to large scale companies because it has the office space to meet their demands,” he continues, “and we’re seeing it’s become particularly popular with firms inside the banking sector and BPS industry, as well as those firms entering Poland for the first time.”
For this, Dziedzic says, the reason is straight forward. “If you’re a company recruiting talent you need a location that’s both prestigious and easy to commute to – Wola now offers exactly just that.”
It is, though, its multi-faceted growth that has truly set Wola apart. Contrasted against the haphazard commercial evolution of the Służewiec district, a section of the city whose laissez-faire development has resulted in grisly traffic jams and a dormant after-work scene (hence earning this slice of Warsaw the dubious nickname of Mordor), Wola’s advance has been conducted with a long-term vision aimed at integrating it into the deeper fabric of the city.
“Wola doesn’t limit itself to one function alone,” states Dziedzic. “Aside from a thriving office sector, its residential market is growing and we’re seeing a swing towards mixed-use projects. These have given the area a sense of vitality that extends beyond business hours. To all intents and purposes, it has become a city within a city.”
In reference to this, much fuss has already been awarded to upcoming projects that will see decaying industrial sites revived to meet a variety of demands: Art Norblin, for instance, will see a 19th century silverware factory reprised with 40,000 sq/m of offices and 24,000 sq/m handed to service and commercial areas that value concepts of ‘slow retail’.
Close by, Browary Warszawskie, originally home to the Haberbusch and Schiele Brewery, will juggle residential, corporate and retail components whilst preserving surviving historical elements, with future tenants including a restaurant falling under the patronage of football megastar Robert Lewandowski.
And perhaps most anticipated of all, Towarowa 22, a 230,000 sq/m development that will place the Dom Słowa Polskiego printing house at its core. Liquidated in 2010, this was once Poland’s busiest printing works during the PRL period, with 27 million books, 510 million newspapers and 195 million magazines rolling off the presses each year.
Reimagined by the internationally acclaimed Bjarke Ingels, the plot, when eventually revamped, will add, according to the architect, “cultural infrastructure whilst creating a critical density of homes and workplaces to support the resident population of this 24/7 neighborhood.”
Featuring an “archipelago of inter-connected gardens and public spaces,” as well as a covered street brimming with restaurants, a Museum of Print, a theater and a cinema, it promises to become an important cornerstone of modern Wola when finally launched approximately five years from now.
As it stands, Wola finds itself at a unique crossroads in time. Still smudged and smeared in many parts, its richness of contrasts lend a distinct charm that sets the raw and rugged against the slick and futuristic. The atmosphere is heady.
“Three things have made Wola what it is,” concludes Dziedzic. “First, the transport links. Second, its proximity to the city, and finally, its prestige – people want to live and work here.” And remarkably, for Wola, this could just be the beginning.