“All life's serious journeys involve a railway terminus”: Europe is cleaning up its destination stations

Antwerp Centraal, 2009. Image: Getty.

“All life's really serious journeys involve a railway terminus,” remarked Stephen Fry, playing Oscar in the film Wilde and riffing neatly on The Importance of being Earnest.

He’s right: there’s nothing quite like stepping off a train and knowing you’ve arrived, especially beneath a full-on nineteenth-century railway cathedral arch. And yet, some of Europe’s finest stations need a bit of TLC, while the areas around them are often a bit of a dump (as anyone who’s strolled out of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof down Kaisterstrasse knows).

Since the turn of the century, however, railway companies across Europe have been polishing up the jewels in the ferrovial crown, and work is well underway on the centrepiece. Paris Gare du Nord: Europe’s busiest station, this machine for moving people serves 2,100 trains and 700,000 travellers every day.

 

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I first encountered Gare du Nord as an Erasmus student, back in 2003, with my first experience of proper, scary harassment on the escalators there. In 2006, my laptop got stolen there when leaving the Thalys. In 2007, when Eurostar’s London terminus moved to St. Pancras, a gleaming collection of fancy shops, craft ale bars and the longest champagne bar in Europe, poor old Gare du Nord looked even more tatty by comparison.

Back in January, Harry Mount called it a “dump,” in the Spectator, “haunted by lost souls, homeless, drunk and begging.” 

But now it’s all change at the terminus. Much like the gloomy narrative about Marine Le Pen’s success in French politics in recent months actually turned out to be overdone, Gare du Nord is getting refurbished and the first bits look as sharp as Emmanuel Macron’s Presidential portrait. The first stage of works is due to finish in 2019, but already they’ve smartened up the RER platforms, opened a ton of new shops and got a Michelin-starred chef to open a Brasserie (so #onbrand for France).

The new Eurostar business lounge is complete, and a complete delight, as well. There’s a superb view for a bit of high-speed train spotting (GdN has trains to four countries other than France) as well as a fancy gin corner. This in turn has freed up plenty of space in the main lounge and boarding area. But it’s just the start: I’ve had a peek at what comes next, and it looks very interesting.

Gare du Nord is the biggest and oldest of Paris’ stations, but it’s been mired in drama since the start. It doesn’t have a large forecourt like most grand C19th stations because of a personal conflict between 19th-century Barons Rothschild and Haussmann, which has made it particularly challenging to extend the station halls as demand grew. Gares et Interconnexions, the arm of SNCF in charge of the works, says the challenge is to “push the walls in this constrained space and modernise the station without losing the character of its listed architecture”.

That means a complete reworking of the surrounding area and making more sense of the links with neighbouring Gare de l’Est and Magenta, the underground station for local trains on the RER E line. The area out the front, with its much-abused drop-off point, will be entirely pedestrianised, so sitting out the front of Terminus Nord with a glass of something chilled will become even more appealing. The “historic, recently-restored, front elevation, will take a real aesthetic and symbolic place in this newly-calmed forecourt which will attract restaurant terrasses, events and an urban and social life which will benefit the neighbourhood”.

An impression of the new Gare du Nord. Image: Wilmotte.

Destination stations aren’t about “if you build it, they will come” so much as “people are going to use this travel hub anyway so we might as well make it as attractive as possible”. This usually involves “wow factor” architecture, rethinking the user experience and sticking in a load of shops, without the airport constraint that you’re obliged to go through them, Temple-Grandin style.

Look at Antwerp Centraal: designed by Louis Dela Censerie because King Leopold II felt that previous plans weren’t grand enough, this railway cathedral opened in 1905 and has been an icon ever since. In the sixties, it was nearly demolished (like Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple, knocked down for an office block) but in 2009 it was restored to more than its former glory.

Previously a terminus, a tunnel underneath means high speed trains can go through from Paris to Amsterdam; a whole new station entrance at the other end means it’s less crowded and easier to navigate. In February 2009, Newsweek named it the world’s 4th most beautiful station. And the shops? Darling, it has its own diamond gallery (and some cracking waffle stands).


The shopping thing is particularly helpful in Germany, where the Ladenschlussgesetz means shopping on Sunday is generally a big fat nein unless you’re in a railway station, petrol station or airport. Having slagged off Frankfurt HbF earlier, it does have one of the best multi-language bookshops I know – right there in the station. But Germany’s premier Bahnhofserlebnis must be Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Opened in 2006, it has an incredible multi-level design – imagine a collaboration between MC Escher and Hornby – and serves 300,000 passengers a day. It’s light, airy and has outstanding signage – a railway cathedral for the 21st century.

Destination stations aren’t all about fast trains and fine dining, however. Refurbishments usually also improve disabled access, add plenty of new bike parking, and better links with local public transport, meaning fewer cars in city centres.

In the ten years since its opened, a Deutsche Bahn spokesman says, Berlin HbF has added improved information system for disabled and blind people, switched its lighting to LED technology, and added over 1000 new lockers. They have also added more than 30 new clocks – as the German saying goes, punctuality is the politeness of kings.

As CityMetric noted recently, “the stench of urine that greets you on leaving Gare du Nord” is far too many people’s first impression of Paris. It’s high time that changed – with the first stages of the refurbishment complete, we can’t wait to see how the finished project looks.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.