On the Future of the Rhine-Main Region
Minister Tarek Al-Wazir in Conversation
Tarek Al-Wazir is one of the most important politicians in Germany. As Minister of Economics and Vice-Premiere Minister, he has been involved in numerous political developments for many years. Currently, Tarek Al-Wazir is Minister of State for Economic Affairs, Energy, Transport and Housing in the Bouffier cabinet. He is also a member of the supervisory or advisory boards of numerous companies. Reason enough to talk to one of the most important political personalities about the topics of economy, energy, transport and housing.
“The green transformation of our economy is a great opportunity for Frankfurt as a financial center.”
– Minister Tarek Al-Wazir
SKYLINE ATLAS: Mr. Al-Wazir, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. From 2014 to 2019, you were responsible for the Department of Economic Affairs, Energy, Transport and State Development. Since 2019, you have been Minister of State for Economic Affairs, Energy, Transport and Housing. Through your work, you are very familiar with the challenges of large metropolitan regions such as the Rhine-Main Region. To what extent have the issues changed in recent years as a result of the Corona pandemic or the increasing awareness of climate change?
Tarek Al-Wazir: Corona has of course dominated our day-to-day business for the past two years. Above all, the massive aid programs for companies had to be implemented quickly and accurately so that the money got to where it was needed as quickly as possible. We succeeded in doing that. Corona has also accelerated some developments that have been on our minds for some time: The structural change in the retail sector, for example, together with the resulting consequences for city centers and town centers; or the trend toward bicycles as an everyday means of transportation. We have responded to this with appropriate programs. However, we have never looked at Corona alone, but have always tried to understand the pandemic in its context and its interactions with other challenges. One of these is climate warming, the other is the technological and economic upheaval of digitalization. Most challenges are not just one-dimensional: Russia‘s attack on Ukraine has shown that the energy transition, i.e. energy saving, energy efficiency and the expansion of renewable energies, is not just the answer to the climate crisis, but also has a foreign and security policy dimension.
SKYLINE ATLAS: According to a citizen survey conducted in 2019, the lack of sufficient and affordable housing is the “city problem” perceived most strongly by Frankfurt residents. How can housing in Frankfurt become affordable again and what role does the so-called “Frankfurter Bogen” play in this?
Tarek Al-Wazir: In recent years, Hesse has at least succeeded in first halting the decades-long trend of dwindling social housing and then even reversing it last year. This success has many mothers and fathers; after all, housing construction is a joint task of municipalities, business and the state. The turnaround in social housing construction is encouraging, but it is, of course, only a first step on a path with many a quandary to avoid. For more housing to be built, local authorities must designate more building land; but at the same time – to protect the climate and quality of life – we must reduce land consumption. And every new dwelling generates additional traffic – and that in a region whose road and rail network is already under heavy strain. The “Große Frankfurter Bogen” is our concept for meeting these diverse and often conflicting challenges. First, almost half of the potential can be realized by closing gaps between buildings and using brownfield sites, so that land consumption remains limited. Second, it consistently thinks of housing construction from the railroads, so that residents are offered an attractive alternative to the car.
SKYLINE ATLAS: Frankfurt is generally known as a financial center and transportation hub. Recently, however, the city has also been increasingly developing into a location for data centers. Can and does Frankfurt want to become an international center for the IT industry?
Tarek Al-Wazir: There is no doubt that the Rhine-Main Region has all the prerequisites for this: an excellent data infrastructure, universities with strong research capabilities, renowned companies, and a lively and well-connected start-up scene. The state government is making its contribution to this: We will continue to expand the StartHub Hessen as a central contact point for innovative founders and also set up a transfer center that will bring universities, startups and companies closer together around the topic of artificial intelligence, which is so rich in potential. We want to appoint a venture capital ambassador to act as an intermediary between startups and investors. We will set up a start-up scholarship and, of course, launch an internationally visible image campaign. But we also need to think together about many things when it comes to data centers: They must be as energy-efficient as possible, their waste heat should be used sensibly, and the accelerated expansion of renewable energies will become even more urgent as a result.
Interxion data centers in the east of Frankfurt
SKYLINE ATLAS: Not only are you Hesse’s Minister of Economics, but you also head the Transport Department. As in other metropolises, the topic of a traffic turnaround and a move away from the car as the dominant means of transportation is becoming increasingly present in Frankfurt. Can Frankfurt, with its enormous commuter flows, achieve such a turnaround at all?
Tarek Al-Wazir: Frankfurt can, must and is on the way. The expansion of the completely overloaded rail lines in the Rhine-Main Region has finally begun: The S6 to Bad Vilbel is just getting additional tracks, preparatory work is underway for the Nordmainische S-Bahn to Hanau, and this year construction will begin on the Regionaltangente West, which for the first time will create direct connections between communities and job centers north, west and south of Frankfurt. This will relieve the pressure on Frankfurt’s very busy main train station and is the first step toward a rail ring around the entire city. All of this has the potential to encourage tens of thousands of commuters to change trains and thus also noticeably relieve the road network. At the same time, the Darmstadt-Frankfurt high-speed bicycle link is currently being built, and other similar projects are planned in the region. And when the long-distance rail tunnel comes, the above-ground section of the main train station will be freed up for regional traffic. This gives us a long-term perspective for efficient and attractive public transportation in the Rhine-Main Region.
SKYLINE ATLAS: One of your major goals is to introduce a citizen’s ticket for Hesse. In addition to the Regionaltangente West, what other investments are needed to ensure that local public transportation does not reach its capacity limits?
Tarek Al-Wazir: For the metropolitan area, everything that is included in the FrankfurtRhineMainPlus package of measures: The expansion of the S6 toward Bad Vilbel and later Friedberg, the Nordmainische S-Bahn, the expansion of the Frankfurt-Stadion junction, block densification and improvements at individual points in the network, which are summarized in the S-Bahn-Plus concept, the Wallauer Spange, the rail link to Terminal 3 and much more. But we must not only look at the metropolitan area. We want to make it possible throughout Hesse to get where you want to go by public transportation. So we’re also talking about projects such as the reactivation of the Horlofftalbahn and Lumdatalbahn, pooling services such as the Heinerliner, ride-sharing services such as “garantiert mobil” in the Odenwald, and citizens’ bus initiatives. The state is also committed to these.
SKYLINE ATLAS: Last year, Frankfurt was able to prevail over financial centers such as London or Paris in the battle for the headquarters of the newly founded ISSB (body for setting global standards for sustainable financial reporting). Now there is hope that the European Anti-Money Laundering Authority (AMLA) could also settle in Frankfurt. Is the metropolis increasingly becoming a location for supervisory authorities?
Tarek Al-Wazir: As a banking center and stock exchange, as the seat of the ECB and Bafin, Frankfurt exerts a natural attraction, but it is not the only center of gravity for the financial industry in Europe. We are all the more pleased that we have succeeded in bringing the ISSB to the Main. This was a joint effort. The settlement strengthens Frankfurt’s international importance. With its concentration of renowned research institutions, important authorities and relevant market participants, Frankfurt is well on the way to becoming an international center of excellence in the design of a sustainable financial system. We already have the Green and Sustainable Finance Cluster Germany there, which was co-initiated by the state government, and the development of the Financial Big Data Cluster, in which Hesse is cooperating with Deutsche Börse and TechQuartier, among others, is also significant. Both clusters are making a significant contribution to raising Frankfurt’s international profile. The state government has a great interest in Frankfurt becoming a leading location for sustainable finance. After all, the transformation of our energy supply, the conversion of our mobility to low-CO2 drives, the decarbonization of our industrial production will require enormous investments, and the financial sector will play a key role in this. This is Frankfurt’s great opportunity.
SKYLINE ATLAS: When it comes to startups, Frankfurt is currently lagging behind metropolises like Berlin and Munich. You recently spoke of wanting to make Hesse a “start-up state. How can you succeed in making Frankfurt more attractive for young start-ups?
Tarek Al-Wazir: When we launched the “Start-up Initiative Hessen” four years ago, that was the beginning of the race to catch up. In the meantime, our start-up ecosystem has developed very well. More than 1,400 active start-ups are pursuing their innovative business ideas in Hessen. With the TechQuartier, StartHub Hessen, financing opportunities for all growth phases, numerous networking opportunities throughout Hessen, and established companies, universities and research institutions, the conditions have never been better. But we need to do even better, especially when it comes to networking and linking. Our goal for Hessen is a culture of cooperation, because collaborations facilitate access to customers and capital.
We want to place a focus on start-ups with sustainable business ideas. We see great potential there. However, such green startups have special needs, such as high capital requirements. That’s why we are now investigating what special offers are needed for them.
We want to place a focus on start-ups with sustainable business ideas. We see great potential there.
– Minister Tarek Al-Wazir
SKYLINE ATLAS: Let’s talk about high-rise buildings. In Frankfurt, more and more high-rise residential buildings in the upper price segment have been built in recent years. This means that housing is finally returning to the city center. However, some of the towers are standing empty, even though housing is urgently needed in Frankfurt. What do you think of this trend?
Tarek Al-Wazir: Vacancies may exist in individual cases, but not as a widespread phenomenon in Frankfurt. That’s what the current surveys show. In fact, the vacancy rate is very low. What we are seeing, however – even beyond the luxury real estate segment – is a trend toward a return to the city. More and more people prefer to live in an urban environment where stores, restaurants, and social gathering places are within walking distance. In view of the structural change in city and town centers, this is a great opportunity for housing and urban development.
SKYLINE ATLAS: Will we even need so much office space in the future, and therefore also high-rise buildings? According to researchers and real estate experts, tomorrow’s workspaces will be much more flexible and mobile thanks to the home office option. What changes will the future world of work bring for the real estate market and what does this mean specifically for Frankfurt?
Tarek Al-Wazir: If what started in the Corona crisis solidifies, it will have an impact on the office and housing markets. Home office at the kitchen table works for a few weeks, but not permanently. So there will be more demand for apartments with one or maybe even two workrooms. In return, office space can probably be eliminated. There are studies according to which the conversion of office buildings is the most cost-effective form of housing construction – at least in metropolitan areas. But of course, you can’t just look at the individual building: Residential areas require a different infrastructure than business districts: There you need daycare centers, green spaces, stores, social meeting places. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
SKYLINE ATLAS: Dear Mr. Al-Wazir, let’s venture a look into the future: How will Frankfurt and the Rhine-Main Region develop over the next 10 years?
Tarek Al-Wazir: Frankfurt-RhineMain will remain one of the strongest economic regions in Europe, with innovative companies, qualified jobs, a well-developed public transportation system and, a comfortable network of bike paths, safe and smooth road traffic, in short: with a high quality of life.
SKYLINE ATLAS: A nice closing word. Thank you very much for the interview.
About Tarek Al-Wazir
Tarek Al-Wazir was born in Offenbach am Main on January 3, 1971. After attending school in Offenbach, Sana’a (Yemen) and Frankfurt (graduating from high school in 1991), he performed civilian service from 1991 to 1992 and then began studying political science in Frankfurt, graduating with a diploma. While still a student, he joined the Green Party in 1989 and was chairman of the Green Youth of Hesse from 1992 to 1994. In 1993 he became a member of the Offenbach City Council, and in 1995 a member of the Hessian State Parliament. From May 2000 he led the state parliamentary group of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, and from September 2007 he also led the party’s state association. He resigned from both posts before being appointed Hesse’s Minister for Economic Affairs, Energy, Transport and Regional Development (since 2019: Housing) and Deputy Minister President on January 18, 2014.
Tarek Al-Wazir – photographed by Oliver Rüther/HMWEVW