By Lea Jacobs

While some inner cities have weathered the storm of democracy better than others, there is a growing trend to rebuild and improve areas that have been neglected and, to some extent, forgotten.

At one stage, we could all have been forgiven for thinking that many of our inner cities had disintegrated into a scene reminiscent of the movie I am Legend. It would seem that democracy hasn’t been all that kind to South African inner cities. Once home to some of the most expensive, sought-after real estate in the country, entire areas became virtual no-go areas as big business moved out and deterioration set in.

In Johannesburg, the City of Gold, famous landmarks closed their doors, including the Carlton Hotel, once one of South Africa’s finest hotels. The golden age of departmental store shopping came to an end as shopping malls became the new buzzword in suburbia, where shoppers were not only spoilt for choice, but could park and shop in relative safety.

The picture was pretty much the same throughout most of the country and although many of us bemoaned the fact that once-beautiful buildings had been left to go to wrack and ruin, very few had a solution to stop the rot and actually do something about it. It was, of course, never going to be an easy task to rejuvenate an area where slumlords, illegal tenants and skyrocketing crime levels were the order of the day. However, the picture is changing and, thanks to both the government and privately funded initiatives, new life is slowly being breathed into these once neglected areas.

Some areas are facing bigger challenges than others. Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to the bright lights of Johannesburg over the past two decades in the hope of securing work and a roof over their heads. Hundreds of buildings were hijacked by illegal landlords and tenants were forced to live in unspeakable conditions, while the ‘owners’ raked in the cash. Something obviously had to give and, unfortunately in this scenario, the buildings came off second best.

In some instances the buildings are no longer used for their original purpose. The old French Bank in downtown Johannesburg, for instance, has been transformed into the Faircity Mapungubwe, a four-star, self-catering hotel. A total of 98 luxury units now grace the hallways of the building while the old vault, complete with brass and copper safety deposit boxes, has been converted into a stylish hotel bar and lounge.

Johannesburg also recently announced that it has grand plans for the wealthiest city in Africa and a number of ambitious projects are afoot to transform the city into the “New York of Africa”. The 10-year scheme is expected to cost in the region of US$10-billion and include an extensive new road and railway network, better housing and revamped buildings.

City mayor Parks Tau says the 10-year scheme will lead to a “new era” for Johannesburg and its 4.4 million inhabitants. “We are re-inventing the city of Johannesburg,” says Tau.

Things are also starting to change in nearby Pretoria. In 1997 the west wing of the Munitoria was completely gutted by a fire that occurred due to non-compliance with the South African Bureau of Standards Fire Regulations. Despite warnings from inspectors and budgeting for upgrading the fire protection plans in the building, the work was not carried out in time and the simple overheating of a fuse in a fluorescent light bulb resulted in a massive, sweeping fire that quickly flared out of control. Firefighters were unable to contain the fire and thousands of public records were lost and an over R353-million in damages was suffered. The fire could easily have resulted in the collapse of local government.

Naturally, a derelict building has a devaluating effect on an area. Various legal issues and administrative snags have delayed the reconstruction of the burnt-out wing of the building for a number of years. However, plans have finally been approved for a new R2-billion replacement building for the Tshwane Metro Council. Ground has been broken and work has begun to replace the entire Munitoria building, including the wings that were not gutted in the fire, with what executive mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa hopes will be a building of iconic stature. The contractors are Tsela Tshweu Investments – a consortium made up of Standard Bank, Nedbank, Group Five and other small enterprises.

It is estimated that the construction of what will become the new headquarters for the Tshwane Metro Council will take three years, and will undoubtedly result in significant upliftment of the midtown area, boosting local property values. The news has already started to have an effect, with the High St Auction Co recently auctioning off the Midtown Building situated directly opposite the site.

Cape Town is also slowly being transformed and it was recently announced that the upgrading of Sea Point’s commercial precinct is having a positive effect on the local residential market.

“Sea Point lost some of its stature as a desirable place to live in the late 1990s and many potential buyers were put off by signs of urban decay and neglect,” says John Rabie, founder of Signatura. “However, it is now benefitting from the upgrading of the business zones and revitalisation of some older blocks that had fallen into disrepair. The City of Cape Town’s new zoning scheme, which anchors its Spatial Development Framework, is having a significant positive impact on redevelopment and investment opportunities in Sea Point.”

He says that buyer demand is fuelled by the outstanding amenities on offer. “In addition to views of Robben Island and Lion’s Head, the city, the Promenade, Cape Town Stadium, the Waterfront, Clifton beaches, MyCiTi routes, top schools and quirky boutiques and restaurants are all a stone’s throw away. In my opinion, Sea Point has the cosmopolitan feel of New York or London with the laid-back vibe of Miami or Sydney.”

Basil Moraitis of Pam Golding Properties says that the area that was once viewed as a somewhat lower-heeled neighbour of the glamorous Atlantic Seaboard suburbs has developed into a sought-after cosmopolitan area to live, work and play. “People staying in Green Point can get home from work in the central city within minutes, go for a jog around the urban park, enjoy a cocktail at any number of local restaurants and bars or stop in at the Cape Quarter centre to pick up dinner. Over the past few years, the area has also been growing in popularity with the media and advertising industries in particular, as a number of leading agencies and broadcasters have established their head offices in Green Point,” Moraitis says.

Things also continue to look rosy on the commercial front. Lydon McGrane, marketing manager of Galetti, reports that vacancy levels have remained low in the area with existing tenants mostly choosing to remain, while there is a steady stream of new companies looking to move there. Like Johannesburg, the area has embraced its history and many older buildings are still in use, albeit for a different purpose. Properties such as The Foundry, which hosts the popular Beluga restaurant, Victoria Junction, home to a Protea Hotel, the Cape Quarter with both the Piazza and the more recently developed Court Yard, 39 on Hudson, The Rockwell, Harbouredge, Metropolis and Dockside to name a few, provides the area with an almost European flair.

While some cities are going all-out to attract inner city investment, Durban it seems remains on the back foot. A recent report indicated that Durban’s rate randage is higher than that of Johannesburg or Cape Town and that this is having a negative effect on both residential and commercial sectors. Developers also complain of red tape slowing the transformation of the inner city down, although they remain positive about current and future projects. The regional manager of the Trust for Urban Housing Finance (TUHF) Lusanda Netshifhefhe points out that while funders of inner city projects should not expect to turn over a quick profit, there is a market for affordable rental accommodation in centrally located places.

“There is a dearth of accommodation in the inner city and if someone doesn’t refurbish old buildings, the slumlords will,” states Netshifhefhe.


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