Ramshackle revival

Posted On Friday, 18 April 2008 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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Regenerating Jo’burg’s inner city was always going to be complicated. Now, even doubters think it may really happen

Amos Masondo“Is this your rubble?” Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo asks the shopkeeper next to a mound of litter on a Wanderers Street pavement. “I’m coming back at 4.30 and I want it gone.”

Masondo isn’t short of staff to clean things up but the incident underlines Jo’burg’s ramshackle revival from tawdry 1990s urban sinkhole towards its ambition of becoming Africa’s first great 21st-century city.

Things are changing in the inner city. As streets and public places improve, property owners who have complained for years about the city not working are being told they are part of the process.

“Our commitment to the charter is unwavering,” says Ruby Motaung, the mayoral committee member in charge of the inner city. “But property owners must do their bit as well.”

Masondo often strides through the CBD and Jo’burg’s inner-city suburbs, checking how far the inner-city charter, agreed at a forum this time last year, is being fulfilled. He knows all 192 regeneration targets by heart. They are breathtaking in scope and detail, covering every aspect of city life and management from safe streets and visible policing to art, literacy, immigrant assistance and Internet connections.

Of the 43 due for completion by December 2008, 30 had been completed by the time a stakeholder forum was held in March. The other 13 are due to be finished by the end of June.

They include a R2bn budget commitment over five years, of which R300m is to be spent by June of this year. This includes R171m for the Johannesburg Development Agency to upgrade the streets and public areas of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, and the provision of more than 1000 transitional and emergency beds. Another R100m from departmental budgets has been set aside for urban management.

Since last July, Motaung and regional manager Nathi Mthethwa have recruited officials from 30 departments to form a 176-member, multidisciplinary team to oversee progress. It includes 86 police, 18 environmental management specialists, two health specialists, two town-planning inspectors, 20 pest control officers and 30 urban inspectors.

They sweep through precincts at a moment’s notice to close down illegal liquor outlets, arrest drug dealers and petty criminals, warn or fine building occupants for by-law infringements like signage and overcrowding, and check on the condition of infrastructure.

Above all, they spend time educating the burgeoning residential population about acceptable behaviour.

Cities expert Neil Fraser, who publishes the weekly Citichat newsletter, estimates that the number of city-centre residents has grown in the past five or six years from 1200000 to around 300000.

A few weeks ago Cape Town Partnership’s Andrew Boraine and estate agent Samuel Seeff posed for photographers in front of 3200 residential units built in that city’s CBD in the past five years. That is slightly more than Affordable Housing Co CEO Renney Plit is building in a single corner of Jo’burg — 2500 units in New Doornfontein.

Cape Town Urban researcher Theodore Yach estimates Jo’burg’s CBD is 14 times bigger than Cape Town’s.

“We’re investing another R1bn in converting offices to flats in the next couple of years,” says Plit. “By then we should have 10000 units.”

Pretoria developer Alec Wapnick’s City Property is said to be investing another R2bn to bring his total conversions to 10000 and earn him and his listed property fund Premium monthly rental income of around R25m.

But even this pace isn’t enough. The charter calls for 75000 new units. The pace of conversion is likely to slow as building prices rise from as little as R125/m² 10 years ago to over R2000/m² today. Rising building costs and interest rates are likely to knock initial investment returns that last year were a juicy 11%. But the target seems reachable.

Cranes are starting to rise in the city as developers start building new offices. Johannesburg Development Co is building a new mixed office and retail complex at the southwestern corner of the city, next to the magistrate’s court, to connect to the already upgraded old financial district. Just up the road is the newly opened four-star Mapungubwe Hotel, which enjoys 90% occupancy.

“Developers have committed a further R5bn to new projects,” says Johannesburg Inner City Business Coalition chief Anne Steffny.

Yet developers are still grumbling. A deadline of December 2007 for municipal clearance certificates — allowing property ownership to be transferred within three months of application — has passed and the process could be more than a year late.

Most of the blame for this failure is being directed at the municipal bodies property owners most love to hate — City Power and City Water. Neither is likely to achieve the three-months clearance turnaround this year.

One notable success — achieved by Steffny’s Kagiso Urban Management — is the consolidation of seven city property databases into one. The inner city now knows it has 17680 properties, of which 176 are vacant and 714 in very bad condition. These buildings, which go into the proposed better-buildings programme, are the source of most criminal and antisocial behaviour and it is vital to regenerate them.

They also provide the most immediate development opportunity, which is why people like Plit and Brian Miller — head of the Poma property owners’ association — are so angered by delays.

Another hold-up is the absence of measures to control street hawkers. Inner city programme manager Yael Horowitz says these have hit legal and technical snags.

However, it seems that after years of talking about it, a clean, safe, walkable and thriving central Jo’burg may be on the way. Even former sceptics like Miller are becoming convinced.

Well, almost. Horowitz and Motaung reckon it will take three years for the regeneration to turn Jo’burg into a great city. But Miller says: “It will take another five years.” - Ian Fife



Last modified on Friday, 16 May 2014 13:16

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