Inner city regeneration overview for 2005

By Neil Fraser

© City of Johannesburg website

It has been a mixed year of good progress in most quarters - there has been little or no progress in some but with the promise for good (and possibly bad) to come in 2006.

This is a good time to reflect on the progress of inner city regeneration over the past year, so this, the last Citichat of 2005, looks briefly at how far we have come. We do so by examining a mixture of precincts and sectors.

Constitution Hill
The Constitutional Court opened in March 2004 and the overall development has continued to draw increasing numbers of tourists - local, national and international.

It attracted a number of awards this year; the architects, OMM Design and Urban Solutions, recently received a merit award from the Gauteng Institute for Architecture and the concrete work received a Fulton Concrete Society award.

In this past year the massive basement contract was completed, as was the extension to the Women’s Jail. The overall Constitution Hill project was originally conceived to include a major tourism centre that will also house the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory and Commemoration, office accommodation, a hotel and the conversion of the historic Queen Victoria Maternity Home into residential accommodation.

All of these are under review by Blue IQ, the major funder of the project, and its final proposals should be announced in the first quarter of next year, resulting in further investment and renewed construction activity.

The R17,5-million Women’s Jail project, completed during the year, included the refurbishment of the existing jail plus constructing twin office buildings positioned over the previous prison exercise yard.

Among the tenants in the two buildings is the Commission on Gender Equality whose chairperson, Joyce Piliso-Seroke, was herself incarcerated in the jail almost 30 years ago.

The project’s architects, Kate Otten Architects, recently received a Gauteng Institute for Architecture commendation for the design. There is a good article on the Women’s Jail in the December issue of Building Africa for those who want to know more about the project.

Hillbrow Health Precinct
The Hillbrow Health Precinct, situated just south of Constitution Hill, is a partnership between the City, Wits University’s reproductive health research unit and the provincial government.

Its medical vision is the development of a centre of excellence in the research and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/Aids, and so forth. However, its broader regeneration vision is to create an integrated, safe, secure and functional area by being the preferred location for primary health care providers.

It also aims to consolidate the research base and operational connections among stakeholders, enhance the existing residential accommodation and create world-class educational and training facilities.

Work undertaken this year has mainly related to upgrading the public environment in which it is situated, through a number of projects costing an estimated R10-million.

Civic Precinct
The Civic Precinct comprises the Metropolitan Centre and Civic Theatre with the adjacent SA Ballet Theatre constructed last year, the Sappi piazza and the beautifully re-landscaped gardens to the south of the theatre. The Civic continues to offer world-class entertainment resulting in packed houses.

A R23-million project for the construction of a visitors' centre and information office on the west side of the existing Metro Centre, was approved by the Mayoral Committee earlier this year. The design was recently completed and tenders for the construction have been received.

Construction will begin early in 2006.

The Civic Precinct forms part of the larger Braamfontein Regeneration Project, the rationale for which is “to create a sense of place and/or a system of places”.

Braamfontein is a mixed-use area with quality commercial space, tertiary education, residential and hospitality sectors. There is a great deal of activity in the residential sector, including the development of student accommodation. The Protea Parktonian is being refurbished into part sectional title suites and part hotel.

The R40-million northern half of the public environment upgrade was completed last year and work has progressed this year on the southern section through contracts worth about R10-million.

Located west of Braamfontein proper and on the south side of Wits University, this area deteriorated during the early part of the year with the closure of a number of its nightclubs.

However, it is still earmarked as an entertainment node particularly, but not exclusively, for the gay community.

A R7-million Heartlands Clubs complex on the corner of Juta and Henri streets was announced fairly recently and other improvements to buildings worth R2,5-million are under way.

There has been a great deal of activity in this cultural hub precinct in the west end of the inner city over the past year, both in terms of planning and actual construction.

These are the completion of the first commercial greenfields project, the R55-million One Central Place, home of the Gauteng Tourism Agency, Kaya FM, a great coffee house and a CD shop; the completion of phase one of the Johannesburg Housing Company’s R90-million Brickfields Project and the start of phase two; and the start of the R450-million conversion of the east Turbine Hall into Anglo Gold Ashanti's head offices.

A garage has recently been completed on Carr Street and an office building is being refurbished on the corner of Bree and Miriam Makeba streets.

A very large mixed-use project – commercial, residential and retail - at the east end of Carr Street is in the early planning stages.

Construction of a number of residential and mixed-use projects totaling about R500-million will start next year; development plans have already been approved subject only to a current heritage impact assessment. These include the Majestic Project, which is on the east side of the Market Theatre precinct.

Progress has also been made regarding the future of the Workers Library and Museum and the potato sheds development. Plans for the R40-million refurbishment of Transport House are well under way. The conversion of the east Turbine Hall into an art gallery is dependent on raising the R135-million needed for the project.

The metamorphosis of the historic milling area into offices and flats continues with The Newtown development at 37 Quinn Street.

On the negative side the Sci Bono Discovery Centre and the Bus Factory appear to be facing some funding difficulties. Hopefully these will be satisfactorily resolved in the near future.

This is one of the no progress projects.

And this is another.

Diagonal Street
The first phase of the public environment upgrading of this area will probably start in the new year – this is to the area around the Life Centre. Following this phase two, the public environment upgrading of Diagonal Street and the adjacent predominantly Indian retail area, will hopefully take place.

One of the key projects in this precinct is the Urban Ocean development, The Franklin. It consists of the conversion of the previous Ernst & Young office building into flats. I understand that all the units have been sold and that refurbishment is about 50 percent complete. The project should be fully on stream during next year.

Financial and Mining District
The excellent reconstruction of Main Street between McClaren Street and Gandhi Square completed in 2004 continues to attract more retail and food and entertainment venues.

The full length of the previously impervious ground floor façade of the building between Loveday and Rissik streets has been cleverly revamped by owner-developer Gerald Olitzki for retail and coffee shops and eateries to spill out on to the Main Street pavement.

The interior of the historic South African Reserve Bank building on the corner of Fox and Simmonds streets has been beautifully restored and refurbished by the Gauteng provincial government. Another historic building, the Rand Club, badly damaged by fire earlier this year, is being renovated and is very much back in business.

I hear that Corner House, another Urban Ocean project, is to undergo a further transformation into a five-star hotel while retaining some of the apartments it initialled housed. I attended a dinner at Corner House a few weeks ago which reinforced my admiration for this great building.

I also understand that Urban Ocean has bought a number of the previous Old Mutual buildings on Commissioner Street, including the CNA and Shakespeare House and are planning a major revamp to attract up-market retail back into the area and provide more upper-middle to upper class residential stock.

Its 1 Rissik Street project appears to be on track and an excellent coffee shop opened in the building a few months ago.

A previous FNB bank building, 87 Commissioner Street, is being converted into a hotel. This is a Brian Green’s projects – Green was the brains behind the entrepreneurial development of 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark.

Another conversion is the refurbishment of French House on the corner of Marshall, Ferreira and Anderson streets. An invitation to invest in this development describes it as “comprising of 117 luxury apartments with a lucrative income pool option … Amenities will include on-site parking, exquisite dining, cigar lounge, swimming pool and gymnasium, business centre and internet connectivity.

"The convenience of a concierge desk and valet parking will place this development in a league of its own.”

The Faraday Taxi Terminal and Muti Market was completed last year - the latter seems to be flourishing but the former, the minibus taxi terminal, has stood unused for nearly two years. This is because of an ongoing dispute between the taxi associations and the City council.

However, I heard yesterday that the dispute has been resolved and that minibus taxis will be taking up residence by the end of the month, if not in the next few days.

Central Precinct
Stretching roughly from Marshall Street in the south to Jeppe Street in the north, there is a great deal of activity in this area, particularly on its northern edge, with numerous refurbishments of commercial space into residential space.

Legal Precinct
The public space area to the south of the High Court was due for major refurbishment this past year but appears to have been bogged down.

The GPG Precinct
What is there to add about the Gauteng provincial government (GPG) precinct to the quite considerable amount I have already said?

Well, here is a quote that I think is apt regarding the proposed demolitions. It was written in 1997 by Ada Louis Huxtable, the architectural critic of the New York Times.

“What’s good about preservation now is that it is part of a sense of the living city. It involves a deeper understanding of the continuity and contrasts of urban art and life.

"It is an index of a greater awareness of the relationships of the past, the present and the future. The definition of preservation has grown from a limited preoccupation with the individual landmark to concern with the nature of the neighbourhood and the community."

What we are busy destroying is not just structures but the significance of place. And significance of place is the distinguishing factor for world-class status.

The second thing to add is that I spent some time this week in the Public Library studying the scoping report on the proposed Market Street Underpass. Firstly, I was concerned that almost no-one appears to have looked at the proposals; mine was only the fourth name on the list. Hopefully the other areas where the report was available attracted more visits.

Secondly, a good study of the proposals convinced me that this component of the precinct proposal is, in fact, stupid. Apart from the chaos that will clearly be occasioned by funneling five lanes of traffic into two, the dislocation of the heritage buildings at the eastern end from the street and the urban fabric is horrific and will cause major economic problems for the property owners.

Roberta Brandes Gratz in The Living City suggests that poor planning is often at the heart of these problems.

“Too often … mindless planning is still occurring – formal, drawn out, burdensome, generated from the top down, removed from the users and advocates of a place, rarely respectful of historic preservation, and often contrary to the instincts of local residents, and overly dependent on the kind of ‘empirical verifiability’ that reduces life to stultifying statistics and tries to turn the art of urban rebirth into a science – not the kind of planning for which citizens plead.”

Still, in relation to this precinct, I have not heard of any decision yet regarding the redevelopment of the Rissik Street Post Office other than there is a proposal on the table that the City council is supposed to be considering.

I believe there is a strong possibility that the Barbican will be refurbished, along with a major development of the site that surrounds it.

Jewel City
There has been talk of more physical work to this area but it appears as if little progress has been made.

The Fashion District
This year the Fashion District Institute (FDI) at last has been established. Its vision is to ensure “the development of the Fashion District in respect of its economy and physical environment: to build a sustainable, viable, fashionable and functional Fashion District as a hub of economic growth and jobs in the emerging fashion cluster”.

Another building, bounded by Pritchard, President and Polly streets, was expropriated to be redeveloped into a public square “to service stakeholders and the public within the Fashion District. It will include retail outlets as part of its offering and be available for fashion shows as it has a ramp facility."

The FDI will be the custodian of the development and management of the district and the square and provide cluster support services to industries and business in the Fashion District.

Greater Ellis Park Precinct
A great deal of preliminary work has been completed this past year by the Johannesburg Development Agency regarding the redevelopment of the Greater Ellis Park Precinct.

This is a massive project. Greater Ellis Park comprises Doornfontein, New Doornfontein, Bertrams, Lorentzville and Judith’s Paarl. It has a unique topography that covers an area of 267 hectares and comprises a diversity of uses from sport to residential and education, industrial and manufacturing.

On the negative side it is generally a run down, decaying and badly managed area of the city with a high degree of overcrowding, slumlording and illegal uses of buildings. There is a high immigrant population - in itself this is not a negative, but the fact is that a large percentage of these people are illegal. In addition, there is a high crime rate and the area is a centre for drug dealing and its associated ills.

The last time I reported on this precinct I stated that, “Any initiative aimed at the regeneration of the area in order for it to provide positive support for [the 2010 Soccer World Cup] will have to be launched with great sensitivity.

Why? Well, dealing with ailing infrastructure is one thing, as is making sure that the sports facilities are all at world-class standard. But the area has a residential population of about 17 000 with an average monthly household income below R4 500,00 and the housing stock is generally in poor condition.

"In some areas that is a huge understatement. In addition, it is also an area of rich history in the growth and development of the city. The difficult issues of balancing regeneration with heritage preservation and redevelopment with gentrification offer a huge challenge, but an exciting one."

I understand that a substantial sum of money, nearly a billion rand, has been budgeted by the City for the work in this area. That will undoubtedly be increased substantially by funding from the national government given the urgency and importance of getting the area ready for 2010 – methinks next year will be a busy one in this precinct.

Greater Joubert Park
Earlier this year there was talk of a major private sector investment into this rather distressed area. That seems to have died but the City’s transportation plan, below, will have a definite effect on the precinct.

As I reported a few weeks ago, in Inner city quietly changing the face of housing, Hillbrow is the scene of a remarkable amount of construction activity in the refurbishment of many of the suburb's run down residential accommodation.

There are three major projects that have been in their final planning stages over the past year and which should start affecting the city from 2006 onwards. These are the Inner City Distribution System (ICDS), Gautrain and the International Transit and Shopping Centre (ITSC).

The ICDS is a transport system that will comprise of a number of permanent routes that crisscross the inner city with vehicles that run every 15 minutes or so and that will facilitate movement of people across the inner city.

Investment will mainly be in the vehicles themselves. I have always felt that it would work best through a light rail system and that 2010 would give us the excuse for such an "extravagance", but that doesn’t appear to be the view of the authorities.

Turning to Gautrain, I was a fan at R7-billion, but personally I think the R20-billion could be better spent in resolving our traffic problem. A rapid rail system between the airport and Sandton and a better road-based solution between Pretoria and Joburg backed by improvements to the existing railway system is an idea.

However, it certainly looks as if the current thinking will prevail. The final position of the inner city Gautrain Station appears to have been established between Rissik and Wanderers streets and the existing Park Station and Wolmarans street. Physical work should start in 2006.

I received an interesting email that put the cost of the new Gautrain development into perspective - Singh and Associates Strategic Solutions has come up with a few suggestions on what could be done with the R13-billion extra that the development will now cost:

“Instead of a train you could buy some top of the range S-class Mercedes Benzes and park them nose to tail to form a 'train' that would be long enough to go around the world.
"Since most South Africans use minibus taxis instead of S-Class Mercedes Benzes, you could run a fleet of taxis, free of charge to commuters, from Johannesburg to Pretoria with a taxi leaving each town every two minutes, maintain them at the AA rate of R2,50 per kilometre and replace all the taxis every month - and you would only run out of money after 50 years.
"You could add 44 more lanes to the M1 highway.
"If you prefer to walk, a good bricklayer, if he made little brick tiles using stacks of 30 R100 notes, could lay a blue-paved walkway, one metre wide, from Johannesburg to Pretoria. We would have R400 000 left over to pay the bricklayer for his work, which should only take half as long to finish as the Gautrain.
"Or, if you want smart people to figure this out, you could pay for a university degree for every single 19-year-old Gauteng resident and ask them what to do with the money.”
The ITSC (I think it was previously known as the Long Distance Transport Hub) seeks to solve the major problem of lack of infrastructure for this important sector.
At present this partly takes place with holding facilities in the old Kazerne parking garages feeding east up De Villiers Street to the rank on top of Park Station. This hardly caters for the numbers involved, resulting in a massive spill over around Joubert Park.

In addition, cross-border buses seem to park in a variety of places. Three alternative solutions have been investigated and the preferred option has been established with design now under way, hopefully to see a physical start next year.

This option will result in two large, double level facilities being erected. One, between Harrison Street and Queen Elizabeth Bridge and De Villiers Street up to the existing Spoornet Laboratory building, will provide the taxi ranking facility.

The other, to its east between Harrison and Rissik streets from De Villiers Street up to the Transnet building south of the Rotunda, will cater for long-distance taxis and cross-border buses and provide ranks for metered taxis and visitor short- and long-term parking bays.

Both these double-level facilities will span the existing railway lines. There will be a bridge link with the existing Metro Mall so that those catching local taxis will have easy pedestrian access to Park Station, Gautrain and the long-distance taxi ranks.

Facilities to cater for the very large cross-border traffic will also be provided, namely storage facilities, the South African Revenue Services, hotel accommodation and so forth.

The three projects will pump hundreds of millions of rands into the city over the next few years.

Wrapping up
If you have waded through all of this, then there can be little doubt that you will not fail to appreciate the substantial investment in the inner city over the past year, nor the fact that 2006 will be the start of a further massive increase in investment that will continue through to 2010.

By that date the face of the inner city will have been substantially altered and it should be working far more efficiently than it is at present.

I wish all readers of Citichat and their families and colleagues a wonderful, peaceful, safe and blessed festive season and holiday, short or long.

If, like me, you prefer to relax in Joeys while everyone else streams to the coast, do yourself and your family a special favour and go to see Elephant at The Market Theatre. I saw a preview of the show at the Dance Factory in May before its long run - to stunning reviews - at the Edinburgh Festival.

It is an enthralling show for all ages and is particularly suited to family groups. It will be on the main stage at The Market throughout December and January. Bookings can be made at The Market Theatre box office on 011 832 1641 or at Computicket.

Take care and be well. I will talk to you in 2006,