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Tuesday Apr 07, 2015

The up and up of downtown Jozi

At the Neighbourgoods Market on a concrete parking level in Braamfontein, hipsters indulge in organic food and craft beer. It's a format familiar to some visitors.

"It all felt very Brooklyn warehousey to me," Jeralyn Gerba, 33, cofounder of travel website Fathom and a resident of the New York borough, said of her visit during a holiday.

She and her husband, Justin Carter, an international DJ who throws the Mister Saturday Night parties, sipped coconut water and snacked on Thai spring rolls and fried chicken. "It was a real smorgasbord," Gerba said.

The market, held on Saturdays can draw more than 6 000 people. It's proving to be the biggest catalyst for growth in the mixed-use neighbourhood on the edge of the central business district, according to Adam Levy, 38, a Joburg developer who first bought a building in the area in 2004.

The area is undergoing a revival following the exodus in the 1990s of big businesses to hubs further north, such as Sandton, with many buildings being abandoned to squatters.

"We had the idea of changing this dogma of fear," said Levy, seated outside at a restaurant just down the block from Hunter Cycling, a bike shop specialising in vintage and fixed-gear models.

People of all races, most of them in their twenties and wearing vibrant colours, crossed the street.

The area "highlights the youthful sector of Joburg, the way we dress, the way we are, what we do", 20-yearold accounting student Karishma Magan said, posing outside the cycle shop so her sister, Tharika, could take a picture.

There are signs of commercial success. Braamfontein's office vacancy rate was 10.8 percent in October, down from 13.1 percent six months before.

In the trendy Maboneng Precinct, to the east of the business district, a 282sqm flat sold for the equivalent of about R3.57m last year, a record for the area.

In April, Arrowhead Properties, a real estate investment trust, bought eight buildings in Maboneng ("Place of Light" in Sesotho), for R182m. Still, there's concern the roots of the recovery may be shallow.

"The problem is that these developments are driven by private funding," said Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane, an associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand, who lectures on town planning.

"They're not necessarily great for the benefit of the city as a whole because they often become islands of growth in the middle of poverty and deprivation."

Joburg, now a metropolis of more than 10 million people, was established as a conglomeration of mining camps after the discovery of the world's biggest goldfield, the Witwatersrand, in 1886. The central district developed over the same area, with boom times marked by buildings in Edwardian and Art Deco styles, now interspersed with office blocks.

Downtown's shops were also abutted by the popular Hillbrow district, site of many of the city's nightclubs and the 54-storey Ponte City block of flats, topped by penthouses. Braamfontein was a theatre and business district. During apartheid, these areas were restricted mostly to the white minority.

Now government agencies and private developers are trying to rejuvenate them.

The Johannesburg Development Agency has a five-year operating budget of R380m until the end of 2018.

Last year, it co-funded projects to upgrade alleys and streets in the areas.

Levy and Jonathan Liebmann, chief executive officer of Propertuity, which is developing projects in Maboneng, said the development initiatives were almost exclusively theirs.

"I think where the government has been good in this instance is that it hasn't put many obstacles in our way," said Liebmann, perched on a metal staircase overlooking food stands and galleries in what was a light industrial zone and which now includes a hotel and an art cinema.

The areas are zoned for general use, allowing all usages.

Joburg artist William Kentridge, 59 - whose work from 30 years has been shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art - established a studio in Maboneng in about 2003 that he uses primarily for sculpture and theatrical rehearsals.

"It was a shell with an earth floor and crumbling walls, but it had the height and the nice, strange early Edwardian corrugated-iron architecture," he said, sitting at a table overlooking a small stage under construction for a dance rehearsal.

"Maboneng is interesting because it is done on such a low budget and, I presume, as it continues people will spend more money on fixing buildings and the quality of some of the buildings will improve."

The CBD is about a square kilometre in area. It includes the mining precinct where headquarters for the South African operations of mining companies Anglo American Plc and BHP Billiton are situated.

Evidence of the earlier abandonment by business is the 30-storey Carlton Hotel, where guests such Francois Mitterrand, president of France, and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger once stayed, but which has been dormant since 1997.

Kentridge said he had been to a dinner in the centre of the CBD, in the area between Maboneng and Braamfontein.

"The streets, when you drove around at 10 o'clock at night, were completely deserted," he said.

"Like there'd been some huge disaster that no one had told you about. And that has to change." That may be happening. Magan said: "You didn't get many people flocking to this area, but now you do because there is so much to do - there's lots of activities and places to chill, drink, eat.

"I have a lot of hope for this place."

The Washington Post


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