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Regenerate behaviour: Making the city sexy

Nechama Brodie

Two developers are determined to bring life back to 'dead' areas of inner-city Johannesburg.

‘It’s by Eduardo Villa. I’m so happy I get to play with it.”

Adam Levy is standing on a rooftop at 73 Juta Street in Braamfontein next to the first-floor parking lot that, last weekend, became home to Johannesburg’s Neighbourgoods Market (sister
to the Cape Town gourmet food market held at the Old Biscuit Mill).

Behind him, Villa’s marvellous façade scales the side of the building, interlocking mosaics in concrete. Above us, only sky.

In the 1950s, during the first wave of decentralisation, fragments of corporate Johannesburg fled the bustle of the CBD for the “semi-detached cottages, small flats, cheap hotels and canteens” across the rail tracks in Braamfontein. They rezoned stands for commercial use and put up massive corporate complexes and high-rises that ran all the way from the University of the Witwatersrand to the Old Fort, now the site of Constitution Hill. Later these, too, were abandoned for the suburbs and the malls. The revolving restaurant on the corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets stood still.

Levy, who runs property development company Play Braamfontein—responsible for the strip of boutiques and galleries on Juta Street as well as the Alexander Theatre and the Milner Park Hotel—and the South Point group, which focuses mostly on student accommodation but also owns Randlords rooftop bar and lounge, have been working towards shifting Braamfontein out of its 1980s fug for some time now.

“There are lots of false starts in this city,” Levy says. He is right: the spoils are ­everywhere—Corner House, Ponte—but the recession hit Johannesburg’s much-hyped inner city regeneration harder than many had anticipated.

“I’ve been so thoughtful and deliberate about who I bought in here. I’m not a patient man. I didn’t think it would take so long. The last nine years have been the winter of Braamfontein’s existence. We’re about to get into spring.”

In addition to the Neighbourgoods Market, two new restaurants—Ramen (noodles) and Velo (a gallery space that serves breakfast and lunch)—have opened in The Grove on Melle Street. Work continues apace on the premises for the beautiful new Wits Gallery to be housed on the ground floor of University Corner, where the not-revolving restaurant still stands. On Smit Street, next to the block ­housing Levy’s incredible multilevel penthouse, Nike will soon be launching its new concept space.

Not counting chickens
Levy does not like talking projects up before they have actually launched—“you can market the shit out of anything,” he comments—but there are also plans for a “boutique hot dog parlour and bar” at 6 De Beer Street. By autumn next year, art mavens Linda Givon and Koulla Xinisteris will be starting a new gallery.

“When I opened the Alex [theatre], I spent most of my energy reassuring people that it was safe, that you could park there. I realised that, however much I do, the city is never going to be what it was once to those sorts of people. The future is guys in their 20s and 30s who don’t have recollections, who are hopeful tomorrow will be better than yesterday. Those will be the people who will make this city work,” Levy says.

Across town, on another rooftop, Jonathan Liebmann is greeting architect Enrico Daffonchio and preparing for informal drinks with tenants, investors and stakeholders in the community he is creating, carving out building by building in what is now known as the Maboneng Precinct. Where currently there is scaffolding and piles of rubble, in a few months’ time there will be rooftop gardens and greenhouses, health food restaurants and meditation day spas.

It would be easy to dismiss Liebmann as yet another big talker—if he had not already successfully pulled off the first two phases of his ambitious plans for the area: first, Arts on Main, where William Kentridge is one of several artists to have a studio, Johannesburg’s galleries and art foundations have essential project spaces and the brilliant Market on Main takes place every Sunday.

The second phase of Maboneng was Main Street Life with its boxing gym on the roof, 12 Decades Art Hotel on the top floor, and the how-did-we-ever-live-without-it Bioscope at ground level.

From his vantage point, Liebmann points out the buildings that mark the third phase: the Main Change, a hub for small and medium-sized businesses that will feature a 1 000m2 shared working space; Revolution House, skate park, band rehearsal rooms and apartments; and Fox Street Studios, high-end apartments and work spaces, where Liebmann plans to build himself a house on the roof.

Changing the world, one block at a time

By February Liebmann plans to enter phase four with the Museum of African Design—an exhibition space for “design that can change the world”, he says, which will also offer space for exhibitions and expos—and the Artisans Res, a collaborative space for artisans and artists. Both are in Commissioner Street. 

“One of the challenges is communicating to people that this idea is much bigger than property development,” Liebmann says. “It’s about creating a community-based economy.”

Liebmann says the concept of Maboneng is “the opposite of a gated community. This is an open community. People ask me what my security plan is for Maboneng. We clean the streets ourselves, we light everything—the streets are lit from the buildings—and we engage with the existing community. That’s the best crime prevention tool there is.”

Maboneng has partnered with One Creche at a Time and has already upgraded two local crèche facilities; the Bioscope runs a film project on Wednesday afternoons for high-school children to watch films that promote self-worth; the precinct has become a skateboard-friendly zone where throngs of local youngsters borrow free boards provided by residents of Main Street Life, taking back the streets on four small, fast wheels. There are future plans to sponsor a soccer team, build a playground.

“We also go to local food vendors,” Liebmann says. “I’d rather have a number of small traders than a large supermarket. It’s an interesting concept: to have the opportunity to distribute income more evenly.”

Liebmann says three more restaurants and 15 more shops will be opening in the next few months, including an Ethiopian restaurant by one of the vendors from Market on Main, who is establishing a permanent presence in the precinct.

His vision is to create a directory of shared products and services, all contained within Maboneng, where an artist living in the area can exchange services with a lawyer, or a chef, living in a neighbouring block. “Made in Maboneng. It’s like Proudly South African, only localised,” he says.

Two princes
On some levels there is an unspoken rivalry between the two districts, Braamfontein and Maboneng, west and east. But Levy and Liebmann, in their respective camps, both echo the same sentiment: competition is a good thing.

“There’s this paranoia in South Africa,” Levy says, “but competition is the best business tool.”
Liebmann sees the work both companies are doing as a collaboration of sorts, one that is bringing people back to the built environment.
The thing is, when you stand on a rooftop in this city and the sun is shining—whether it is in Braamfontein or Maboneng—the horizons are endless.

The Neighbourgoods Market will run every Saturday from 9am to 3pm, at 73 Juta Street.
Market on Main is open every Sunday

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