Art and Design

Grunge gives way to design in Woodstock

Nadine Botha

Woodstock is the go-to place for creatives who don’t have money to set up shop in the City Bowl.

Fair swop? The Woodstock Exchange building. (David Harrison)

Finding parking in Woodstock has become almost impossible and an increase in crime has been reported as a wave of creative types floods the area. “Residents can’t leave their houses because if they lose their parking spaces they’ll never get them back,” says Elan Kirschenbaum, chairperson of the Woodstock Improvement District.

This high-pressure system is the result of the completion of the Woodstock Exchange, previously known as the Woodstock Industrial Centre. The Indigo Group, also responsible for the redevelopment of the ­nearby Old Biscuit Mill, bought the building, and the evicted artists were squealing ­gentrification.

Having reached its first stage of completion, the Woodstock Exchange has been converted from grungy authentic to slick industrial. Street-level windows invite passers-by to the newly relocated and expanded Superette diner and an alluring interior retail experience with tenants including Honest Chocolate, Pedersen+Lennard, Dark Horse, Lady Bonin’s Tea Parlour and more. The stairs are not easy to find, but designer-retailers such as Wolf & Maiden continue on the first floor. Further up in the building are the offices of Google and the Bandwidth Barn.

Immediately obvious is that this is a whole new crew of young creative brands compared with the tenants of the original building. Only 10 of the original tenants have stayed, down from the 50 reported last year.

Nick Ferguson of Indigo Group is unapologetic: “Our priority has been to find people who want to be here and to finish the building.”

Although rental rates have remained cheap at R45 a metre, with most tenants having signed long leases, ­tenants were also required to change their business models: retail front end and workshop back end. In cobbler Grant Mason’s case, he has also installed a retail window looking in on his workshop, giving customers an insider view into the process.

This is in line with global design trends that emphasise the handmade and the ethical, artisanal production process. The Woodstock Exchange development also resonates with global design trends: go-to design retail destinations being reinvented as lifestyle experiences.

Organic flourishing
On January 18 the Financial Times reported on this phenomenon — the “living showrooms” of Tom Dixon in London, Marcel Wanders in ­Amsterdam and Piet Hein Eek in Eindhoven.

“There’s no right or wrong; it’s capitalism,” says Kirschenbaum. If one looks at how quickly the character of the building has changed and how the entire Woodstock strip is just one long design indaba, capitalism’s power really is something. Compare this overnight organic flourishing of Woodstock as design district with the three-years-coming hobbling-along government-endorsed official attempt at turning the Fringe district in east Cape Town into the city’s design district.

Kirschenbaum doesn’t have anything nice to say about Woodstock Exchange, but as one of the original owners of the Woodstock Industrial Centre he is arguably not the most objective commentator.

Since the change of ownership, he has bought the building next to the Woodstock Exchange and converted it into small studio spaces for creatives, largely those who decided to leave the Woodstock Industrial Centre. Although the price a square metre is about four times more expensive, the smaller size still makes the overall rental cheaper.

Kirschenbaum claims to be doing it differently — none of his tenants are basing their businesses on on-site retail, and he’s provided them with parking. Having built up the Woodstock Industrial Centre for two years before it was sold, he says he’s crunched the numbers and there’s not enough retail foot traffic in the area to sustain the sale of high-end designer goods. This is his primary criticism of the Woodstock Exchange — that not only is it importing the businesses and creatives, it will also need to import the market.

And where will they park? To add to the traffic congestion, bicycle lanes are being added to Prince Albert Road, further reducing space for parking. Woodstock Exchange has built on-site showers to encourage cycling to work. However, the whole of Cape Town will no doubt be in transport flux this year as bicycle lanes, Mycity buses, trains and other public transport systems recalibrate and synchronise.

The benefits of improved city mobility will hopefully extend across the City Bowl, but what are Woodstock residents getting out of the imported designers and consumers? The increased crime has resulted in increased street patrolling, homeowners might see an increase in property values and renters might not appreciate the increased rentals.

 “It’s still a rough neighbourhood, but it will change,” says Ferguson. But for whom?

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