/ 14 October 2007

New Ponte part of transformation of Jo’burg

Ponte City, one of Johannesburg’s most famous landmarks — and a notorious slum — is getting a facelift, boosting urban renewal efforts in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Gray and drab, the cylindrical concrete apartment block towers 173m above the flatlands of Hillbrow, a much-feared area in Johannesburg’s decaying inner city. Now it has been bought by developers who have given it a lick of paint and plan to turn it into a desirable address.

In celebration of this iconic building, Johannesburg residents had a rare chance on Saturday to climb to the top of its 54 storeys — and even parachute off the roof or rappel down its open central core.

”Ponte City is a symbol of Johannesburg,” said Ngaire Blackenberg, representative for developer Investagain, which bought the building for R170-million and plan to spend R150-million refurbishing it. ”It went through a slump for a while, as did Johannesburg. But now the new Ponte embodies the drive to transform Johannesburg into a truly world-class African city.”


With its gigantic flashing neon advertisement, Ponte City dominates Johannesburg’s skyline and has been featured in numerous films and books celebrating the gritty allure of the former gold-mining town. Built in 1976, it is a failed architectural attempt at avant-garde skyscraper living that came complete with penthouses done in wall-to-wall shag carpeting.

However, in recent years the building has fallen into a state of disrepair along with the surrounding neighbourhoods as residents and businesses fled the crime and grime taking over the inner city. Today, it has a reputation for being home to illegal immigrants, prostitutes, drug dealers and a suicide hot spot.

A plan was once mooted to turn it into a prison, and various other developers have tried and failed to revive the building.

This week the architect Rodney Grosskopff, said he was disappointed that Ponte, as it is locally known, was not voted the ugliest building in Johannesburg.

”It was more scary to come here than going off the edge,” said Edgar Gaiao, as he prepared to BASE jump from the top of the building. From the thin catwalk circling the top of the neon light, the view of Johannesburg is spectacular but the ground and blooming jacaranda trees look frighteningly far away.

”In the beginning it was very trashed. But it has changed substantially,” he said, as the sound of a police siren drifted up from the streets below.

The garbage that had piled up in the central core has been cleared and construction workers are on site, putting up scaffolding and laying cement.

Most of the 3 000 residents have moved out, but the top floors are still occupied and those who were not waiting patiently for an elevator were watching the crowd of eager abseilers.

The developers are planning apartments worth between R400 000 and R900 000 as well as shops, restaurants, a spa and a state-of-the-art gym.

Lael Bethlehem, head of the Johannesburg Development Agency, is confident the time is right for this latest effort to succeed in saving the landmark building.

”You can look at this building in two ways. You can say, ‘What an old building,’ or you can say, ‘What incredible potential it has.’ The fact that these investors stepped forward … says a lot about the future of Johannesburg,” she said at the event on Saturday.

The city has put huge effort and resources into its urban renewal programmes and it is beginning to show results. Lured by cheap prices in an inflated property market, developers are snapping up buildings in the inner city, businesses are moving back and a number of housing projects have been built.

Close to a number of stadiums that are being upgraded for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the area around Ponte City is undergoing a major overhaul in preparation for thousands of visitors. ”Events like this draw attention to the incredible things people are doing,” Bethlehem said. ”It builds confidence and investment.”

Nigerian Chris Adolphus, who has been living on Ponte’s 46th floor for two years, is not so convinced. ”I know they are trying to uplift it,” he says, waiting for one of the few slow elevators still working. ”But Hillbrow has no good name any more. If I was a rich man, I don’t think I would live here.” — Sapa-AP