/ 21 October 2007

Hot property: Buyers snap up Ponte apartments

The tallest apartment block in Africa, which has long symbolised Johannesburg’s inner-city decay, is shedding its image as a no-go zone in a radical makeover aimed at young urban professionals.

Overrun by drug dealers and gangsters in the 1990s, the 54-storey cylindrical Ponte, whose 173m offer bird’s eye views of downtown and neighbouring Ellis Park stadium, had been a byword for danger.

But the team behind a R200-million makeover believe apartments will soon be regarded as hot property, especially in the build-up the 2010 Soccer World Cup finals in South Africa.

”It’s an amazing building, very symbolic of the ‘brutalist’ architecture of its time,” says Belgian-born Morroccan developer Nour Addine Ayyoub, one of the project’s masterminds along with South African partner David Selvan.

Love it or hate it

Sales manager Ngaire Blankenberg acknowledged the giant concrete edifice may not be to everyone’s taste but it was ideal for people who enjoy urban living and want to avoid getting caught up in rush hour traffic.

”People have a very strong relationship with this building: They love it or they hate it,” she said.

”We are targetting upper middle class, the gay community, professionals, finance people who work downtown and want to avoid traffic jams.”

After a conversation on her cellphone with one potential buyer, Blankenberg said that he sounded like the prototype Ponte homeowner.

”We receive at least five calls a day, most of the time from quite young people in their thirties, forties,” she said.

”This call was from a young gay, who sounds white. He just got a job in the city and doesn’t want to spend three hours a day driving from and to the northern suburbs,” she said.

Members of the city’s large gay community have been specifically targetted by the sales team.

”We gave away pamphlets at the Gay Pride” in Johannesburg earlier this month, said Blankenberg.

The tallest residential building in the outhern hemisphere when it was built in 1975, Ponte was initially seen as a symbol of modernity and prosperity in the City of Gold.

But, as sky-high crime rates prompted many businesses to move out of the city centre in the 1990s, it became a haven for violent gangs and was often dominated by immigrants from other parts of Africa.

Its reputation for danger was cemented by the grimy crime thriller Ponte City, written by the German author Norman Ohler, which is centred around the story of a young woman who falls in with a Nigerian drug lord.

In 1998, Ponte was even touted to be turned into a prison but the idea was soon abandoned. A new management team was installed and clamped down on criminality and squatting.

Ayyoub is convinced that Ponte’s image is outdated and based as much on its proximity to the crime-ridden suburb of Hillbrow.

”The Ponte’s bad fame is more a matter of perceptions than facts. The reality now is that it is a very safe building, where all tenants pay their rent,” he said.

In the countdown to 2010, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) is to spend about R700-million on the neighbourhood, splashing out on everything from schools to street lighting and overhauling public parks.

JDA spokesperson Sammy Mafu said approximately R60-million has been spent in the precinct and a further R150-million will be spent between now and July next year.

Blankenberg denied the developers were only worried about making a quick buck and said existing tenants would not simply be turfed out onto the streets.

”We have a real vision for the neighbourhood and we have been very careful that the people have been treated properly to make the process as smooth as possible,” she said.

”Most of them had short leases, of one year, so we wait until the lease is finished. For the others, there is a three-months notice [period].”

Builders and decorators are currently hard at work renovating about 300 flats on floors 11 to 34. Each are designed in one of six different styles including Moroccan and Glam Rock, described as ”a sophisticated mix of indulgent velvet and satins mixed with neo-classical pieces”.

Nearly 80% of the first set of flats, which will be ready for occupancy at the end of April, were snapped up within two days of going on sale.

Prices range from R400 000 for a studio apartment to nearly R900 000 for a three-bedroom flat, a fairly reasonable price by Johannesburg standards.

Once completed, the complex will also include secure parking, restaurants, an upmarket shopping mall, a gymnasium and even an indoor climbing wall.

”I am a happy man! My dream is to drive to the Ponte at night and have a cocktail or to climb on weekends, as I am an indoor climber,” said Ayyoub, who has still not decided what to do with six penthouses on the top three floors.

”A panoramic restaurant? A hotel for businessmen?” ‒ Sapa-AFP