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Battle to save the seafront

The curling seafront promenade that stretches from Granger Bay to Bantry Bay on Cape Town’s Atlantic coast is that rarest of things in a city characterised by planning decisions that unconsciously reinforce division and exclusion. It is a truly public place.

A prominent area of the famous promenade, adjacent to the shoreline public swimming pool, is now threatened by the development of a hotel, apartment and retail complex, amid allegations that politically connected developers won favourable treatment from provincial officials.

The plans have roused vocal resistance from the local Sea Point community. Sea Point is an unusually diverse neighbourhood, where recent immigrants from Africa live cheek by jowl with descendents of the predominantly Jewish Europeans who arrived in the aftermath of World War II.

This cross-section of residents is echoed by the daily rituals of activity that animate the promenade. The urban, rocky shoreline prohibits ”normal” beachfront activity: it’s not used for swimming (there’s the famous pool for that). Rather, people stroll, sunbathe, exercise, walk their dogs and play football along the long and winding stretch.

It is a popular meeting place. Muslims come from across the city when Ramadan draws to a close, awaiting the appearance of the new moon; muscular West African men jog past yuppies with babies in prams.

Ben Rabinowitz, who has helped galvanise resistance to the development through the Seafront for All pressure group, puts it bluntly: ”This development will limit public access to unique sites in Cape Town which are enjoyed by people of all races and classes.”

The site around the pool, where the demolition of the long-defunct pavilion complex has created an elevated open area, represents an exceptional opportunity to expand on the promenade and its already intense cross-cultural activity with the creation of a fortified public ”locus” for the area — a buoyant social space which serves locals rather than another site of commercialism and consumerism.

Retail or lifestyle centres, similar to the one proposed for the pavilion area, are rapidly emerging on Sea Point’s once shabby Main Road. Inside them are the familiar upmarket chains: Woolworths, Vida e Caffe, Exclusive Books, Virgin Active.

These developments are frequented by those who can afford them. They unconsciously create an exclusionary environment in the defence of luxury and safety for a privileged sector of the community. Their impact is not exclusively negative in our far-from-utopian country. They are incredibly successful and they do create enjoyable, ”safer feeling” spaces for their users and for investors.

However, the creation of pseudo-public space of this kind is an epidemic we are facing in many South African cities — consider developments like Johannesburg’s Melrose Arch and Nelson Mandela Square. These places seem public if you can drive there, if you are dressed appropriately and if you are prepared to give up some of your civil rights when you pass under the discreet ”right of admission reserved” sign.

The privatisation of public space is an increasingly common occurrence, fostered and propelled by a culture of consumerism and of fear, coupled with the genuine need for security.

We need to think carefully about where the line is drawn when we contemplate giving up truly public spaces for this kind of pseudo-public development.

Proponents of the Sea Point project say it will occupy only a small portion of the promenade and will bring jobs with it, but that view is blind to the real importance of this priceless site. It is an integral portion of the promenade and in essence occurs as a pinnacle point as it weaves its way along the ocean to the swimming pools and beyond.

The proposed retail centre, gym and hotel will not only deprive residents of their views across the Atlantic but will create a sorry hitch in the experience that is, for now, available to everyone who goes there.

That is not to say nothing should be done. The site provides abundant opportunity for the creation of a space which could maximise public benefit and become a beacon for Sea Point and for Cape Town.

One such option would be to create an ”urban park”, with an information centre and public infrastructure flexible enough to accommodate a range of public activity while remaining attached to the public swimming pools and discreetly rising only one storey above ground level.

Such a platform could serve as an active cultural locus that draws on and attracts new kinds of activity: ceremonies, weddings, memorial services, fireworks displays, conferences, open air theatre and concerts, exhibitions, yoga, picnics — or simply gazing out.

Both internal and external spaces would have to be able to adapt to changing use depending upon the scheduled activity, while the shell of the building would have to be permeable so as not to obstruct the natural route of passers-by and promenade pedestrians.

Restaurants and food stores could be introduced into the programme, serving the public as well as the swimming pools and attracting activity over the course of a full day, while animating and providing surveillance for this dynamic sea edge at night, when it is inactive.

Sian Fisher is a Cape Town-based architect. Her recent master’s thesis included a study of the promenade, and a design proposal for the pavilion site

Cape’s sea change buoys promenade crew
Changes in the Western Cape Cabinet appear to have stalled implementation of an unpopular private development plan on the iconic Sea Point promenade.

Two independent sources with knowledge of the legal battle surrounding the proposed hotel and retail complex have told the Mail & Guardian that negotiations are under way between the pressure group, Seafront for All (Seafa), and the provincial ministry of local government, environment and development planning. It is possible that the discussions could see environmental approval for the project rescinded.

It is likely, the sources say, that the resignation of environment and development planning MEC Tasneem Essop in solidarity with axed premier Ebrahim Rasool and her replacement by Pierre Uys is a key factor in the moves to reach agreement.

In August 2007 Essop rejected appeals against the environmental approval of the development, saying that economic and other benefits outweighed any environmental impact.

This cleared the way for the developers, On Track, to continue with applications to the City of Cape Town for urban planning approval for the site adjacent to the popular Sea Point public swimming pool.

Seafa, which had already begun a protest campaign against the development, launched a legal bid to have Essop’s decision overturned. Seafa argued in court papers that she had not properly considered the encroachment of private buildings on public open space, their impact on the public pool’s unique sense of place, inadequate parking arrangements and the ”privatisation” of a section of the Sea Point beachfront, among other problems.

Seafa also cited what it said was a conflict of interest in the preparation of an economic study on the development by a consultancy associated with Commlife Properties, which had been appointed as the sole letting agent for the development.

That allegation immediately created controversy. Commlife is the family company of Fred and Ulpha Robertson — business people closely associated with Rasool and Essop. Serena Rosslind, a partner in On Track, and her husband, Derek, are also seen as being close to Rasool’s supporters in the provincial ANC. The Robertsons have told the M&G that there was no impropriety in the arrangement and no conflict of interest, saying the process has been misrepresented in the party’s factional battles.

Their association with it has sharpened concerns about the approval process on ANC benches in the provincial legislature and the climate now seems ripe for the provincial government to beat a dignified retreat, just as local Muslims are celebrating the sighting of the new moon from gathering points on the promenade. — Nic Dawes

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