/ 20 April 2012

Ponte’s fourth coming: An urban icon reborn

Ponte's Fourth Coming: An Urban Icon Reborn

The thought of venturing into Ponte Towers remains cringe-worthy to many South Africans.

They continue to see it as a den of iniquity run by drug dealers and thugs. Likely, the most people will be able tell you about the current state of the building is the change in colour of the Vodacom sign that adorns its crest.

But apart from the branding that dominates Johannesburg’s skyline going from blue to red, Ponte has undergone another metamorphosis of sorts. By all accounts, the grizzled concrete cylinder is slowly turning into a haven for the middle class in the city centre.

Solid foundations: After it was built in the 1970s Ponte was a desirable address. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The rattle of cement mixers and jackhammers is resounding once again and the once-forgotten flats are filling up with residents less interested in Ponte’s shady history and more concerned with its future.

“Historically, Ponte Towers was the place to be,” says Jayson Kruger, spokesperson for the East London-based Kempston Group, which owns the building. “We realise it will never return to its former glory, but our goal is to restore dignity to Ponte and create a safe and inviting environment for people to live in.”

The M&G visits Ponte towers, one of Jo’burg’s most notorious buildings — known for rampant crime and crumbling walls. The story we found though is one of change, as an overhaul brings new life and restores Ponte’s former glory.

When it opened its doors in 1975, Ponte Towers was the crème de la crème of city living. But by the mid-1980s, Hillbrow’s melting pot of cultures became a lair for the nefarious activities of the Johannesburg underworld and Ponte’s glory days ended almost as quickly as they came. In the 1990s, it got even worse; the decade is punctuated with tales of drug dealers, prostitutes and criminals running free within its walls.

Residents of that era claim the 11th and 12th floors were completely stripped bare and, along with the downstairs parking lot, were nothing more than spots to score. Both were informal brothels, used as a thoroughfare for those in search of anything ranging from an acid trip to a blow job.

Resident security guard Philemon Thwala, who moved into the building in the late 1990s, witnessed Ponte’s multiple realities. “Ponte was not in a good space when I first moved in. There was a lot going on: crime, people misbehaving, drugs and prostitution. It was hectic. I knew nothing about these things but learnt quickly how bad they can make your life.”

But in 2001 Kempston managed to drag the building back from oblivion. Employing the services of Elma and Danie Celliers, a husband-and-wife management team, Ponte was given new hope.

By the time they arrived, the building was easily one of the most dangerous places to live in South Africa. But Danie, a former cop, was not fazed as he set about cleaning out the rot that gave rise to Ponte’s tarnished image.

“Jeez, it was bad,” he told Maverick magazine in September 2007. “Nothing was working. In one flat I found a tomato plant growing out of the sink. It filled up the whole kitchen. It was a tree, that thing. Big tomatoes on it, too.”

Although it was nothing like the glory days, the cleanup led by the Celliers paid off: it was a safe, low-cost living space boasting a 97% occupancy. Then in 2007, at the height of the property boom, developers David Selvan and Noor Addine Ayyoub arrived on the scene.

They had bigger plans. They told any media outlet that would listen that they intended to pour R200-million into Ponte, with the hopes of flogging luxury sectional-title apartments ranging from R340 000 to R3.5-million. They knocked out and stripped floors 11 to 34, moved 1 500 residents out and were ready to completely renovate the building.

They equipped a handful of apartments with luxury finishes, such as granite tops in the kitchens and designer wardrobes in the bedrooms, to act as showrooms, and gave them names like “Zen-Like”, “Moroccan Delight” and “Old Money”.

But the pair’s lofty ambitions came crashing down in little more than a year and several contractors, as well as a handful of would-be residents or investors who had bought into the venture ahead of the planned first-phase occupancy in 2008, were all left out of pocket.

The Mail & Guardian revealed in 2009 that claims that Ayyoub and Selvan had bought the building from Kempston for a reported R110-million to R112-million were untrue. In fact, Kempston had always owned the building and Selvan and Ayyoub had started construction before they had the money to complete the sale.

So the opulent transformation was left unfinished, Ponte was left in tatters, the tallest residential building in the southern hemisphere was stripped from head to toe and its infamous core filled up to the fifth floor with building rubble and general refuse.

Of the 467 flats in the building, just more than 40 were occupied when reconstruction finally ceased. Kempston took back the building in 2009, beginning its own refurbishment in the Selvan and Ayyoub aftermath, a process which lasted a little more than two years.

“It was difficult to attract residents back. We had to reconstruct everything, from the infrastructure inside right up to the perception people had outside,” Kruger says.

By late 2011, almost all 54 floors had been redone, many from scratch, with approximately 2km of electrical wiring and sanitary piping used on each floor. Possibly the toughest task fell to Quinton Oosthuizen, construction and maintenance manager for Ponte, as he led the team clearing out the notorious core.

“It was nasty; we pulled out some very funny things. Anything from mattresses, rubble, loose steel, kitchen and bathroom fittings — even dead stray cats,” Oosthuizen says.

The biggest financial burden during refurbishment was the installation of eight new elevators to replace the decades-old deathtraps that stalked up and down the building. Strict security was implemented, such as around-the-clock guarding and diametric fingerprint access at all entry points to the building. The ground floor, with its 2 000m2 of commercial space, has its internet café back and, according to Kruger, fast-food operator Bimbo’s is due to open later this year. But the crowning jewel will be the 54th-floor walkway that, when finally completed, will allow people to walk around the exterior of Ponte on reinforced glass panelling, kitted out in a harness attached to a railing around the building.

Whereas property companies operating in Hillbrow and nearby Berea offer valuations of the entire building that vary from R50-million to R200-million, Kruger says his latest valuation of the property puts it at R500-million. Still, he maintains there are no plans to sell Ponte at this stage, even in the sectional title model that was touted in 2007.

“Our group doesn’t believe in being in partnership anymore. You could recoup an initial investment, but you lose control in the long run. We’d only sell it as a whole — if ever,” Kruger says.

Now at 75% occupancy, Ponte’s remaining accommodation is in demand. Maki Tsekefetsa, Ponte receptionist and resident, says she deals with up to 10 applications a day.

“We have a good mix of people here. South Africans, people from the Congo, Zambians, Zimbabweans we all live here together,” Tsekefetsa says.

There is a mix of families and single professionals ranging from waiters to administrators. Rentals vary from R2 000 for a pad on the 11th floor to R3 700 for a three-bedroom on the 34th floor and R4 500 for a two-bedroom penthouse on the 51st floor, complete with marble tiles and modern kitchen with granite countertops.

Tsekefetsa says there are occasional problems with the non-payment of rent, but for the most part residents seem happy to pay for a building they think is safe, clean and affordable. Children play in the corridors and spend sunny days next to the swimming pool. A weekly newsletter is circulated to all residents informing them of the latest developments in the building as well as suggestions on how to keep things tidy. A recent newsletter pointed out the major problem these days: the unwillingness of some residents to place their garbage inside the dustbins, leaving trash adjacent to or on top of bins.

Too big to fail: ‘This is a great place to live and it is getting better,’ says Ponte resident Gugu Ndlovu

It is all a far cry from the problems Ponte experienced in the past, but remnants of yesteryear still linger.

The core may have been cleared out but residents — as they had in the past — continue to use it as an informal garbage heap, where you will find used condoms, empty KFC buckets, tatty weaves, stale pap and razor blades.

Nonetheless, Gugu Ndlovu, a resident of Ponte since 2008, says any perception of Ponte as a place of ill repute is outdated. “What’s a home without rules? This is a great place to live and it’s getting better. Things change and times change — just come and see,” Ndlovu says.

It is aeons away from the aura Ponte enjoyed in the late 1970s and 1980s, far from the drug and prostitution haven of the 1990s and nowhere near Ayyoub and Selvan’s vision of luxury city living, but it is workable. Ponte’s latest evolution has given it a new lease on life. It seems the idea of middle-class suburbia locked into a concrete tube in the middle of the city might have finally found its groove.

Ponte Towers: It’s not what you would expect. Watch the video at mg.co.za/pontevideo

Tower trivia

  • At 173m high, Ponte is said to be the tallest residential building in the southern hemisphere.
  • The Vodacom sign, which contains 11km of neon tubing, will dominate the skyline until 2015. The contract reportedly brings in R500 000 a month.
  • Ponte opened its doors in 1975 at a cost of R11-million. It was voted the second-ugliest building in the country by Fair Lady magazine a few years later; first prize went to Johannesburg General Hospital.
  • In 1998 there was a plan to turn Ponte into a prison. It never got further than talk.
  • Architect Rodney Grosskopff was 29 when he designed Ponte. Since then, he has done the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, the Randburg Waterfront and Sandton’s Emperor Apartments.
  • Released in 1998, the movie Dangerous Ground, with Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley, was partially filmed in Ponte. — Source: Maverick, September 2007