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Jo’burg crafts an artsy comeback

Five years ago, Jonathan Liebmann bought a warehouse, which was originally the entry point for alcohol coming into South Africa at the turn of the 19th century.

The cavernous space on the eastern edge of the central business district now houses works by William Kentridge and other famous South African artists.
On Sundays, the cement floors of what is now called Arts on Main fill with honey sellers and Ethiopian coffee vendors.

Young developers are investing in formerly crime-ridden parts of Johannesburg and are luring locals from wealthier neighbourhoods with an edgy vibe and hip amenities.

Five kilometres away, in Braamfontein, Adam Levy opened a multistorey gourmet food market out of what not so long ago was a parking garage. On Saturdays, it fills with hip young urbanites on long picnic benches sampling paella, sipping locally brewed beers and soaking up the sun.

Dodgy town
“It’s so unexpected in the middle of dodgy town,” says 28-year-old Christine Wilton, a recent Sunday visitor to Arts on Main. “It’s a real vibe.”

Johannesburg has been known more for its hijackings than its passion-fruit popsicle stands. But thanks to the two young developers and others like them, new artsy property projects are helping to regenerate what had become a decrepit city centre.

The Johannesburg developments are attracting investment – some properties have more than quintupled in value over the past decade in now-trendy neighbourhoods where buildings once stood abandoned.

For example, a five-storey building in the CBD sold last year for R2.9-million, up from R500 000 in 2004. An investor purchased a mixed-use building near Levy’s market in Braamfontein for R500 000 in 2004 and sold it for R2.6-million last year.

Such deals have been continuing even as the broader South African commercial real estate market is seeing “muted” growth because of uncertainty in global markets and weak local demand, according to a report by Investment Property Databank.

Tax breaks
New artsy property projects and a cordial rivalry between two young South African developers are helping to regenerate the city’s heart and soul. Braamfontein was once the place to be for Johannesburg’s law firms and advertising agencies. And the historic CBD was a financial centre, housing the stock exchange.

In the 1990s many professionals fled the two districts, leaving a void in the city. The stock exchange moved to Sandton in 2000. By the early 2000s, there was a 45% office vacancy rate in Jo’burg’s city centre, according to the Investment Property Databank.

The city has offered tax breaks for big business to stay in the CBD, but that hasn’t spurred an office-rental rejuvenation. Office vacancy is currently above 14% in central Johannesburg and Braamfontein, according to the data bank.

Some real-estate industry watchers see projects such as Liebmann’s and Levy’s as a model for how economic development can succeed in sub­Saharan Africa.

Numerous ambitious master-planned developments targeting the continent’s middle class have been delayed, such as the 10km2 Tatu City plan on Nairobi’s outskirts.

Some developers believe that more modest, neighbourhood-level rebuilding efforts in downtowns can gain traction more quickly and pull residents and businesses back.

“Creatives go to the city and transform it. It happens all over the world,” Levy says. “We’re not recreating the wheel.”

Liebmann and Levy, friendly real-estate rivals, were raised in Johannesburg’s more moneyed northern suburbs. They have been encouraged by a decline in city crime. For the year ended March 2011, murder was down 23% compared with the year earlier, assault was down 10% and robbery declined 9%.

Both men also feel nostalgia for the city centre and the areas that were abandoned at the end of apartheid.

Liebmann (29) says he is trying to establish an alternative living space from the gated communities surrounded by electrified fencing prevalent in the city’s northern suburbs. He calls his cluster of buildings, which includes Arts on Main, the Maboneng Precinct, which means city of light in Sesotho, was the nickname that job-seekers coming to work the mines gave the city in the 1920s.

12 Decades
His company has spent R150-million on developing the area in the past two and a half years and it plans to invest another R200-million over the next three years. Arts on Main has grown to include a hotel with individually designed rooms called the 12 Decades, apartments, restaurants, an art-house cinema and a yoga studio, all located along a stretch of street about 435m long.

The competition to lure disgruntled Jo’burgers to the city’s CBD heated up after Levy entered the fray. He bought his first building in Braamfontein about 10 years ago but grabbed the city’s attention last year when he opened the Neighbourgoods market in the area.

The former covered parking garage now houses specialty cheese-sellers and gourmet chocolate next to ciabatta pizza-makers and a crêpe stall. On the street level, grungy clubs have emerged and small coffee roasters attract a mix of students from the nearby university with hipsters from the north.

Levy says his ambitions for Braamfontein go beyond Neighbourgoods and that he is doing something different from Liebmann. Instead of just another retail enclave, Levy says he is trying to create a street culture spread out across Braamfontein, an area that borders on Hillbrow, which is home to many of Johannesburg’s immigrant communities.

“I’m trying to engender a different kind of living,” Levy says.

Authentically Jo’burg
Liebmann says Neighbourgoods feels like a replication of a similar development in Cape Town, whereas Arts on Main is “authentically Jo’burg” and encourages a more African feel with its stallholders who  serve braaied meat and Ethiopian coffee.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, twentysomethings danced on the rooftop of Liebmann’s 12 Decades Hotel listening to a live DJ while sipping mojitos as the sun set over the tall buildings that make up the central business district.

Down on the street, residents who predated the hotel’s existence drank homemade alcohol from a bucket.

“More and more people are accepting the city as a legitimate offering. We see people who haven’t been here for 20 years,” Liebmann says. – © The Wall Street Journal,

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