A single 'developer' seeks to make a farce of spatial justice in Johannesburg

The Sentec Tower in Brixton. (Gallo)

The Sentec Tower in Brixton. (Gallo)

The stakes are high for the people of Rossmore and Brixton, when a full council of City of Johannesburg meets to decide whether to change the spatial framework of this area.

The change would result in a six-storey apartment block in a neighbourhood of single and semi-detached homes. The developers say the building will provide students with affordable housing, thus meeting the need spatial justice. Yet the bachelor units, designed with car owners in mind, are to be sold for R800 000 and cannot be described as providing housing for the pooor.

Developed from 1903 to the 1930s on a tight grid layout, its plot sizes are smaller than in the adjacent Aukland Park and Mayfair and in nearby Melville and Westdene. Initially, this part of Johannesburg was home to white English-speaking mine workers. The Afrikaans-speaking working class began moving into Brixton and Rossmore in the 1930s. In the next decades it reflected the apartheid regime, anchored by the adjacent Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg, UJ) and Herztog Tower (now Sentech).

The demographics of this area shifted from the 1980s. In the 2011 census, just over 42% of households earned up to R4 200 a month. A transitory portion of this is made up of students renting shared rooms in erstwhile family houses.

Proximity to the city centre, the SABC and two universities provides spatial convenience. This and the appeal of the historic housing stock has made a small middle class of professionals and academics choose Brixton and Rossmore over more homogenous suburbs, townhouse developments and gated estates.

The city’s spatial framework was finalised in the recent Empire-Perth “corridor of freedom” planning and consultation process. It foresees no densification in the residential parts of Brixton and Rossmore, restricting this to the Caroline, Collins and High Street transit corridor.

Thus the small residential area bordering on to UJ’s Kingsway campus is excluded from densification. It is here that the owner of four adjacent properties has the longstanding ambition to construct a multi-storey block of flats with two floors of parking and 132 bachelor units.

Having lost in the municipal planning tribunal to residents opposing the development, the developer’s last resort under applicable planning legislation was to submit an appeal. This reached the office of city’s new member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for planning soon after the August 2016 municipal elections. Approval was granted in contradiction to the city’s statutory spatial development framework and the “corridor of freedom” planning.

The city’s municipal planning tribunal was convened under the new Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act. It had hosted a marathon two-day hearing in which the development was intensely debated. The tribunal members were convinced by arguments put forward by the city’s planning department and representatives of the mobilised neighbourhood.

Council’s pending decision on the city’s spatial framework, which must follow the MMC’s appeal decision, has to take cognisance of the spatial planning Act, which gives legal standing to municipal spatial frameworks. It came into full effect late 2016 through the City’s municipal regulations.

The proposal for a six-storey apartment building was one of the first cases the tribunal had to consider in the transition to the new legislative framework for planning.

Its decision had to comply not only with the city’s spatial planning, but also with the spatial planning Act’s five core principles to which all spatial planning decisions must now submit: spatial justice, spatial resilience, sustainability, efficiency and good governance.

In the tribunal, the proposed development did not stand up to this test. Though presented as affordable student housing that would improve spatial justice, it was evident that the apartment block with bachelor units to be sold upwards of R800 000 was by no means targeting the poor. The car-dominated architectural design could not be framed resilient or sustainable.

The developer’s legal team argued that the “corridor of freedom” planning decisions based on local consultations had no legal standing. The tribunal’s decision underlined the legitimacy of public participation in spatial planning.

In favouring the developer’s appeal, the MMC may not have been fully aware of the statutory planning processes nor of the investment in time and resources which a politically diverse community had made over many years of participation in this planning process.

Council’s pending deliberations on this case will no doubt reflect the recent shift in its political composition. The new MMC’s office may have seen the developer’s appeal less as a plan for affordable student accommodation than as an investment undertaking for high quality apartments. From that perspective, the proposal will have had merit to the new city leadership, attracting investment being one of its main objectives.

But does the need for private investment in this area loom that large? A walk around the Rossmore and Brixton neighbourhood will show that private investment is far from absent. It is supported by the current spatial framework, which allows small-scale densification and investment to shape the area.

Recent examples are a three-storey mixed use development on the corner of Chiswick and Fulham streets, which adds commercial amenity to the area, and a four-storey container building for student housing in Caroline Street.

These did not require changes to the spatial framework. Nor did they unleash the conflict that necessitated residents to draw up petitions and appear in tribunals to make their voices heard.

The neighbourhood uniquely spans and interacts across several income groups. In part this is because of the small investments that local residents with long term commitments have made in the area. The Kingston Frost Park is the focus of one such commitment, sustained by residents over many years, and now the pride of the City’s parks and zoo department.

Brixton and Rossmore form a multifaceted area, diverse, complex and yet relatively secure and stable. Care was taken in the “corridor of freedom” planning process to preserve this. Given the threat of displacement and homogenisation that comes with large-scale densification through redevelopment, the final plan allows for this only in very particular areas.

The proposed six-storey block is only one part of the vision the developer presented to the tribunal. His intention is for the entire area to be redeveloped through similar apartment buildings - after adjacent property owners have been persuaded to sell.

Council will not debate the merits of the proposed block of flats, but whether to support a change in the spatial framework, which would allow for this and similar developments to go ahead.

Why should the spatial framework not be changed? This touches on Constitutional questions. Changing the plan in favour of a single developer with short-term profit interests would override a statutory planning process in which residents were given their Constitutional right to meaningful participation. It would make a farce key principles in the spatial planning Act, including that of spatial justice.

Marie Huchzermeyer directs the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment at Wits Unviersity

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