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A new vision for urban renewal

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A new vision for urban renewal

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5 min read

What makes an area attractive to residential and business investors? Good security, aesthetic appeal or convenient access to amenities? For most of us experiential beings, it’s the perfect combination of all three. But employment and budget constraints sometimes prevent us from achieving the picturesque suburban ideal that so many seek. So what if there was a formula that could improve on what’s already been established?

“Urban renewal” is a hot topic in property development, and one that cannot be ignored by residents, business owners or, indeed, property developers.

Consider this scenario: a property developer identifies a potential space and sets about making a significant investment in developing it. But what about the investor’s point of view? Does that property offer true value? Does the investor see potential for growth and development of the wider area? The truth is that if the area around the development is rife with crime, urban sprawl and urban decay, the developer can forget about any significant return on the investment.

Brian Wright, who heads up Urban MGT, a company catalysing urban renewal, says that the magic formula for sustainable urban renewal lies in revolutionising the experience that users have with their public open spaces and dramatically improving the lives of people living in those nodes. This in turn inspires consumer confidence and stimulates investment, which ultimately perpetuates the cycle. The formula that he is referring to is embodied in the civic structures known as Urban Improvement Precincts (UIPs) or City Improvement Districts (CIDs). In essence, it is no longer the location alone that determines property values; it is also how the broader location is managed. And it is within the broader location management that Urban MGT plays a vital role.

“Urban decay is a reality for almost any city in any part of the world. What Urban MGT does is to set up public space management structures, or UIPs, that shift perceptions and actions to focus  on growth and urban renewal,” says Wright. “The nature of a UIP structure is to partner with local municipalities in order to improve the quality of an area’s public space However, a UIP cannot succeed without complete buy-in from the members of the community.”

One of Urban MGT’s greatest success stories to date is probably the phenomenal change that has taken place in uMhlanga Rocks. With its spectacular ocean views, luxurious apartment blocks and a smorgasbord of fine-dining restaurants and upmarket shopping destinations, uMhlanga Rocks is home to Durban’s jet-setting super-rich. Looking at it now, one would never believe that just ten years ago this epitome of suburban bliss had fallen into complete disarray. Pollution, urban decay and violent crime were threatening its tourist community. Business and residents were packing up and moving out in search of greener pastures.

That was until a group of committed property owners came together with a vision. Brian Wright, who coordinated the establishment of the UIP in uMhlanga Rocks, emphasises the fact that this project would not have been possible without the endorsement and financial support of committed businesses and residential property owners, as well as a partnership with eThekwini Municipality.

Yes, it meant that they would have to pay a little more, but by slowly demonstrating the value of the project, the UIP soon gained momentum and support. The project focused on the small things first: cleaning up the public spaces, fixing road signs, keeping the streets clean, fixing broken windows. In fact, Wright has a theory that cleaning up public spaces reduces the incidence of crime. He notes that areas which are visibly cared for demonstrate the community’s pride and awareness of its surroundings − key factors that increase the risk to criminals. “Today business owners and residential occupants are more than happy to engage with local municipalities in a framework for a healthy, rewarding public-private partnership that mutually benefits the private sector and local authorities,” he says.

“The uMhlanga Rocks property values on the beachfront are five times those of Durban, despite Durban having a better location. Why? It’s how we manage the location and that experience of public open spaces. Creating clean, attractive and desirable spaces, that’s what we do. When that happens, that’s when it starts unlocking value, that’s when you have the big redevelopment starting.”

The company has adopted the approach of creating a brand for a node, such as uMhlanga Rocks, where various businesses will carry similar features that identify them as parts of the collective node and its specific brand. The look and feel of the experience and product they want to offer is consistent, down to the tenant mix and type of events to be held in  public places.

Before drilling down into the nuts and bolts of how the UIP model operates, it’s worth noting that the model is now being replicated in Ballito, and notably Florida Road in Morningside, Durban. Urban MGT also manages greenfield precincts in the form of Bridge City, Cornubia Industrial and Business Estate, Riverhorse Valley Business Estate and most recently Sibaya. The precinct management entity is termed a management association and works very much like a UIP, except that it has a stronger influence on aesthetics and development controls.

Once considered one of Durban’s hottest night spots, Florida Road had also fallen prey to the cycle of urban decay, with unregulated car guards and a growing number of dangerous criminal incidents threatening to make a ghost town of one of the city’s landmarks. Thanks to the combined efforts of concerned community members, business owners, residents and the municipality, Florida Road has once again become a hive of activity, with its sidewalk cafes, famous restaurants and historic architecture. “Aside from cleaning up the neighbourhood aesthetically, security is obviously a major consideration. In addition to eradicating illicit car guarding and begging, we try to introduce opportunities where employment opportunities are offered instead,” adds Wright.

So what is Urban MGT’s role in the UIP model? Wright explains that the company is driven by the desire to create open, accessible spaces for the public to enjoy. A UIP is an all-inclusive urban project encouraging diversity and engagement. “Our organisation drives and manages the process: we help the community members establish a non-profit organisation run by a non-remunerated board. Having a credible entity allows you to raise additional funding from property owners because they’re confident that it’s going to be spent where it should be, that the process will be transparent and that the board will be held accountable.”

Wright sees tackling the northern coast and Florida Road as just the beginning. “We’ve got to build the urban renewal momentum in Durban, starting on the beachfront, which has incredible potential, and then beginning to push back into the inner city. At the moment, we are in positive discussions with the eThekwini Municipality on developing similar partnership management structures in nodes like the KwaMashu CBD and some of the nodes linked to our new integrated transportation system. It’s about public transportation and how we’re going to get development opportunities and job creation to emerge around the transportation nodes.”

As Wright puts it, “If we can get all the economic nodes working, we are well on our way to creating jobs, driving investment and getting our city working.” The uMhlanga Rocks UIP alone has created more than 75 new permanent jobs, a small percentage of those which have been created through the unlocking of R 5 billion in reinvestment in this well-established node. And he’s positive that the UIP model, with the right drive, direction, management and education, can be applied anywhere.

“Look out for future projects across the KwaZulu-Natal region. In fact, there’s reason to believe that this model of partnership between the private sector and the municipality can unlock socio-economic value across the country by enabling development and renewal on an even greater scale,” he says.

The Developer Journal is available online and in print.

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