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Restoration Begins on Joburg CBD’s Most Neglected Buildings

By Helen Grange

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Johannesburg City Council is driving an initiative to restore 84 buildings in the CBD to provide efficient, contemporary accommodation for city dwellers, and tenders have been awarded to various developers who’ve now started this visionary transformation of some of Jozi’s oldest residential hubs.

The earmarked buildings are in Jeppestown, Newtown, Hillbrow, Doornfontein, Yeoville, the city centre and Fordsburg. The intention is for the private sector to invest money in converting the buildings, many of which are owned by the city council. The council will then, in turn, lease the buildings to the developers who may charge rent to recoup the money spent on the investment.

Two of the buildings are in the heart of Hillbrow: the council-owned Vannin Court in Pietersen Street, and Beaconsfield Court in Edith Cavell Street. Both buildings are over 60 years old, and were once coveted for their location, but today they are overcrowded, run by slumlords, and in a sad state of disrepair.

Dryden Projects won the tender to restore these two grandes dames, which are reimagined as clean, contemporary residential units for families, students and working professionals. Dryden is working in partnership with architect Heather Dodd of Savage + Dodd Architects, which has worked on other buildings in Hillbrow for 16 years.

‘Vannin Court dates to the period between 1930 and 1950, an example of a modernist building with some Art Deco elements. Beaconsfield Court is an example of the facebrick modernist building typical of the 1950s period,’ says Dodd.

Currently this building is characterised by very large, old-fashioned units, with 12 units per floor. ‘We are looking at how we can reconfigure the building into a range of unit types – for instance, one or two bedrooms, or even bigger units where three families can share. A lot of people share units in the inner city, so we want to see how we can accommodate that,’ says Dodd.

The façade will be restored, and the building fabric kept intact. ‘Certain elements of the building are in fair condition and can be retained and restored, such as the entrance area and walkway mosaic flooring,’ says Dodd.

Once the upgrade is complete, Vannin Court management will be able to interface with the neighbouring building owners and the eKhaya neighbourhood precinct management, to integrate the building back into the precinct and to upgrade the existing urban amenities – the pocket park and the playground.

The units in Beaconsfield Court, meanwhile, are to be completely reconfigured to allow for a range of unit types from bachelor to oneand two-bedroom units for families. Envisaged here is a mixed-use development, with ground floor retail like Shoprite or Pick n Pay, and above that the low-cost rentals. At the top could be a penthouse for a much higher price.

The degradation of inner-city Johannesburg has been a headache for city managers for nearly 20 years, with dozens of buildings being taken over from absentee owners. Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba identified the problem as a key priority of his office soon after he was elected executive mayor in 2016, stating that he planned to take drastic measures to restore law and order in the inner city. Since then, he has held dozens of meetings with property developers and owners to present his vision and revive the inner city. Private developers submitted their refurbishment proposals to the city by the end of December 2017.

‘Hijacked buildings are a major problem, with people living in deplorable conditions and being abused by slumlords who extort money from them. At Vannin Court, a council-owned building, it was found that the occupiers are renting beds in the units from “owners” for between R250 and R1,200 per person,’ Mashaba told TimesLIVE in 2017 after the rejuvenation plan was launched.

One of the earmarked sites is the Linatex building in Jeppestown, where up to 15 people share a dorm room with only curtains to separate them. It was meant to be temporary accommodation for people who were moved there after evictions and fires, but many have ended up staying for years because of the lack of available space in the city. Another site is an illegally occupied building on the corner of Raleigh and Bedford streets in Yeoville that houses the post office.

According to the council’s prospectus for the rejuvenation plan, Yeoville ‘started attracting a cosmopolitan and politically progressive feel in the 1980s, but unfortunately could not cope with the rapid population growth. This, together with lack of investment, led to an efflux of infrastructure and decay of major buildings. The broader area is characterised by a large percentage of blocks of flats and secondary commercial properties. Neighbouring nodes with a similar geographic appeal to Yeoville include Berea, Hillbrow and Bellevue. These areas are known for high levels of population, unemployment, poverty and crime,’ says the document.

The current residents of the targeted buildings are to be offered temporary emergency accommodation while the buildings are being refurbished, after which they will get first preference on units let out at between R800 and R1,000 a month.

According to Evan Dryden of Dryden Projects, the investment into Vannin Court will be around R45 million, which will also cover the cost of the temporary accommodation offered. ‘The refurbished buildings will feature a biometric access control system and permanent hot water. Environmental considerations were crucial in the tender process, to save on energy and water, and to use materials and resources responsibly. So all sanitary ware will comply with low flow rates, and there will be dual-flush toilets throughout,’ he says.

Aside from the buildings targeted, the city has identified a number of vacant sites for the construction of high-rise buildings to create more low-cost housing. The Johannesburg Housing Company, a social housing company, has been tendered to develop one of these sites in Newtown, where it has a number of other developments, most notably Brickfields, on the site of Johannesburg’s original brickfields where the first bricks that were used to build the city were made.

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