Regeneration: The final summit?

Posted On Thursday, 10 May 2007 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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Another Jo'burg inner-city summit is greeted with hope and scepticism

Ruby MathangJohannesburg inner city 2012: a banker strolls from his penthouse flat on Joubert Park, past a beautifully restored Edwardian block of flats - now an affordable housing scheme - towards the early evening entertainment in the park. Young children gather in the safe, tree-lined street, enchanted by a street juggler, as an elderly couple watch from a bench nearby. A bobby on the beat looks on... is this a dream?

More than likely. But it's the picture of Johannesburg in a few years' time that emerged from the 2007 inner-city charter summit last Saturday.

However, many of the 850 delegates had been to such summits before. Their mood combined equal measures of determination and cynicism.

Even Ruby Mathang, a member of the mayoral committee (MMC) in charge of development planning and urban management, was quick to acknowledge that previous plans had come to little. Johannesburg's inner-city regeneration structures, launched with such fanfare in the 1990s, were "reprioritised" a few years ago. Inner-city MMC Sol Cowan, who headed them, is now just an ordinary councillor, and the inner-city task team was downgraded a few years back. The CBD lost its special status and was incorporated into broader Johannesburg.

The Mandela bridge, beautiful as it is, is little more than a symbol and a road to nowhere; the Market Theatre precinct at its southern end has not lived up to its promise of being the city's cultural focus.

The constitutional court was promoted as a development to upgrade Hillbrow and Braamfontein and connect an arc of culture from the Linder Auditorium in Parktown to the Market Theatre.

But development has been held up, the Gauteng provincial government and the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) bogged down in arguments over what should be developed there.

Gauteng's Blue IQ apparently wants an American bowling centre, but the JDA wants a tourism centre, flats and offices.

The Gauteng government precinct, promised for the Johannesburg CBD some time back, has also been bogged down in arguments between the council and the province, but apparently that is near resolution.

The draft inner-city charter discussed on Saturday is breathtaking in its scope and ambition. It commits the city to at least 77 deadlines, aimed at turning Johannesburg into a thriving, safe and liveable city within five years (see box). It includes a new urban management team that by June next year will be able to identify the problem areas, deal with them and turn Jo'burgers into by-law-abiding citizens within five years.

"We can't just assume the work of Pikitup [the waste remover], Johannesburg Water, the metro police, health officers and building control will somehow make a clean and orderly city," mayor Amos Masondo told the delegates.

He also undertook to have the inner city fully covered by CCTV within five years. That's a tall order for a 2 000 ha area with about 3,5m m² of offices, three times more than the Sandton CBD; shopping space of about 650 000 m², equal to five Sandton Cities; 200 000 inhabitants; 800 000 workers and visitors a day; and 130 000 residential units (according to Gapp, the city's urban design consultants).

Most of these inhabitants and visitors view the by-laws, traffic lights and signage as guidelines at best, rather than rules to be obeyed. "Regeneration will not happen until citizens learn to obey by-laws," says one councillor.

Also included are undertakings to provide 5 000 short-term accommodation units for the poor and to build at least 50 000, mainly affordable, flats by 2015.

According to the latest charter there will be visible policing by July next year and 4 000 more metro police on duty by December 2009. Street refurbishing and tree planting will help make streets as walkable as those of any European city by March 2011, promises the charter.

Masondo and a phalanx of MMCs and officials were there, and they were upbeat about the charter. "We have come a long way," said Masondo, pointing out that five years ago there was no Metro Mall taxi junction, Constitution Hill, Faraday taxi rank or Gandhi and Mary Fitzgerald squares. "I have been told there is a perception that the city is no longer prioritising the inner city. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Yet this perception is key to the cynicism that pervaded Saturday's gathering. Nobody wanted to be quoted, but everybody the FM spoke to had the same questions: "Will it actually happen? Will it start and then stop again? Is there leadership to ensure it will happen?"

Leadership is a big issue, and Masondo is an enigma. Successful cities are headed by powerful individuals with a clear vision who can sell that vision to their citizens. Masondo's less-than-inspiring speech before he left the summit, leaving the detail to the delegates, highlights the stakeholders' misgivings.

That is reinforced by the sudden slowdown of the inner-city process a couple of years ago. "The inner city was just dropped from the priority list, the MMC responsible for it axed and the CBD merged with a region with which it has nothing in common," says consultant Neil Fraser. A strong leader would have stuck to the vision and pursued the plan.

"A leader would not let Gauteng buy a key heritage building like the old post office and not refurbish it for three years," adds Fraser. "He would be on the phone to the premier demanding action."

But councillors on Masondo's mayoral committee have little doubt the charter will be passed by the MMC in the next few weeks, and be implemented.

"The inner city has always been an important project to Masondo and he's never given up on it," says one insider.

The scepticism about the charter is also related to its content. Though many of the commitments are for uplifting and housing the poor, its emphasis is on making the city an economic and cultural success. This, say sceptics, will not appease the many councillors who want more populist measures, and might conspire against the summit resolutions.

But the MMC's Mathang is adamant that this will not be tolerated. "Once the council is committed to the charter, councillors using populist tactics will lose their jobs," he promises.

Much of the momentum in the inner city is provided by private enterprise anyway, and this is likely to continue even without strong civic leadership.

Central Johannesburg Partnership director Anne Steffny expects the private sector to invest another R12bn in the inner city before 2010, "and another R4bn-R5bn if Johannesburg is committed to the charter".

But that development could turn out to be patchy and unco-ordinated in the absence of civic leadership. The scepticism of the delegates and the candour of councillors like Mathang might be the most encouraging sign that this time things could be different.

Many of the people involved have been there before, and are more realistic about what can - and has to - happen.

Last modified on Friday, 16 May 2014 17:26

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