20 Jul

Rejuvenating the city for future investment is a good thing – but it sounds like a stuck record, and in my opinion there are too many unanswered questions, writes Greg Ardé.

I could almost hear the brass band play when I read a press release from Durban City Hall the other day. It announced a major revamp of the Mahatma Gandhi Road Precinct. I groaned – not again. If I had a buck for every story I have written about politicians announcing upgrades I would be sipping cocktails on an exotic beach rather than the writing my fingers to the bone.

But it didn’t work out like that so here I am and I will attempt to be fair in this commentary. Here’s the gist of the city’s press release:

The rejuvenation project tackles bad, abandoned or derelict buildings and millions to be spent on infrastructure upgrades to transform the precinct into a space for investment.

“The revamp is part of a public-private partnership, with both sectors investing to transform the area into a safe zone. The city has committed itself to working with various sectors to eradicate bad buildings.”

There are about 80 bad buildings within the inner city, of which 39 are in the Point Precinct. Of these, 21 have completed renovations following a mayoral engagement with business and property owners, the city said.

A block of flats in Trafalgar Lane was demolished in 2019. “After the demolition, the owners of another problematic building in the area approached the city for advice to turn around the building.

Councillor Mxolisi Kaunda conducted a walkabout along the Mahatma Gandhi Road Precinct with investors and City officials in May to gauge progress.

Kaunda said the area was a strategic location for catalytic development and the city was fast tracking this to stimulate economic growth, investments, job creation and tourism. Some of the work undertaken includes the extension of the promenade, the water mains reticulation project, the public realm upgrade, and the problem buildings programme.

As part of the programme, some buildings have been converted into student accommodation and illegal bars and bottle stores closed.

Ever keen to score a dazzling headline, the city said it had initiated a “R30-billion Point Waterfront Development project” – also public and private sector investment.

The city estimates the central business district will grow from 70 000 people to 450 000 people by 2040. Durban, the statement crowed, was improving sidewalks, replacing paving, fixing drains and a host of other good things.

We’re delighted, but the cynic in me has heard it all before, including talk of iconic buildings and thousands of jobs. In this case the mayor mentioned a “55-storey building that will change the skyline of Durban”.

I am a super supporter of the Point, the beachfront and the CBD. It is beautiful, gritty and energetic and I am not entirely jaundiced about Kaunda’s commitment to improve the area nor the city’s capacity to do so.

But, I’d like to see details of this public private partnership (PPP). Who is the city partnering with and what is the end-game? I might have missed it, but I checked with a few experts in the field and they too have their reservations.

One PPP that promises to be a success is the new passenger terminal, probably because the government let the experts get on with what they do best. You can’t always rely on that, but in this instance, I think it will work out.

A lot more needs to be done. I recently spent two days driving around the city – once with a wizened beat policeman and then with a property expert. I saw the full spectrum of downtown Durban, the good, the bad and the ugly. At one stage Julie Andrews was singing the soundtrack to The Sound of Music in my head, and the next a few lines of the Rodriquez song Hate Street Dialogue came to mind, the one that goes: The inner city birthed me, the local pusher nursed me…

I wasn’t far from a building that has been beautifully upgraded, and where a pair of scrap metal dealers were later shot dead in a broad daylight hit linked to gangs and drugs. I reminded myself this happens everywhere, and that I was a five-minute walk from the promenade, the splendid City Hall, the yacht mole and a host of other spectacular places.

In a later conversation with property specialists from First National Bank I learnt that office vacancies in the CBD were at 22% in the fourth quarter of 2020 versus 10% in uMhlanga and 4% in Hillcrest. Some see this as catastrophic, others see it as a huge opportunity.

Another property sector under strain in the CBD is hospitality. I spoke to one of the city’s most seasoned hoteliers who said there has been restructuring and temporary closures, but domestic tourists over Easter kept things ticking over. That was before fears of the Covid 3rd wave.

The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry works hard liaising with the city, but I wonder if the city is embracing the talent that exists in business and civil society.

I have had the misfortune of dealing with some unsavoury bureaucrats and political appointees in the city who are involved in this space and are a cause for grave concern.

A property specialist I spoke to applauded the mayor’s announcements but asked if anyone had any idea what the details of the Point plan were and how they were seen in the context of a wider CBD plan?

Also, is there an inventory of city real estate that is publicly available? Some of the condemned buildings in Durban are owned by the municipality, others by the province. They are egregious examples of government failure.

Then the property specialist asked if there was a record (and there should be) of all the city buildings and parcels of land sold in the last 10 years. Who were they sold to and at what prices? This should be done by public tender. My specialist wasn’t aware of any, and I suspect we’d find a lot of political cronies among the buyers.

And then what incentives are given and to which property owners to upgrade their buildings? The Urban Development Zone tax relief was a great idea, but what schemes are now at play and who benefits? Are the benefits aimed at a few rich elites who score buildings cheap and harness incentives to give them a quick lick of paint and flip them for a profit?

This ought to be open to public scrutiny and debate around this should be fostered by the city.

There are great prospects to remodel many buildings in the city for alternate use.

There is appetite and skill among young entrepreneurs in this space. It doesn’t always have to be done at a grand scale. I wonder how much the city is doing to nurture this and create opportunities? I fear too many officials want downtown Durban to resemble uMhlanga and want to deal with a few big players as part of their political hustle or perhaps to realise an unworkable vision.

We don’t need to pin our hopes on dazzling high-rise developments so much as to encourage more long-haul investors who are rooted in an inclusive, authentic and responsive approach to the city.



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