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Regenerate cities’ CBDs

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Local authorities and businesses must buy into the exercise

Urban decay is a reality facing most cities globally as the buildings deteriorate and become overcrowded, residential areas expand further away from the traditional central business district, taking commerce with them, and city centres become ghosts of their former selves.

Rawson Property Group national manager Leon Breytenbach says this sees rents drop as vacancies increase and criminals take advantage of the vacuum to create a dangerous and unproductive space in a once-vibrant CBD.

Investor portfolio values drop, and the options are walking away from the problem or finding a solution in regeneration.

“Regeneration has been accomplished in numerous cities globally, including South Africa. It is both possible and successful if thoughtfully executed. However, it is essential for both the local municipality and business leaders to buy into the exercise,” he says.

In his 2016 master’s thesis, University of Cape Town city and regional planning graduate Lewin Rolls says urban rejuvenation can empower the original residents while meeting the demand for new affordable and upmarket housing and commercial space.

However, gentrification policies must favour the poor, with the first step being for urban planners to encourage economic development that supports small business and ensures the public infrastructure benefits everyone living in and using the area.

Opportunities exist for converting vacant commercial buildings into apartments and housing projects, luxury hotels or mixed-use entities.

“Old office blocks can become hotels or apartments, former shops become entertainment venues and outdated factories and warehouses become wonderful malls, craft markets, eateries or cinemas.”

There must be a healthy mix between retail, offices and residential property to
ensure sustainable urban regeneration. Overemphasising the residential aspect is not optimal, because while residents must be able
to live happily in the area, the commercial aspect must be expanded.

Regeneration of central business districts can be a valuable exercise. Picture: Supplied

Breytenbach says when urban regeneration and inner-city revitalisation achieve stasis, the rates per square metre in commercial buildings will increase, triggering further investment into the area.

Broll divisional director for broking KwaZulu-Natal, Frank Reardon, says the location, nature of the built environment and property market fundamentals, combined with government and developers’ creativity and strategic vision, will determine the design and composition of the regenerated urban landscape.

“A common thread globally is to breathe life into decaying spaces through the ‘live, work and play’ concept, leading to a strong emphasis on vibrant mixed-use developments. For South African cities, this represents a radical departure from
the original ordered urban landscapes of suburbs and CBDs.” 

Breytenbach says the CBD layout must be considered with allowances for structures like national monuments that cannot be altered, but need a facelift. 

“Optimal locations must be selected for hotels, shopping malls and entertainment venues with space reserved for open public areas and easy access to transport.

“This demands modernising transport systems whether it is bus routes, taxi ranks or trains. “Sufficient parking will be required,
while traffic flow may need to be changed to single direction to cope with the volumes.”

Reardon says the Durban CBD market
mirrored Gauteng CBDs, but never saw the huge plunge in prices that made conversions as profitable and low-risk as in Joburg.
Gauteng developers have been shocked that empty and sometimes dilapidated office blocks in Durban still command around R5000/m² – up to five times what they were paying in Joburg.

This has meant residential conversions have not had the same momentum and there has
been a greater impact from the growth in student housing. The Durban CBD has seen strong growth in demand for government offices
off a low base compared to other CBDs, creating economically viable alternatives to residential conversion.

“Cities are always changing, but for cities to be developed in a just, equitable and democratic way, rejuvenation has to protect the people already living there and ensure their needs are accommodated in the planning and development stage.” 

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