Voice of America (Washington, DC)

29 January 2014

South Africa: Developers, Home Owners Revitalize Downtown Johannesburg

Johannesburg — Just off of Anderson Street, a main connector in downtown Johannesburg, Dirk Bahmann heads through the lobby and into the elevator, up to the fourth floor.

At the end of the hallway, he opens a door and enters a work and living space that's become a personal design and construction project since he bought the apartment six years ago.

An architect and artist who grew up in the suburbs north of Johannesburg, Bahmann says urban living gave him more of a connection to a community.

"Johannesburg, and especially South Africa, is kind of very disconnected," he said. "It's very isolated and insular and I wanted to get out of that. For me, living in the city was a means to kind of connect with people in an everyday, ordinary way without it having to be pretentious, and that you feel part and belong to something."

A decade ago, most of downtown Johannesburg's Central Business District, or CBD, was a no-go area, where buildings like Bahmann's were hijacked by criminals and gangs, and city services were nearly non-existent. But over the last few years, the dynamic has begun to shift. Developers have retaken ownership of many buildings, crime has dropped and the area has started to entice middle- and upper-class home buyers.

For Bahmann, who designed and built his own modern apartment - a space-conscious home and office that uses movable furniture to maximize utility - living in the area has one major drawback.

"The only thing I miss is getting a full night's sleep," he said. "I'm very sensitive to noise, so I always wake up when someone is walking down the road and shouting, or people who hoot when they want to get into the garage."

Other than that, he says, the area provides an ease of living. He can grab groceries, dine at restaurants and get all his art materials within minutes from his doorstep.

Brixton

Just outside downtown is Johannesburg's Brixton neighborhood, a place of low-slung, small houses. While its streets are a bit dangerous, with homeless people often sleeping on stoops and under building awnings, architect Thomas Chapman sees something else.

"That's why we're choosing to act here, because I don't think it's been fully realized, the potential here for what we call loft living or apartment living," he said, touting what he describes as the area's great potential for increased population density and development.

After buying a home in Brixton, Chapman his partners at Local Studio are working on a building with eight apartment units, a coffee shop and a new office space for their own outfit.

While developers are leading CBD revitalization, the city, Chapman says, has attracted their interest by cutting violent crime, encouraging development along city corridors and investing in urban basics such as pavement.

"The truth is that management has gotten better and crime has gotten less," he said. "I strongly think it's an urban management issue, and the city has made strides."

Still, developers are shouldering many infrastructure issues privately. Chapman pointed to the successful development of Maboneng, where the developers hire full-time security guards, and have put money into street lighting and waste management.

Chapman says his development will likely need some of those same investments, which do eventually pay off.

Still, he says there is great opportunity for Johannesburg's urban neighborhoods to grow, and for the typical suburban living to be challenged.

"As an urban designer, I'm incredibly excited about questioning these sorts of suburban topologies. I think that's where the future is."

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