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The Jews behind Jozi’s rejuvenation

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Many of Joburg’s most exciting developments are the result of urban renewal. We look at the innovators behind a few of the city’s trendy hotspots.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Aug 16, 2018

Walking through the artistic melting pot that is Victoria Yards, it’s easy to forget its largely poverty-stricken surroundings. Victoria Yards is situated on the eastern outskirts of the Johannesburg CBD, in the multi-ethnic area of Lorentzville, once a working-class Jewish neighbourhood associated with Sol Kerzner and William Kentridge. And, thanks to Victoria Yards, Lorentzville has again attracted Jewish investment.

This urban complex is located across the road from the global head office of Nando’s, known as the Central Kitchen. It has been in the neighbourhood since the restaurant chain’s early years in 1991 and recently underwent a revamp. It now features works from over 50 local artists and furniture designers. Inspired by this, Jonti Brozin (29), the son of Nando’s co-founder Robbie Brozin, first spotted the potential of the 30 000m² property that is now Victoria Yards.

“Once a nappy factory, the property was derelict with chop shops and informal housing,” explains the younger Brozin. “I heard that this area was going to be turned into low-cost housing and I was concerned. With the surrounding community and the Nando’s head office being across the road, the idea to do something innovative, exciting and community-based came up.”

Enter Brian Green, “an honorary Jew” and the man behind downtown Joburg’s trendy mixed-use development, 44 Stanley. Green came on board and the magic started happening. Open spaces, exposed brickwork and fertile land on both sides of the Jukskei River gave rise to artisanal studios, art galleries, furniture factories, vegetable gardens and a long-term plan to clean up the river. “Most of all, when Brian got involved, the social good that came out of it was unbelievable – and out of this comes your financial return,” says Brozin.

An actuary with an impact investing background, Brozin knew he needed the buy-in of more property experts. “We brought on partners who shared our vision.” Among these partners were brothers Paul and Jeremy Berman of Conurban – Consolidated Urban Corporation. The Berman brothers work in urban renewal, acquiring city blocks in the CBD close to major transport hubs or university campuses, and turning them into affordable residential and student apartments or big box retailers, combining shops and commercial spaces.

“The Bermans had the same view as us,” says Brozin. “Victoria Yards is a purpose-driven investment; it’s profit with purpose.” Far from a gentrification project, the space is adapting to its location and looking to uplift the surrounding community.

As Green says: “More South Africans, specifically because of apartheid, have to start thinking like this. We have to take what we’ve created and turn it around through helping each other and pulling each other along the path to make this country dignified.”

Adds Brozin: “That’s the core of Victoria Yards. We brought jobs to the space by finding tenants who create jobs. Artisans, furniture makers and glass blowers require skills, and the best place for them to find employees is right around the corner. They can walk here, they’re hungry to work and learn. If we did something out of context with the community, the place wouldn’t be the kind of success that it’s becoming.”

Buying into the idea of a creative collective, talented tenants include artist Ayanda Mabulu, photographer Roger Ballen, designer Tshepo Mohlala aka Tshepo The Jean Maker and furniture maker David Krynauw. Tenants design, manufacture, display and sell their works in the space that is Victoria Yards.

A framed quote from a psalm in Hallel sits in Green’s office. It epitomises what the property stands for: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

Revitalising urban areas has become second nature to the man known as Mr Maboneng, Jonathan Liebmann. When Liebmann (35), the founder and former CEO of Propertuity, first began building Maboneng Precinct in Joburg’s largely crumbling eastern CBD over 10 years ago, no one could have imagined how much he’d revolutionise the city.

Having purchased, renovated and sold his first apartment in Waverley at 18, Liebmann found his calling early on. After studying business and accounting at Monash University, he took a gap year. Inspired by his travels through cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, he returned seeking ways to similarly optimise the Johannesburg urban landscape.

Opening with Arts on Main, featuring artists’ studios, galleries and bohemian retailers, his brainchild Maboneng soon became a creative hub. Liebmann’s focus widened as he began building a neighbourhood where young people could live and work. Today it’s an area where arts and culture meet industrial innovation and inner-city community living. The precinct’s residential, retail and business spaces are cutting edge, feeding into Jozi’s urban energy.

Having resigned from his role as Propertuity CEO in May, Liebmann is moving on. While his wider plans are unconfirmed, he remains a Propertuity shareholder, an active member of the Maboneng Civic Association and an adviser.

Also working to change the face of the Joburg CBD and sometimes partnering with companies including Propertuity, are the Quorum Property Group’s Neil Eliason (29) and David Mayers (30). Having completed his BSc and honours degrees in Property Studies at the University of Cape Town, Eliason moved to Joburg to build a network and deal with major property developments. “I got involved with the Jewish-owned Mafadi Property Management, located in the Joburg CBD, in 2014. In August 2015, I moved over to Quorum.”

While Quorum has now extended into Cape Town and Joburg’s northen suburbs, the Joburg CBD is a core focus. “A lot of people are scared to get involved with properties here,” he says. “We see opportunity. A lot of good comes out of working here, like cleaning up the streets and getting community involvement, and it’s great seeing Joburg being restored to its former glory. What’s more, there’s a huge demand for lower-income residences.

“We currently have R400 million to R450 million worth of new developments, conversions and existing buildings within the Joburg CBD. We’re busy putting up a large, new residential development and a parking lot, which is not necessarily the best for your yield, but safe and secure parking is huge for the sustainability of the area.”

Quorum is also involved in numerous creative hotspots, including August House in Doornfontein which contains over 50 private art studios for contemporary African artists.

“We’re also restoring the old industrial W + A building it to its former glory,” says Eliason. “It’s still named W + A but it now stands for Work and Art, and it’s a workspace and art showcase.”

It’s this synergy that characterises many urban renewal projects and makes them such appealing investment prospects.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Dave Sieff 16 Aug
    It would be useful to see a location map for the Victoria Yards development.
    As a child,I used to live and walk through the area,and would be interested to know where it is actually.
    Thanks,
    Dave Sieff  

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