This article originally appeared in the Australian Smith Journal in 2014.


<great images by Greg Lomas, who did the portraits for this feature – see more images in the link>

“This is a real 360-degree view,” says Jonathan Liebmann, standing on the rooftop of his latest acquisition: the 17-storey Hallmark Towers in downtown Johannesburg.

The northern skyline is bookended by the silhouettes of the city’s Hillbrow Tower and Ponte building. To the east is Ellis Park, home of the 1995 Rugby World Cup finals. Southeast, Liebmann points out an office block that, in three days, will become home to a 40-metre high mural of the late Nelson Mandela. The 31-year-old developer owns that building, and a string of others just a few blocks away in the precinct that, on local maps, is still referred to as ‘City’ and ‘Suburban’ but these days is better known as Maboneng.

It is Liebmann’s neighbourhood, literally. He named it and rebuilt it. Over a six-year period he bought and renovated rundown structures to turn a marginalised, former industrial inner-city area into an integrated live-work-play district for a mix of artists, entrepreneurs and aspiring urban hipsters. Maboneng now forms the anchor of a 35-building property empire under the umbrella of Liebmann’s company, Propertuity.

As a developer, Liebmann’s always had a slightly precocious entrepreneurial streak; at school he ran a business hosting parties inside nightclubs (he still looks more like a party host than a property tycoon) and after graduating he travelled. “It was very impactful,” he says. “It made me realise what was missing in South Africa.” He also got some “hardcore work experience” as a construction worker in London, learning the building trade from the bottom up.

When Liebmann returned home to study for a degree through the Melbourne-based Monash University, he set up “a couple” of new businesses: a mobile coffee shop and a house cleaning service. The latter prompted him to launch a chain of laundromats and dry cleaners, when he realised people were moving away from employing full-time domestic workers, still commonplace in South Africa, and outsourcing their laundry. By the time he was 22 Liebmann was running 17 stores.

Around this time he also invested in his first property, purchasing and renovating an apartment with his friend. His next project, converting an old factory space into loft apartments, got him thinking of ways that similar developments could help regenerate urban spaces in Johannesburg. “Living in the suburbs, for me, was not an option,” he says. “I’m an urbanist. I like to live and work in cities.”

On paper, Johannesburg (Joburg) wants the same thing. Listed in the city’s current ‘Growth and Development Strategy’ is an overt goal: become a “liveable city”. In reality, the urban geography is less compliant. Depending on which regions you include or exclude, greater Johannesburg is home to between seven and 10 million people living in an area covering around 1,645 square kilometres. By comparison, greater London is 1,579 square kilometres. Except London has had 2000 years to grow into its size. Johannesburg is less than 130 years old. It’s an unwieldy metropolis.

The original town, now effectively the inner city, was developed on barren land immediately north of the gold mines that followed the shallow crescent of the Witwatersrand reef, the world’s largest gold reef deposits – buried up to four kilometres deep in places. When, to everyone’s surprise, the gold didn’t run out, the settlement expanded along deliberate cardinal points: those with money moved to newly established suburbs, first to the east then north, both conveniently removed from the mine dumps and their accompanying dust in the south. The ‘native’ and ‘Coolie’ locations – the latter included Indians, South African coloureds, Chinese, Malays, and any others designated as ‘non-white’ – were housed in the west, near the sewerage works. Over time the north became the byword for posh, while the east, west and south assumed varying degrees of white working class-ness. Black, coloured and Indian residents were, sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly, pushed or forced further out towards the margins – and later, under apartheid, to townships like Soweto (black), Lenasia (Indian) and Eldorado Park (coloured), more than 25 kilometres away.

Twenty years after democracy, Joburg is still dealing with the legacy of a divided city. While it is the economic hub of South Africa, contributing nearly 17 per cent of the entire country’s GDP, it remains very unequal: both extremely wealthy and extremely poor, with not entirely unrelated high levels of violent crime. A fortress mentality still pervades many of the suburbs, where electric fences, and armed response and gated security complexes are considered the norm. Armoured cars, however, are not.

The inner city was one of the early casualties of Joburg’s suburban expansion and social transition – starting with gradual decentralisation in the ’50s, as businesses moved to the suburbs, followed by a trickle then a flood of commercial interests abandoning “town” from the late ‘70s. A combination of factors contributed towards slum-like conditions in many buildings, which caused property prices to dip sharply. By the ’90s Joburg’s CBD was almost a no-go area, inadequately managed by the city, plagued by security problems, and red-lined by financial institutions unwilling to invest in derelict or abandoned buildings.

The vacuum left by corporations and the middle class was filled by a new generation of mostly low-income urban migrants, many from other African countries, looking for accommodation close to the city’s economic opportunities. Where formal housing could not be found, or afforded, residents took up spaces in industrial buildings, warehouses and old office blocks.

By the turn of the millennium, demand for property in the newer suburban business nodes like Sandton, where most of the financial institutions and even the Stock Exchange eventually relocated, started pushing rental prices sky-high. This, coupled with a sort of residual post-1994 Rainbow Nation optimism, and proposed municipal incentive and subsidy programmes, saw urban planners and property developers start to look at the CBD with new interest. There was a sudden surge of inner city regeneration projects, from Newtown, in the west, to the old financial district in the centre. Even the hulking cylinder of the Ponte – a skyscraper built in the ‘70s, which at one point had been proposed as a prison – was revisioned as a series of hip apartments and penthouse suites. To celebrate, the Ponte’s new owners went base jumping off the side of the building.

Property was cheap; but, as it turns out, so was talk. Many early developers placed a too-high premium on their versions of luxury inner-city living, and failed to entice sufficient buyers for the asking price. When the global recession hit in 2007, a further number of high-end developments stalled then stopped indefinitely. In some cases, leaving million-rand penthouses precariously perched on the top of otherwise unrestored buildings.

It was in this environment Liebmann began to look for industrial buildings that could potentially be redeveloped. Just east of the boundaries of the original mining town, a triangle-shaped grid mapped out in 1886, he spotted a complex of five abandoned warehouses that he envisioned as a future arts hub. Given the location and the renewed circumspection around investment in the CBD, this was something of a stretch. The buildings were metres away from a busy overpass and in walking distance of the old Mai Mai healers’ market, where herbalists and <iZangoma> – “witchdoctors” or traditional healers who can communicate with ancestral spirits – plied their trade. Although the city’s high-security diamond-cutting headquarters were a block to the west, in Jewel City, it had been decades since the area had seen anything approximating investment. Liebmann saw it differently. The area offered good access routes from the highways and main roads. There were plenty of old commercial buildings, many of them vacant. “It was a blank canvas,” he says.

Traditional property development models usually rely on securing a big brand anchor tenant to draw business. Liebmann went for a big name. William Kentridge, South Africa’s best-selling artist, was one of the first people to sign up for a studio in 2008. The Goodman Gallery, Nirox Foundation and Goethe Institut took project spaces. Other artists and designers and galleries followed suit. By 2009, Liebmann had launched the development as Arts on Main. As Liebmann puts it, towards the end of the construction phase he started thinking about a “neighbourhood, a connection of buildings, in walking distance of each other”. He didn’t just want to sell property anymore, but a new vision.

There’s a reason Liebmann likes taking people up to rooftops. It’s not just for the view, it’s for schpiel, the sales pitch. From the roof, Liebmann is able not only to point out each property he owns, but also tell you exactly what he plans to do with them: this one will be a design hub, that one an apartment block, this space is for students, that one is for entrepreneurs, this one will be finished this year, that one the next. Every pronouncement is delivered with such confidence that from any other 30-something – perhaps any other property developer – it would come across as arrogant at best, a confidence trick at worst.

In 2010 Liebmann piloted his first mixed-use residential project, Main Street Life, a block away from Arts on Main. The building featured an arts hotel on the top floor called 12 Decades, with each room designed by local artists and themed after a decade in Johannesburg’s history, an independent movie house, a theatre space, a coffee shop and restaurants on the ground level. In between, were over 200 residential units, ranging from studio apartments to penthouses. Liebmann lived here for a time, before moving to a neighbouring building.

Main Street Life sold so well he purchased three more buildings – expanding his inventory into office space, additional studio and loft apartments, and even a multi-disciplinary ‘culture laboratory’: the Museum of African Design (MOAD), housed in the sizable premises of an old panel-beater.

Maboneng, from the Sesotho word meaning “place of light”, started to take on the attributes of a fledgling community: there were film festivals at the cinema and live music and performances at the theatre. A weekly Sunday market was launched in the open sections of Arts on Main, drawing increasingly curious suburbanites. Kids from surrounding neighbourhoods began to take advantage of the on-site skateboards, donated by a Main Street Life resident, and could be seen whizzing up and down Fox Street after school and on weekends.

The development also began to draw criticism. Many saw Maboneng as a beacon of gentrification rather than urbanisation and claimed it was pushing out, or at least excluding, the area’s existing low-income residents. It’s an argument Liebmann has consistently dismissed. “Gentrification is an American principle that doesn’t apply in Johannesburg because we have an oversupply of buildings,” he says.

But it’s a complicated proposition. Urban geographer Dr Margot Rubin from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand says that many inner-city areas being used for very low-income residential purposes are “not necessarily apparent for people who are not trained to see”. As she explains it, people will rent spaces on the floor of an old warehouse where they use the tap and the toilet. They’ll be locked in at night and when the doors are opened again at seven in the morning everyone leaves. “But if you were an investor who came during the day, all you’d see is an abandoned building,” she says.

Rubin says that she doesn’t know if any of Propertuity’s developments would fall under the above example, but explains that “when people redevelop an old industrial area and say they’re not taking anything away, they often don’t see it. Urban developers come in with good intentions, wanting to regenerate, but often they lack awareness of the real social economy.”

Propertuity, of course, is not the only private company working on inner-city residential and mixed-use developments. In Braamfontein, next to Wits university, companies like South Point, specialising in student accommodation, and Play Braamfontein (which owns and operates a number of creative and commercial spaces, from studios and galleries to offices, restaurants and retail nodes) have transformed blocks of the former largely commercial district into a buzzing community fuelled by slick coffee shops, grungy nightclubs and hip collaborations, from a local Nike running club to a range of decent public and private art galleries. There are also several companies working on private low-cost housing developments across the city, transforming unused office spaces into residential units, or taking over maintenance and management of run-down tenanted buildings.

What is missing, Rubin says, is the intervention of an overarching formal citywide policy. “The city speaks a good game. The policy documents are out there, there’s an inner city road map… The city is good at making the right noises, but falls down on implementation.” And while the continuing privatisation of inner-city space and development is yielding a form of urban regeneration, it’s not necessarily helpful to larger schemes of sustainable regeneration. “Private sector philanthropy means relying on the private sector to do the right thing because it’s the right thing,” she says. “But we know they are profit-driven. That is really their motive. If profits fall, will they continue with their developments?”

Alternatively, Rubin cautions, if urban development is completely “left to the market, and the market turns, and the inner city becomes prime property for high-income tenants, then we will see gentrification and exclusion. We haven’t seen formal development in very low-income rentals, simply because there is no profit… If we leave it completely up to the private sector very low-income communities are excluded and will continue to be excluded.” It’s this often-subtle web of social and economic exclusion that troubles Rubin about Maboneng, which she describes as a place of light surrounded by areas where, often, the power has been cut off. Where people may be excluded from a space because they can’t afford to buy what is in the shops, or eat from the new restaurants. Where consumerism being shoved in the faces of people struggling to survive.

Liebmann acknowledges it is a potentially “dangerous recipe, the lack of integration between poor people, and people with money”, which is why, from the start, Propertuity and a number of individual Maboneng residents have been involved in various community outreach programmes, from a skate park and art classes to a crèche. Even Rubin acknowledges Liebmann has taken some of the early criticism on board and has “become quite conscientised to the dynamics in the larger areas. What we’re beginning to see now,” she says, may indicate the “next evolution of private sector development”. One that is responsive and proactive.

As the precinct and the business expands, these dynamics are shifting into economic integration rather than just philanthropy. Two of the properties Propertuity recently acquired are low-income residences. Liebmann says they will retain the existing tenants as the intention is to “create a neighbourhood that accommodates people of varying income levels”. Maboneng is also slowly yielding opportunities to local entrepreneurs, including a shisa nyama barbecue stand that has just opened its second branch in Propertuity’s new backpackers hostel, Curiocity. The Zulu phrase “shisa nyama” literally means “burn meat”, and stems from the local practice of “buy and braai” – barbecues where patrons could buy meat from their butcher and then have it cooked on nearby communal open fires. One of Maboneng’s two Ethiopian restaurants is operated by an inner-city alumnus of the Sunday market at Arts on Main, the other is run by an existing tenant who stayed on when the building was bought by Propertuity and redeveloped into a food and retail hub called Maverick Corner. Small businesses like these form the foundation of the precinct’s non-residential base: not just restaurants, but local designers and bookstores.

“A landlord can play a very interesting role in redistributing wealth,” Liebmann says, explaining why he took the decision to subdivide his buildings into small spaces and encourage lots of small entrepreneurs rather than a few big businesses. “If you look at traditional large property developments, they offer floor space of 10,000 square metres. The only way you can afford to take that is to be a massive business.” Liebmann’s model, he says, encourages young, independent initiatives.

A parallel principle has been applied to the way residential properties have been marketed.While the penthouses and two-bedroom apartments attract the most interest, the availability of compact studio apartments, starting from around ZAR400,000 to ZAR500,000 in the new developments have put property ownership within reach of younger buyers. Purchasers tend to be a mix of owner-occupiers and investors, Liebmann says. Even for those who don’t live there, the properties represent a relatively affordable way for individuals to invest in the idea of a regenerated inner city. Residents tend to be on the younger side of 35 and range from ‘creatives’ to students, graduates and those who’ve recently moved to Joburg and are looking for a version of the big city experience.

This is not to say Maboneng is lacking in urban ‘grit’. Getting in and out of the precinct still requires careful navigation of a few dodgy roads. (Walk a few blocks in either direction and you’ll find the original, unimproved city still very much there.) But within the unofficial borders of the district, which are sort of marked out by massive graffiti installations, or public artworks, there’s a kind of magic. Even if it’s assisted by the sleight-of-hand of privilege, and a buoyant sense of urban optimism.

Propertuity has now “sold more sectional title property in the CBD than the rest of the CBD combined,” says Liebmann and the company’s new developments are attracting the same kind of enthusiastic interest. What’s even more interesting about Liebmann’s projects is that, until now, the developments have been entirely privately funded. From the buildings to the upkeep of the surrounding streets and sidewalks, Propertuity was financed entirely by individual investors. This has recently changed, with the acquisition of a multi-million rand funding deal in partnership with local bank, Nedbank. “I don’t think they’d fund just anyone in the inner city,” Liebmann says, “but they feel safe funding us, because of our track record.”

Liebmann’s aim is to develop and complete another 10 of his existing properties during 2014, which will include the launch of new student accommodation, and the remaining 15 properties over the next two years. At the same time, he is formalising the establishment of a City Improvement District (CID) in Maboneng. The CID, he explains, is a private initiative that means “all property owners have to contribute to the upkeep of the area. Government doesn’t have the ability to manage and clean and secure the inner city. The only option is for private owners to club together and do it by themselves,” he says; a CID makes participation compulsory rather than voluntary.

“It seems as if the map has changed, but we’ve just expanded the same plan,” he says. “Maboneng is really just an idea. A way of life. Its borders are very fluid.”


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