Durban: green shoots of a renaissance

Although regeneration of the inner-city is chequered, there remains much to enjoy.
The rooftop garden at 77 Monty Naicker Road, developed as part of the Priority Zone pilot project.

Although there are green shoots of renewal emerging, a fully fledged renaissance of SA’s third-most populous city is far from assured.

I stayed at Curiocity, on the first floor of Ambassador House, an Art Deco beauty on Monty Naicker Road just a few minutes’ walk from the Durban International Convention Centre and the central business district (CBD). It is roomy, clean and classy, an effortless overlaying of the old and grand with the young and hip.

While it had spacious dorms (R225 a bed per night), single rooms from R690 feature a double bed and desk. It’s great for business people on a budget who are sick of cookie-cutter corporate lodgings.

I liked working in the airy, parquet-floored lounge, tapping away under a naked incandescent bulb with a symphony of street sounds flooding in from huge sash windows.

Pulling pints of local craft brew Poison City from behind the brise soleil bar, the friendly staff bantered with the foreign backpackers lolling on Scandi-style sofas.

That morning, I had gone to Station Drive, a hip, mixed-use precinct in a gritty industrial area near Moses Mabhida Stadium. It was a Sunday and The Morning Trade – an indoor market in The Plant, a former warehouse – was at full throttle.

I sipped yummy iced chocolate from Inca Cocoa and snacked on Scotch eggs. After drifting through the design and fashion stores neighbouring the market, I headed to Distillery 031, which distills Durban-inspired craft spirits, including absinthe, brandy and rum.

I had a gin and tonic made with D’Urban Durban Dry Gin — a London Dry-style gin that features 10 botanicals including African rosehip — the perfect antidote to the muggy heat. From a menu with mostly US comfort food with a South African twist, I picked the scrumptious deep-fried truffle mac ’n cheese.

The bar and restaurant is closed while the distillery expands, but tastings and tours explaining the distillation process are still conducted on Saturdays (it’s best to book in advance).

One floor below the distillery is S43, a restaurant that serves arguably the best burger in the city, and is also home to That Brewing Company.

Over the course of a pleasant evening I sampled a few brews. The nicely bodied, slightly tart American Pale Ale was my favourite, soaked up by a pulled pork bun.

Curiocity makes sure that you make the most of your time in Durban. Activities on offer include movie nights on a Monday, yoga and salsa in the courtyard on Tuesdays, evening cycles through the inner city on a Thursday and surf lessons daily. The hostel also offers tours of the inner city.

I headed out with Mondli Cele of Propertuity, the developer behind Johannesburg’s mixed-use Maboneng Precinct.

Propertuity established Curiocity in collaboration with Bheki Dube, who also heads its original Maboneng hostel. It has bought 19 buildings in what it christened the Rivertown Triangle, a 1km² area between Durban’s International Convention Centre and the beachfront.

Propertuity intends to convert former, often derelict factories and warehouses into office, residential and retail spaces. While huge murals brightly interrupt the urban decay, and the neighbourhood occasionally hosts slick concerts and events, the Durban edition of Maboneng is far from becoming a reality.

Originally envisaged as a market featuring gourmet food stalls, artisanal producers and other creatives, Rivertown’s first offering, 8 Morrison Street, has been a flop. Unable to draw sufficient crowds of well-heeled suburbanites, the venue was converted into a co-working space. Now even that has shut.

Construction commences soon on Propertuity’s first residential development for the area, the optimistically named Rivertown Rising, a 10-floor tower with 317 units to rent.

Propertuity’s regional executive, Luke Maurel, says that other residential buildings will only be developed “as a response to the market demand”. And, in turn, this will result in the development of commercial and retail space in the area.

So far Propertuity seems to be having a better time of it in the CBD, where it owns five buildings. Cele took me around Pioneer Place on Dr Pixley Kaseme Street, which has corridors lined with fashion designers and tailors in small pods.

We also went to Pixley House where Cele lives, a soaring Art Deco tower painted black and gold that has flats for rent and for sale at affordable prices. The residents we encountered were all young, hip and black.

As Cele and I walked towards the sea, I constantly craned my neck to see Art Deco marvels and Tropical Modernist masterpieces surrounded by hustle and hustling with commuters rushing and hawkers hawking. Slightly anarchic, grubby and not altogether safe, this is a CBD where past and present swirl together with intoxicating effervescence.

Later, I went to The Chairman nearby for an evening of jazz that was every bit as dizzying and discordant as the city. The club has long bar counters and clusters of comfy chairs, its warren of rooms a jumble of styles, Bohemian whimsy colliding with pre-revolution Havana. For years it has stood out as a lone haunt of the flush and plush in this seedy area.

It looked as if that would change with the impending construction of Propertuity’s Turning Point, but plans for the residential block were quietly shelved late in 2017.

Down Mahatma Gandhi Road towards uShaka Marine World is the Durban Point, site of a mixed-use precinct proposed by the eThekwini municipality and UEM Sunrise, a development company owned by the Malaysian government.

Hampered by court cases, progress has been glacially slow on the project, which by some estimates will require investment of R35bn. It will be decades before the Point’s five precincts – a mix of residential, retail, and hotel accommodation – reach completion.

Encouragingly, though, in March construction finally began on the first piece of the Durban Point jigsaw puzzle: an extension of Durban’s beachfront promenade from its current terminus at uShaka Marine World to the harbour’s northern breakwater. The 750m stretch will cost the city R300m.

The city’s chequered history of urban renewal is visible at 77 Monty Naicker. On its rooftop is a sprawling, slightly ramshackle garden featuring indigenous plants and vegetables.

The building was once home to Priority Zone, a pilot project launched by the city’s architecture department in 2010 with the aim of cleaning up a 15km² swathe of Durban’s inner city. The project’s interventions were based on the premise that a safer, cleaner urban environment would drastically reduce the vandalism of municipal infrastructure and help to instil a sense of pride and ownership.

Priority Zone employed a holistic approach, working with council departments such as parks and waste management, and bringing in private sector companies to provide top-up services (ensuring, for example, an rise in the number of times a day that litter was removed).

It oversaw the creation of a new central market for informal traders and improved the maintenance and security of the area surrounding the City Hall, home to the Natural Science Museum and Durban Art Gallery, to create a more tourist-friendly environment. It placed unarmed security personnel on the streets, helping to reduce petty crime to negligible levels. In 2014 Priority Zone was relabelled Urban Management Zones and absorbed into the city’s area-based management unit. Its budget and the privately run supplementary services it outsourced were drastically scaled back.

Wendy Gibson-Taylor, who had run the project since its inception, finally left in December 2017 because she was tired of working “with a team who just sit in pointless meetings”, she says. “The city isn’t being regenerated. In my opinion, nothing’s happening. It’s all talk.”

Gibson-Taylor says the city is failing to tackle the growing number of hijacked buildings because “nobody wants to take responsibility”.

She fears many of the gains the Priority Zone made have been gradually reversed. Crime and vandalism have increased again after the canning of 24-hour private security patrols in 2015 because, at R1m a month, they were too expensive.

Repeated requests to the Urban Management Zones for comment went unanswered.

Jonathan Edkins, the council’s former architect who was instrumental in getting Priority Zone off the ground, says he believes the effective neutering of the project was because it was seen by city hall as a privatising of public functions.

Now an independent consultant, Edkins is cautiously optimistic about the city’s recently launched local area plan for the inner city. But he stresses that the council “needs to develop the capacity to change those lists and words into developments and buildings”.

There is now a shortage of development management skills in the city, which is slow to collaborate effectively with the private sector.

“Because we’re so scared of the corruption bogey, procurement processes are now strangling any kind of development,” Edkins says. He cites the proposed new city library, which was conceptualised more than five years ago but has not yet been assigned an architect.

“There’s a balance between efficiency and ethical release of work,” he says.

Edkins hopes the council will realise that, when it comes to urban renewal, big catalytic urban projects “are not the be all and end all” and support should also be provided for small ecological projects that are holistically informed by an area’s history and social, cultural and environment. He says that working in consultation with locals, planners and developers “need to think about what we’re interfering with, and make sure the intervention is rooted in where we are and what makes this space and place unique”.

An example of this approach is Edkins’s work with the Spice Emporium, on the edge of Rivertown Precinct.

The iconic store will form the heart of a new Spice Quarter that will feature a 140-unit residential tower with a rooftop garden that grows ingredients and boosts the area’s biodiversity.

There are also plans for a spice museum and a test kitchen for cooking demos and classes. Eight security guards have already been employed to patrol outside the store, contributing towards the creation of a safe corridor that will link the International Convention Centre with the beachfront.

Edkins says that 30 people are working on the project on a pro bono basis because they are committed to improving the city and believe that projects like this can truly make a difference.

“It’s illustrative of what the private sector can achieve with not a huge amount of resources, with innovation and collaboration,” he says.

This article first appeared in the 3 May 2018 edition of Business Day under the headline “Renewal spices up central Durban”.

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