Central Cape Town’s facelift takes shape

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Long Street was “dark and dangerous” when Kurdish restaurateur Baran Kalay opened Mesopotamia eatery on this reveler’s stretch almost two decades ago.

Kalay says Cape Town’s central business district (CBD) has changed for the better since then. And this is matched with an increased demand for residential and commercial property.

Kalay recalls that back in 1997, when he opened shop on Long Street, “everything closed at 5pm because there was a lot of drug dealing in town”.

“When I first rented Mesopotamia the city was very dark and dangerous. For the first few weeks I couldn’t run a business. One day, with my broken English, I told the city’s electrical department the street lights need to be fixed,” says Kalay.

Baran Kalay. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Baran Kalay. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

“They said they couldn’t fix the lights on Long Street because their guys were not safe to go there. I realised what Long Street was like and that it was going to be difficult to run my business.”

Kalay says police officers at that time asked him “if they could watch the streets from my balcony, but I said no because then the criminals would kill me later”.

A few years later commercial developments such as Century City, located beyond the CBD, lured businesses out of the city too. Property prices plummeted.

“Loop and Long streets were for sale. There were buildings that were being sold for R1-million and now it’s worth R15-million,” says Kalay.

In the late 1990s, the City of Cape Town embarked on a turn-around strategy and worked with the non-profit Cape Town Partnership (CTP) to rejuvenate the CBD. Surveillance cameras went up on street corners. Private security firms were employed to keep the streets clean.

CTP’s chief executive Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana says they turned the city from “just too much crime where nobody wanted to live” to an attractive playground.

It was just before the Soccer World Cup in 2010 when the CBD “started seeing a conversion,” she says.
“Corporates moved out and we started seeing offices converted into residential units. There was a property boom. The sale of those units showed there was growth in town,” says Makalima-Ngewana.

“A lot of those units were sold and resold while still on plans and not yet built. Then we had our first R1-billion investment in the city when Mandela Rhodes was built. Today we have just over 5,000 residents living in the CBD and we want to increase that.”

Makalima-Ngewana says the next challenge is to ensure that locals in particular can find affordable properties to buy or rent in the CBD.

“Cape Town’s CBD is the most unaffordable space compared to other cities in the country. We have such a small space and we can’t build up very high. We need to make sure that we maintain sight lines with Table Mountain. A lot of the downtown area is heritage and we can’t lose that,” says Makalima-Ngewana.

As a result, she says, “developers find it’s easier to go out of the city and develop where they don’t have all these restrictions”.

CTP is working also to ensure that the CBD has a mix of residential and commercial development, adds Makalima-Ngewana.

“At the last count there were close to 2,000 creative businesses in the CBD. We have many restaurants in town and a lot of informal trading,” she says.

“The problem now is that it is highly expensive to buy an apartment in town. It will cost on average R1-million for an apartment that’s not that big. We are looking at creating affordable housing in town. People should be able to rent and buy in town.”

Kalay has meanwhile gone from renting space to owning property in the CBD. He says his apartment block comprises “60% locals and 40% foreigners”.

“There are many foreigners who stay in the CBD. They don’t want to live outside the city. There are many students who are studying English in Cape Town. Locals who work in town want to live in the city,” says Kalay.

Residents say they find living in the city ideal for its proximity to their jobs. It has various challenges though.

Capetonian Evangeline Brandt moved to the CBD almost two years ago.

“It’s convenient and central; only five minutes from my work. It’s a bit more expensive but I save on traveling costs. It’s worth it paying an extra bit for the convenience. It would be a huge change if I need to move,” says Brandt.

She also does not “really feel unsafe”.

Evangeline Brandt. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Evangeline Brandt. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

“There are mostly homeless and street kids around. They always bother but they aren’t out to hurt you. I never felt threatened in the CBD. I have friends from the suburbs who come to me and we explore town and walk around at night.”

Garreth Bloor, the City’s mayoral committee member for economic, environmental and spatial planning, says the local government wants to create a CBD with a mix of business and residential spaces.

Bloor says this “promotes vibrancy and economic opportunities”.

“Greater resident activity also promotes greater safety through passive surveillance. Increasing the resident population also has an impact on travel demand management and sustainability. While most are trying to commute to the city, others are commuting in the opposite direction or not needing to use their cars at all to get to work,” says Bloor.

Insight into city living…
A recent survey by the Cape Town Partnership offers insights into city living in Cape Town.
Between 2001 and 2011 the CBD residential population tripled in size. It now sits at 5,286 residents.
People prefer to live in the inner city because it is close to places of work, it offers entertainment options and ease of access to other neighbourhoods in Cape Town.

Challenges to living in the inner city include social development issues, parking and affordability.
Among the reasons for having more inner city residents are increasing economic opportunities, decreasing carbon emissions due to traffic and creating a diverse city.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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