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Anglo’s exit from Joburg CBD raises exodus worries — but real estate insiders say never fear

Anglo’s exit from Joburg CBD raises exodus worries — but real estate insiders say never fear
The offices of the mining giant Anglo American in the Joburg CBD. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

After 81 years, Anglo American will move its headquarters in downtown Johannesburg to the suburb of Rosebank. This has sparked fears of another exodus of multinational corporations from the city’s CBD. But real estate insiders say there’s nothing to worry about.

The move of Anglo American’s SA headquarters from downtown Jozi to an affluent northern suburb after 80 years has sparked concerns about another potential exodus of multinational corporations – similar to that seen in the early 2000s.

Back then, large corporations and financial institutions including the JSE, Investec, RMB and Nedbank fled the CBD and relocated to Sandton. 

Although Sandton and its surrounding suburbs have become SA’s head office location of choice, several firms, including Anglo American, FNB, Standard Bank and Absa, remained committed to the CBD for many years – unlocking millions of rands in infrastructure investments to rejuvenate an area which is still grimy in parts.

According to the Financial Mail (EXCLUSIVE: After 80 years, Anglo flees Joburg’s inner city ), Anglo American plans to vacate several buildings it occupies at 55 Marshall Street, which has served as its SA headquarters since 1939.

Anglo American told the Financial Mail that once Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are relaxed, it will continue with its plan to move about 1,200 workers to a new building in Rosebank – a relocation to be completed by the second quarter of 2021. 

Loss for Joburg CBD

 

Anglo American’s move out of Joburg’s CBD is significant for two reasons. For more than 80 years, the mining firm occupied several buildings in Marshall Street, creating a business precinct. Finding a replacement tenant, or tenants, to occupy the precinct might be difficult considering that SA’s weak economy could impact the willingness of firms to take up new office space.  

Second, Anglo American’s commitment to the CBD sparked an early renewal of the area by the firm and others, with the municipality’s support. Anglo American’s exit could foil future large-scale investments to spruce up the area.

The company said in a statement that it was “proud of our contribution to the Johannesburg CBD. While we’ve been here for many decades, it is critical for us to consider the need for modern infrastructure and a safe working environment for our people”.

The company is not intending to sell the buildings, which it said would be refurbished and renovated,  “so that the buildings can support the development of the inner city – and build on our positive legacy in South Africa”.

 The big question is whether Anglo American’s move will see other multinational corporations also give up on the central business district, and whether this will lead to further decay of the precinct. 

Lawyer-turned-real estate developer, Gerald Olitzki, says Anglo American’s move is likely driven by its evolving operations rather than the CBD’s decline. 

Anglo American is possibly moving into a smaller 35,000m² building at 144 Oxford Road in Rosebank because it generates a large portion of its revenue in offshore markets and not SA. According to the company, about 40% of its revenue is generated in SA. When Ernest Oppenheimer founded the firm in 1917, Anglo American’s mining investments were domiciled in SA. 

Anglo American, which is headquartered in London, has been exiting its SA mining assets over the past 10 years, including gold and, recently, thermal coal, to focus on offshore mining operations. With reduced SA operations, the company would require smaller and more affordable office space. 

Olitzki is a fierce defender of Joburg’s CBD and challenges suggestions that there is no hope for the area. Olitzki is considered an early pioneer of urban renewal in the CBD through Olitzki Property Holdings, a real estate firm he founded.  

When many white-owned businesses packed up shop and moved to the northern suburbs during the 1980s, he bought his first run-down office building in 1989 at Van der Bijl Square (now Gandhi Square) and restored it to its former glory. 

The initial purchase of the building morphed into a full-scale revamp of Gandhi Square as Olitzki, and other property developers, bought surrounding buildings to create a retail and office precinct which runs from the Magistrate’s Court, along Main Street, through Gandhi Square, and up Fox Street to the Carlton Centre.

The big comeback

Instead of an exodus from the city centre, Olitzki says he is seeing a “massive return to the city”.

“Companies that I bought buildings from many years ago, because they left for the north, are returning to the CBD. The likes of Old Mutual, Nedbank, and Hollard have taken space in many of our office buildings. They are now bringing certain divisions back to the city,” he tells Business Maverick.

The affordability of Joburg’s CBD is a drawcard, as a newly refurbished office building in the area could cost about R95/m² to occupy, whereas a comparable office building in Sandton has a going rate of more than R150/m², says Olitzki. 

Another drawcard is that the CBD is easily reached by public transport (bus, taxi, and rail), making it easy to access from far-flung areas. This is beneficial to workers of firms based in the area.

“Niche banks such as Deutsche Bank and Investec draw most of their workers and clientele from the north. The bigger banks such as FNB, Standard Bank, and Absa will always be in Joburg CBD because they draw their workers and clientele from a much broader geographical area. And the CBD works because many of their workers use public transport, which is so much better in the CBD than in the north,” he says.

Suitors for Anglo’s precinct 

MC du Toit, CEO of BidX1 South Africa, an online property auction portal, doesn’t believe that Anglo American’s move signals the death of Joburg’s CBD. 

“It is still home to some of our largest corporates, and the location’s historic charm makes it an attractive option for redevelopment,” says Du Toit.

Although Du Toit says it will be difficult to find a single large replacement tenant for Anglo American’s precinct, the buildings can be broken up and leased to smaller companies. He adds that the large precinct also creates a redevelopment opportunity to introduce retailers and apartment units, making it a mixed-use space. 

Ross Cornish of Seeff Johannesburg CBD supports Du Toit’s views. 

“It [Joburg’s CBD] is a high-density area with lower rentals, thus ideal for a mix of residential needs, and many old commercial buildings have been redeveloped into accommodation to meet the growing residential demand in the area”. BM

This article has been updated and corrected to include comment from Anglo American.

 

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