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Johannesburg is entering a new phase in its life

An avid exponent of chaos theory (or so his employees claim) Oresti Patricios has long been on the cutting edge of the media and advertising industries. From a teenage entrepreneur pioneering wedding videos in the 1970s to doing his social media MBA at GIBS when Twitter was barely a twit he has always driven his vision of dominating African media and brand intelligence. Founding OrnicoGroup in 1984, Oresti now fronts an organisation of more than 100 dedicated individuals that services the top 300 local advertisers either directly or through their agencies and various other private and governmental clients. He is also chairman of SAMMA (SA Media monitoring and measurement association) Opening offices in Nigeria in 2010 was a milestone - the first in a major African expansion plan for OrnicoGroup to standardize media and brand measurement taxonomies across the continent. When not preaching his African vision Oresti can be found tweeting at his wifes coffee shop.

I’ve made a watershed decision in the life of my company, Ornico. I have moved our headquarters from Sandton to Johannesburg’s City Centre. Several considerations guided my decision, ranging from the practical to the ideological. I have no doubt that one day, in the not too distant future, Johannesburg will feature prominently in global lists as a great place to invest in, to work in, and to live in.

I’ve been reading the Monocle Quality of Life Survey, which ranks top cities around the world in terms of “livability”. What Monocle means by “livability” is that hard-to-define quality that makes a city a desirable place to live in. What sets the list apart is that the research takes into account factors that benefit both local inhabitants and tourists. The criteria for getting a ranking also includes affordable housing, green initiatives, local public transport, the crime rate, independent book shops, a good business climate as well as more subjective issues like joy of life, human tolerance and whether the city has a thumping night life. Tokyo took the top spot for the 2016 index, followed by Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, Munich and Melbourne.

Japan has another two cities on the Top 25 list — namely Kyoto and Fukuoka. Australia also boasts another two in addition to Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland. But only two US cities make it onto the list: Portland, Oregon and Honolulu, Hawaii.

Sadly, Johannesburg is not on the list. Nor is any other sub-Saharan African city. The same thing with the Telegraph’s Top 20 Cities to Buy-to-let Property. And no metropolis in Africa figures amongst the “global elite” in the AT Kearney Global Cities Index and Global Cities Outlook.

My hope is that one day, in the not too distant future, Johannesburg will feature prominently as a  great place to invest in, to work in, and to live in. In fact I’m more than just hoping. In 2016 I took the decision to move the my company’s head office from leafy mink-and-manure suburb of Sandton to the centre of Johannesburg’s inner city, by acquiring a national heritage site in the city.

There were several reasons for this. First, we needed to be closer to the market. Johannesburg has become an increasingly vibrant, cosmopolitan space, and we want to be able to draw on that and provide more down-to-earth research and insight for our clients.

Second, there is a burgeoning tech scene in Braamfontein — for example, the Tshimologong Precinct, part of a project by the JCSE (Joburg Centre for Software Engineering) that provides incubation support for tech startups; and WeThinkCode, a school that provides two-year courses in coding. We want to be part of this evolving digital ecosystem.

Finally, we have grown to a point where we needed more space. We decided that we would rather adapt an existing building than build something new.

We acquired the old Natal Bank Building situated at 90 Albertina Sisulu Road (formerly 90 Market Street), Johannesburg in January 2016, and have been working hard for the past year to restore the grand old site to its former glory. The building was provisionally declared a national heritage site in 1990, and is the oldest standing bank building in Johannesburg.

The architecture and interiors are unique. The design of the building is typical of the era: Neoclassical, with a broad arched window dominating the front, and Ionic columns on all three levels. Inside, the mastery of the construction, the detail in the counters, lights and pressed ceilings, the volume of the ground floor, the typical curves so common to architecture of its time, and the balconies that lead out and overlook Johannesburg — all speak to a time of opulence in the burgeoning economical heart of South Africa.

Why the move? Cities are the beating hearts of a country. Trade, industry, commerce, legislation and culture are the lifeblood that provides the entire country with what it needs.

Historically, cities around the world have followed a similar pattern of urban decay, followed by rejuvenation and prosperity. I believe that Johannesburg is headed for a major comeback. It’s clear the city has entered a new phase, an era of renewal, and I want my company to be a part of this growth, and to contribute to building commerce in the inner city.

Constructed after the Anglo Boer War for the Natal Bank at a cost of £29,847 (a princely sum at the time), the building was first occupied in 1903. It was located just one block from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the National Bank of the South African Republic. The Natal Bank overlooked the old Market Square (Now Beyers Naude Square), on what was then Market Street.

The area soon developed into a precinct of “flagship” buildings, demonstrating  the confidence that investors had in the City of Gold. Most of the important buildings of the time were built around Market Square and Government Square (now Gandhi Square), just two city blocks away. Many are still standing and are considered among the finest examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the country.

In 1914 the Natal Bank was taken over by National Bank, which in 1926 was taken over by Barclays Bank. In 1961 it was used by a theatrical group, the Bank Players, as a storage and rehearsal centre; and in 1963 it housed the SA government’s Republican Intelligence, forerunner to the infamous BOSS (SA Bureau of State Security).

In 1978 Barclays converted it into the Barclays Bank Museum, which then became the FNB Museum. The building was provisionally declared a national monument in 1990, and it is the oldest surviving bank building in Johannesburg.

What has been important in terms of the regeneration of the site is that the building itself was completely empty, and not inhabited by anyone, which meant that refurbishing and owning the building wouldn’t put anyone out of their home. Despite being left empty for many years and although the building had started to deteriorate, the basic construction was solid.

But still there was quite a lot of work to be done. We sourced young inner city talent to take care of the building and wet work. A local firm managed the repairs and renovations. The interior refurbishment was done by StudioA, an international award-winning boutique interior architecture firm based in Johannesburg.

Around the world, well-managed cities have the potential to offer employment opportunities. Firstly, thriving businesses employ more people directly. Secondly, supplies and services are sourced from businesses nearby. Supporting businesses, like food and grocery suppliers, provide a service to these employees, and benefit from the influx of capital. It’s a virtuous circle.

Inevitably, many people will choose to live closer to the city centre, and areas like Braamfontein have already seen renovation and construction taking place to provide living spaces. Developments like the Braamfontein Neighbourgoods Market and the Maboneng Precinct bring the wealthy from the suburbs, to buy and to play.

Inner city rejuvenation is a double-edged sword, and critics of this gentrification point out that increases in property values force poorer people out and into worse areas. A case in point is Woodstock, in Cape Town, where people who have owned their homes for generations are now unable to pay the rates and taxes. Ironically, Woodstock was one of the only areas that managed to resist attempts by the apartheid government to enforce segregation.

What is happening in Johannesburg CBD is more complex, and I believe that in the long run will bring prosperity to all its inhabitants. Inclusivity is the key to spatially transforming Johannesburg. Landlords need to help make the city habitable by restoring buildings that have become run down. It’s important that we trade with our neighbours and find suppliers in the inner city.

Cape Town’s city manager, Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, rode the World Cup 2010 wave and transformed the city into one of the world’s top holiday destinations (according to The Guardian and The New York Times). This after the inner city had degenerated into a place that tour guides refused to enter, preferring to take tourists to the outlying areas and the commercialised V&A Waterfront.

Because of a limited budget, Makalima-Ngewana’s Cape Town Partnership approached property owners and businesses, and persuaded them to accept increased rates and taxes, despite a recessionary environment. It took several years, but the effort paid off: by 2015, inner-city crime halved from the 1999 figure, and the residential population increased by some 76%. Bigger brands moved back into the city, and Old Mutual converted its old headquarters into prestigious residential apartments.

Johannesburg is a very different city from Cape Town, and we’re going to have to do things differently. This is very much up to current city mayor, Herman Mashaba, who has produced a five-point plan to kick-start regeneration. Mashaba proposes an open tender system, getting rid of slumlords and illegal occupants of abandoned buildings, restoring law and order, and making a pro-poor billing system, so that the city’s poor will have access to free basic services, including electricity, water and waste removal. He is yet to outline a plan for a housing roll-out system that will address homelessness, especially of those who are to be evicted.

How to finance this will be a challenge for the tycoon-turned-politician, but if he can succeed in his aims of improving revenue collection and rooting out wasteful expenditure, I am optimistic that this will coincide with more businesses moving back to the city and feeding into the virtuous cycle.

Right now it feels like we’re at a “tipping point”, as more businesses make the move and Johannesburg enters a new phase in its life. That phase is to realise its place on this continent as a vibrant, prosperous African city. DM


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