ShapeShifter

How to turn a dilapidated inner-city crime hotspot into a hipster hangout

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Jonathan Liebmann, saviour of the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg’s inner city, credits traveling around the world – Berlin in particular – for inspiring him to create Propertuity, the development company instrumental in downtown Joburg’s regeneration.

“When I came back to Joburg I realised that something was missing here. Living in the suburbs and being a young person just felt wrong,” says Liebmann.

“Berlin is a very creative, culturally diverse city. It’s also the most affordable city in the developed world, comparable to Johannesburg, in fact. It really trumps places such as London and New York which aren’t accessible if you’re not very rich.”

Birth of an entrepreneur

Upon returning to Johannesburg Liebmann started a number of businesses. “My first business was a mobile coffee shop called Café Pronto,” says Liebmann. “I had to cruise around to different markets to sell coffee. I learned how the city works; it’s dynamics. I also owned 17 laundromats all around Gauteng; which gave me a great understanding of what it means to be a tenant. All the businesses I started before Propertuity were in some way location based or influenced, so it was always about manipulating geographies.”

Liebmann was only 18 years old when he bought his first fixer-upper, an old flat in Waverley, for R15 000. He made about R50 000 profit and the bug bit. “I started buying small properties off plan and flipped them before the buildings were even finished!”

Barely 24, Liebermann started his first big development – Arts on Main – the first building in Maboneng. “I lived in a converted factory in Aucland Park that I converted into a live-and-work space. I realised the potential of turning old factory buildings into higher value live-and-work spaces. I grasped that I could do a whole development; not just one apartment. I wanted to be part of the regeneration of the inner city so I started looking around for old warehouse spaces.”

Though absolutely dilapidated, when five small warehouses came up for sale on the east side of the inner city, Liebmann jumped at the opportunity to acquire them. “The east side of the city was empty so for me it was an opportunity to redefine an entirely new urban lifestyle.”

Where angels (used to) fear to tread; the birth of Maboneng

Before Propertuity revolutionised Maboneng it was derelict and abandoned. This, however, didn’t stop Liebmann from throwing lots of money at a place where nobody else was prepared to invest. “What others missed, and what I understand, was the fundamental value of those properties,” says Liebmann.

Arts on Main, Propertuity’s first project, was a bunch of artists’ studios, creative office spaces and galleries. It was so successful that William Kentridge, probably Africa’s most well-known artist, made very large property purchases. Soon every single unit was sold or rented out.

“I started thinking about how to create an entire neighbourhood around Arts on Main,” says Liebmann. “That’s when I came up with the idea of Maboneng, which means ‘place of light’ in Sotho. The dream was to create an enlightened neighbourhood.”

To realise this dream Liebmann had to create a residential component to the neighbourhood. “We launched our second development, Main Street Life, which consists of 194 apartments, a 12 room art hotel, a cinema, a theatre and restaurants on the ground floor that really opened out onto the street.”

Propertuity has developed around 500 apartments since the completion of Main Street Life. “There is a huge demand from people who want to live in the CBD. About 70 percent of Propertuity’s developments entail residential property. By the end of 2015 we’ll be close to 1000 apartments and by 2020 we aim to have 20 000 people living there.”

Old and young want a piece of downtown

Propertuity's target market used to be creative types and young professional but they’re now finding all sorts of people who are looking to engage with and live in the inner city. “We’ve got people of all ages in our residential portfolio; from 20 up to 65,” says Liebmann. “It’s popular because we’ve created a ‘walkable’ culture. People increasingly shun cars. It’s all about an urbanist principle of living and working in the same neighbourhood. We’re not only creating homes, but also retail and office spaces. Some of these people own small businesses and live in area.”

Another factor in Maboneng’s success is affordability with apartments starting at R295 000. “We have both occupiers and investors,” says Liebmann. “Yields are phenomenal; coming in at 11 percent.”

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