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'Subject to change' is the only constant in Maboneng

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Subject to change. That could be the logo of Maboneng, and that’s what I like about the precinct. 

 

Some things are constant – like converting defunct warehouse buildings into hip places to live and work and chill in. But since its inception, Maboneng has had its antennae carefully tuned into the buzz on the ground. If something didn’t seem quite right or the dynamics have altered slightly, it’s subject to change. 

 

Like adjusting to the first couples who moved in. Now, four years down the line, they’re having babies and need a green space. No problem. Another building was purchased with a large empty inner space, and once the perimeter has been converted into apartments, the inner area will become a garden courtyard.

 

“There are now between 10 and 15 babies in the precinct. Things are subject to change,” says Hayleigh Evans, brand and cultural manager of Maboneng.

 

The precinct on the eastern edge of the CBD has been a renaissance of the inner city. It’s the baby of Jonathan Liebmann, and consists of the wonderfully successful Arts on Main and the busy Main Street Life. He says that the precinct attracts some 5 000 people a week, with a resident and worker community of around 1 000.

 

It’s all happened so quickly – in mid-2009 William Kentridge moved in as the anchor tenant at Arts on Main. The city’s top galleries quickly followed, establishing special spaces for themselves in the five warehouses that make up Arts on Main. 

 

Liebmann has bought 35 buildings and has invested R500-million into the precinct. By the end of next year that will reach R1-billion. 

 

This money has bought 230 residential units so far while another 220 will be created this year. A big-time dreamer, Liebmann has built himself a house on the roof of one of the buildings, after living in Main Street Life for the past few years. 

 

He has given a TEDx talk, and was selected as a Global Shaper to represent South Africa at the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa last year. In 2010 Maboneng picked up the “relaxing and playing” award from the Johannesburg Development Agency. 

 

He says of his five-year vision for the precinct: “To become the best neighbourhood to live, work and visit in the world. And to see continued growth of all the new entrepreneurs and to become a global example of a mixed income, mixed use model.”

 

But it’s more than just buildings. The newest scheme is to place reject shipping containers along the pavement in Kruger Street, to function as trading places for artisans, like tailors, cobblers and milliners. These will complement traders like a hardware merchant and a butcher, in the precinct for the past 30 years.

 

It means incorporating the informal sector into the sophisticated formal sector that has moved into Maboneng. They consist of graphic and fashion designers, bankers, architects, laywers and internet geeks who sit designing web games, in all 60 businesses. They rent space in The Main Change, one of the completed conversions, which offers one floor of 1 100m2 of boardrooms, offices, reception, a coffee shop and a lounge space, with one of the fastest internet speeds in town. This great space is called simply, Open, and is open 24/7.

 

That’s just one building. Main Street Life has 190 residential units, some penthouses, including the 12 Decades Hotel. The 360o rooftop has seen several reincarnations, the latest a conversion to a restaurant, while retaining its boxing gym for residents.

 

There’s Revolution House, with 33 trendy units, 5 penthouses, and soon-to-open rooftop apartments. These apartments were mostly sold off plan. In another conversion, called Urban Fox, 8 apartments will be created, with Sir Stan’s Athletic club in the basement. Fox Street Studios is a four-storey conversion consisting of apartments and offices. 

 

Artisan Lofts on Commissioner Street is taking shape too, consisting of 35 units. “Ooo …,” says Evans, with some envy as to whether she should have waited before buying her place in Revolution House, as we walk around the show apartment. It’s spacious with wide windows facing Hillbrow and the CBD, and balcony perfect for dusk dinners with awesome views.  

 

On the street again she points out other buildings that will be future conversions: Maverick Corner on Fox Street, which will be a mixed use place, with wine bar, courtyard, Whippet Cycles, the Guns and Roses music store, and a late night venue, especially for students who want to party longer. A building several blocks up the road, to be called Remed’s View, will be converted in a 100-bed student dorm, with a ground floor library. Another will be Backpackers CurioCity, with a Chelsea-style market store, with produce sold by small-time market gardeners. Then there’s Situation East, a future residential conversion.

 

But Maboneng is a place to relax too. Cocoon is a spa, yoga and healing centre, with its wooden walls enclosing you in a comforting cocoon. One floor up is The Living Room, a luxurious green place where you can have coffee and an eco meal while choosing a plant for your office. Owner Taryn Jacobson says the space is versatile – it can be converted into a corporate function area, or a great dance floor under its tented roof.

 

“As the community has expanded, it’s become about creating attractions for people who are conscious of lifestyle and enjoy the offerings that the urban landscape can give them,” says Evans.

 

There’s 12 restaurants in Maboneng. Daily smoothies and coffees are available at Uncle Merve’s. Sharp Braai is close by, and both are simply fold-out metal counter tops, with stools produced from the kitchen, barely the size of a single garage. Little Addis serves Ethiopian cuisine, while Eat Your Heart Out is a Mediterranean deli. The House of Baobab serves experimental African cuisine. The Blackanese Sushi & Wine Bar offers “All you can eat sushi Tuesdays”, with Saturday sushi-making classes.

 

Evenings can be filled with a movie at the art-house cinema The Bioscope, or comedy at POPArt or People Performing Arts, a space for actors’ workshops, rehearsals, and small scale theatre. There’s Writers’ Tuesdays at Pata Pata. The Museum of African Design is a multi-disciplinary exhibition and performance space, to launch in October. It’s a glorious space, up to four storeys high, high enough for big dreams. Artists Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter have a 500m2 studio next door. Says Hobbs: “There’s fantastic energy here.”

 

Market on Main at Arts on Main is a regular Sunday market, with great grub and a chance to stock up on veggies for the week. But there’s so much more on offer: artists’ walkabouts, etching, 3D print and linocut demos, craft brewing and cannelloni-making lessons. And dancing the salsa on the rooftop of Canteen. 

 

“People have once again realized that the city is the heart of Joburg,” says Liebmann.

 

And in between the angular industrial buildings sits the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Commissioner Street, a two-storey fairytale Beaux Arts building, with a leaden dome over the corner bar entrance, dating back to 1899. Liebmann would like to buy it but it’s not for sale. There’s a plan for him to restore and maintain it, with the old pub becoming a hipster bar.

 

But who knows, that too might be subject to change. 

 

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