If inner cities are to survive and thrive, out-of-the box thinking is crucial. Here Rob Kane, CEO of Boxwood Property Fund and chairperson of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID), explains how Boxwood has redeveloped buildings to seduce employees back to a warmer, more tactile, softer work environment.
We have an enormous opportunity to attract talent from all over the world to work here: 52 % of South Africa’s fintech start-ups are located in Cape Town.
Our focus is to buy run-down office buildings with potential – and then to upgrade them. Over the last two years we have learnt some valuable lessons and we have been humbled and enriched in the process.
Covid-19 demanded that we reinvent our approach to our buildings, to our neighbours, to the streetscape and to our tenants. The result is that our redeveloped buildings are more people focused; they are more adventurous.
A CHANGING CITY
Pre-Covid-19, we intended starting development work worth R900-million. This plan needed a rapid rethink as, unsurprisingly, most property owners cut all building spend to the bone. There was zero visibility of when (or if) Covid would end, and the media was swamped with articles predicting the end of CBDs. It was scary to contemplate.
Our response was to drill into why cities exist. Large cities have been around for over 2 000 years and the essence of their longevity is that people want to gather.
A key component of this is that we are social beings. One of my “lockdown books” spoke to the reason why Homo sapiens triumphed over the much stronger and bigger-brained Neanderthal: the latter was a loner, and the former was a social being. Being social made us more efficient and allowed us to collectively outwit the Neanderthals.
One of the rerurbished atriums at The Felix, previously Picbel Parkade.
At Boxwood, we concluded that a nasty virus and fast Wi-Fi at home was going to change, but not destroy, our city centres. As a result, we halted our large development but decided to accelerate the redevelopment of three significant office buildings at a cost of R70 million. We were certainly swimming against the tide.
When lockdown eased and we were allowed back to the office, the team spent an afternoon testing our new strategy.
We walked the streets of downtown Cape Town and viewed about 25 buildings, including our own. The results were shocking. We could not find one foyer that we loved. Almost without exception, the offices were utterly faceless and uniformly boring.
In addition, the streets felt as hard as nails. After 15 months of home comforts, how could anyone find this environment appealing? We knew that being in an office was more efficient for business, but we also knew that we had to entice and seduce the office workers back to the city.
They would want a warmer, more tactile and softer work experience. And when they stepped onto the street, that street would need to be interesting, have a vibe to it, and be able to entertain.
We realised that our pre-Covid concepts were hard and “corporate” so we had to start again. Our catch phrase was “sophisticated but quirky”. Consequently, our buildings are more people-focused, have bold, fun colours, and spill onto beautiful streetscapes.
We are planting trees, have commissioned lots of street art, built stylish atriums as chill/work/ entertainment areas, built food markets, made lovely “pause” areas, started collaborating with adjacent property owners to create friendly precincts, and importantly, created environments where small entrepreneurs can get established again.
During the pandemic we accommodated our tenants where necessary, nursed along many start-ups, started a boxing gym, funded artists for street art, and generally gave more back to the community than we normally would. There is a stronger sense of community than before.
- This article first appeared in The Big Issue #304, guest edited by Refilwe Moloto of CapeTalk.
- Kane is the former CEO of JSE-listed Texton Property Fund Limited, which he started in 2006, and listed on the JSE in 2011. Since inception, Rob grew the fund to an asset value of R5.5 trillion, comprising 350 000 m2 of commercial, retail and industrial buildings throughout South Africa.
IMAGES: Boxwood Property Fund, CCID