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Surviving Covid: Reimagining Cape Town's property sector

by Sharon Sorour-Morris 31 May 2022
Construction in the CBD

Commercial, residential and retail property is being redefined in post-pandemic times. At the recent Western Cape Property Development Forum conference in the Cape Town CBD, the experts weighed in on what the future holds.

Game-changing trends, spawned in the pandemic during two years of change, have had a dramatic effect on the built environment, with the pillars of the property sector facing huge challenges.

This was the view of top South African trend expert and analyst Dion Chang, who delivered one of the keynote addresses to the sold-out 9th Annual Conference of the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF).

Chang, who owns Flux Trends, said that three of the four pillars of the property sector, namely commercial, residential and retail, had faced huge challenges due to their inability to pivot swiftly and adapt to the new Covid-19 landscape.

The two-day conference, with the theme “From Surviving to Thriving in the Built Environment”, brought together over 300 property development and construction industry professionals under one roof for the first time in two years to deliberate on a plethora of topics including infrastructure procurement policies, the role of micro-development in delivering affordable housing, attracting and pitching investment in the Western Cape, and the rise of active citizens.

Delegates were addressed by Western Cape premier Alan Winde and Cape Town Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, who spoke of the need to create an enabling built environment so that the private sector could drive job creation and attract investment.

From left to right: CEO of Boxwood Property Fund Rob Kane, Flux Trends founder Dion Chang, Neigbourgood CEO Murray Clark.


Speaking on Day 2 on how property had survived the pandemic, Chang said the Work From Home trend had been followed by the Great Resignation. “Now, with companies intent on calling their workers back to the office, there is resistance and workers are not willing to return to the same environment: a hybrid team has different office needs and employers will have to adapt the workspace and design it around new needs.”

This meant commercial landlords and employers had to refit the post-pandemic office. “We are seeing huge changes to the way offices are designed and the recalibration of commercial real estate.”

With the weekday nine-to-five office paradigm fast becoming a relic of the past, flexible working hours and hybrid working arrangements were the new normal with some companies even considering implementing a four-day workweek, with Chang’s Flux Trends leading the way. “I put my company on a four-day workweek in October and it is working well,” he told delegates.

Staid office spaces also had to be reimagined to serve a different purpose. “There needs to be adaptive re-use of property,” Chang said. “The word ‘community’ keeps coming up in research at the moment … buildings are no longer just about bricks and mortar anymore.”

Boxwood Property Fund's The Felix, reimagined to create a more interesting workspace for tenants.


Contributing to a panel discussion on the topic, Boxwood Property Fund CEO and CCID chairperson Rob Kane said his property development company had been forced to “reinvent our approach to our buildings, our neighbours and our tenants” so that they were more people-focused and “more adventurous”.

“There is no doubt that we're in a tough cycle due to the pandemic, but we believe it is just that: a cycle. Having said that, we gave a lot of thought on how to encourage people to come back to work. We walked through the Cape Town CBD and viewed about 25 buildings – including our own – found them all to be bland, boring and hostile spaces. So, we embarked on upgrades costing over R70 million to create warmer and more tactile office environments that would deliver a softer work experience,” Kane said.

As a result, Boxwood’s “sophisticated but quirky” buildings are people-focused with “pause” areas that spill out onto landscaped streetscapes. Boxwood also went out of its way to retain its tenants, with the company’s income statement “taking a hit” to keep tenants afloat.

Neighbourgood;s Bree Street Workspace in the Cape Town CBD.


Murray Clark, founder and CEO of Neigbourgood, a co-living and workspace company that owns and operates Neigbourgood locations across greater Cape Town, including three in the Cape Town CBD (Neighbourgood East City, Neighbourgood Reserve and Neighbourgood Bree St Workspace) that are changing the living and working landscape of the city, praised Kane’s innovative approach but said it was not “reflective of the entire sector”.

Clark, whose business model is founded on the concept of creating community hubs that provide "members" with a "fully connected living experience that integrates accessibility, community and freedom", doubted that "big" landlords had "the DNA and entrepreneurial spirit to reposition space in the way that is needed to make it sustainable.".

However, WCPDF chairperson Deon van Zyl praised private and public sector property developers “who dare to dream about the future; who, by putting spades in the ground and pouring concrete, are investing in the next two-to-three decades – the life cycle of their buildings”.

Van Zyl called out “those responsible for these desperate times we now find ourselves in” including CEOs and public sector managers who had not yet called their staff back to the office while watching small businesses – who relied on the patronage of office workers – go out of business as a result; those who believed government could solve all problems; those who cancelled tenders without any regard for job losses, who underspent on public capital budgets and who sent money back to Treasury “without thinking about the practical implications. It’s time to recalibrate how we think and act in our country … we cannot tolerate the so-called precautionary approach that allows just any dissenting voice to veto investment and growth.” 

There was much room for optimism, too. "As the WCPDF, we believe that a new day is indeed dawning and we all look forward to the year ahead as we continue our valuable work on behalf of the built environment.”


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