Maboneng. Picture: PROPERTUITY
Maboneng. Picture: PROPERTUITY

It’s a Friday afternoon in downtown Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct, and a colourful throng of people is filling the outdoor seats of restaurants and bars. Young professionals are decompressing over a post-work glass of wine, and students are sinking into what might be their fourth beer. Among the diverse crowd, the only common denominator is a carefree vibe — everyone seems to be having a good time. It’s a scene that wouldn’t have been imaginable in downtown Joburg until five or six years ago.

Once an abandoned area fraught with crime, Maboneng has become a thriving inner-city hub — and the most dynamic part of town. The area has evolved substantially over the past decade, but the January ribbon-cutting of Hallmark House, a slick hotel and residential complex, marks a pivotal moment, making this once-downtrodden part of town a prime spot for both locals and overnight travelers.

The neighbourhood’s revitalisation is a well-told success story, which comes courtesy of the young entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann, a serial property developer and the founder of Propertuity Development Company. He started off small, purchasing a section of abandoned warehouses (now Arts on Main) and leasing spaces to established artists and design studios. He invited local and global brands to use the warehouses as event spaces, lured acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge and art entrepreneur David Krut to occupy studio spaces, and suddenly, Maboneng was on the map.

The project grew steadily and eventually, in 2011, he christened Market on Main, a weekly bazaar with food and product stalls, to help make the neighbourhood a magnet for suburbanites and out-of-towners.

Ready for the spotlight

Until now, Maboneng has been seen as a vibrant day-trip option — supported by rapid growth of local shops and restaurants — but by nightfall, many locals retreat to their own areas, and travelers return to the comforts of Joburg’s leafier, ritzier neighbourhoods, such as Westcliff, Sandton, and Saxonwold (where the Saxon, one of the swankiest hotels in town, is situated).

Although Maboneng had some lodging offerings, such as Curiocity Backpackers and the affordable but artsy 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel, the area was still missing something: a hotel worthy of the international jet-set and of the neighbourhood’s own clout.

Enter Propertuity’s most ambitious project yet: Hallmark House, whose exterior, communal spaces, restaurants and bars all bear the design signature of the renowned Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye. A modular building with a jet-black façade, Hallmark House is Adjaye’s first residential building in Africa — and, at a relatively towering 16 stories, it’s the new beacon of Maboneng.

However, what looks daunting from the outside is actually very welcoming on the inside, with apartments that cater to all budgets, from sprawling 82m² penthouses to studio apartments. "It’s a mixed-income community in one building," says Liebmann. Beyond the apartments, the hotel has 46 sleek and simple rooms; their walls are done up with enormous panels of African-patterned textiles — each one different to the next — with beds, benches, and throw pillows upholstered in complementary colours.

World-class amenities for all

Hallmark House’s ground floor is dedicated to communal spaces, of which the most exciting are the two newly opened restaurants, Eug’s Place and The Potluck Club; the latter is a spin-off of one of Cape Town’s best restaurants. The chef, British-born Luke Dale Roberts, has for years been sitting on the cusp of global household status: his flagship, The Test Kitchen, is one of the rare African restaurant to rank among the world’s top tables.

Then there’s Loof Coffee bar, a branch of a Joburg fixture, peddling macchiatos and cortados brewed from specialty, custom-roasted beans. Underground is a jazz bar, speakeasy, and barber — the latest de rigueur amenity for any hip hotel. This October, in time for Joburg’s summer season, the building will unveil a spa and bar on the rooftop, with 360° views of the city. And for those keen to explore beyond the hotel, there’s a complimentary shuttle, which rotates every 30 minutes, making stops at Maboneng’s pioneering destinations such as Arts on Main and the Museum of African Design (MoAD).

For Liebmann, a real priority is drawing guests and residents from all walks of life. "For me, it’s a facilities-led, mixed-income building where there’s lots of diversity," he says. "But one of the cool things about it is that David [Adjaye] has an apartment here."

An unprecedented success story

From the perspective of those who’ve spent time in LA’s downtown or London’s Shoreditch, Maboneng might seem like just another rejuvenated district. But the scale of Maboneng’s success — and its unlikelihood, considering Joburg gets only 2.5-million international visitors a year, compared to Los Angeles’s 45.5-million — is staggering. Since 2009, the number of Propertuity commercial tenants has increased from 38 to 609, and the commercial space has expanded from 4,417m² to 112,537m².

The number of foreigners coming into the neighbourhood is also increasingly substantially. "We are looking at an annual growth of around 25% to 30% of international visitors. We’re getting lots of people from the UK, Germany, and the US," says Liebmann.

For many locals, it’s a real lifeline. "I’m from this community, and when Maboneng began, I finally saw an opportunity to make my mark," says Bheki Dube, the founder of the Maboneng hostel Curiocity Backpackers. Now travelers can see the neighbourhood through Dube’s eyes. In 2011, Dube started Main Street Walks, a company aimed at getting people to rediscover and engage with the surrounding area on foot. "When we started, we only did tours on weekends. Now we have them every day with a minimum of 10 people. At Curiocity Backpackers, the minimum stay was one night — now it’s three," he says of the area’s rise.

Looking ahead

Liebmann is nowhere near finished with his work in Maboneng. "The vision is to create a large, sustainable, integrated urban community," he says, pointing to a list of 20 additional buildings he’s currently developing. Opening next is Drivelines, a residential development made from up-cycled shipping containers; it will be unveiled in August with affordable units designed by LOT-EK, a New York architectural studio that focuses on sustainable design. And following on the success of Maboneng, Liebmann is expanding his sights to Durban and Cape Town.

"I hope Maboneng creates an integrated area where people from all walks of life can exist," says Dube. "People are starting to realise that Joburg’s a people’s city — it’s about connecting with the people."

Bloomberg

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