The rebirth of Woodstock

Baumann’s and Pyotts played an intrinsic role in the commercial life of?Woodstock for decades. The warmly evocative scent of baking used to waft over the suburb if the wind blew in a certain direction.

And then they were gone.

Once a thriving commercial part of the city, Lower Woodstock became the ugly face of urban decay. Gangs, drugs, vice – all the scourges of the inner city – flourished there.

In 2000, the Palms Centre in Main Road opened its doors. Out of the shell of the old Baumann’s factory rose an elegant industrial wood-and-steel structure housing a top-end décor centre anchored by furniture designers and manufacturers, Wetherlys, and supported by a host of design-oriented shops.

Six years later, from what was the dilapidated Pyotts factory, emerged the Old Biscuit Mill in Albert Road, offering a fresh shopping experience that merged the Neighbourgoods Market with art galleries, jewellery stores, décor stores and even a nightclub, Decodance. The old mill is still there, the heart of the precinct’s reincarnation.

The two developments mark an area of Woodstock that runs adjacent to the CBD and between Main and Albert roads and that has, over the past decade, with a few hiccups in between, become a thriving commercial district.

‘The success of the Palms Centre, together with neighbouring developments such as Newmarket Junction and Buchanan Square and the New Clicks head office, acted as a catalyst for commercial development of triple-A-grade office precincts such as the District and the Boulevard,’ says architect Chris Bam, who originally designed The Palms. The centre is in the process of changing hands from Ellerines to Omnicron, and there are significant plans afoot to unlock a large amount of unused bulk and provide around 1 000 additional parking bays. ‘With the new developer, Ian Odendaal, we will take meticulous care to retain and build on the strength of the original concept whilst introducing several major national anchor tenants, and provide additional office and line-shop space,’ Chris says.

Woodstock now shows the face of urban renewal, of old buildings recycled. The creative industries have flocked there. And big business is following.

Baker Street Properties, who market the Boulevard, a property regarded as the gateway to the CBD, recently announced that Swiss Re, Medscheme and Alexander Forbes have together signed leases for 20 000m2. Other tenants include Quirk E-Marketing, The Teamworks, Web Africa, Bester Burke and CN Furniture, also creatives.

Woodstock’s redevelopment is due to ‘the natural growth path of the City Bowl’, says Glen Mackie of Baker Street Properties. ‘Properties can be purchased at affordable prices.’ But he warns that urban renewal has to take place on a mass scale or it could stall. ‘We need the cooperation of the City and CIDs to keep up the pace.’

If Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has her way, it could happen sooner than he thinks. In her State of the Province address of February 2009, Zille said, ‘Central to unlocking and creating wealth in the province is the regeneration of the CBD. This will be one of the province’s mega-projects. In the next five years, in partnership with the City of Cape Town, Transnet and the National Department of Public Works, we will expand the central city through new infrastructure. This will accelerate growth, attract investment and generate more job opportunities.’

Woodstock, of course, being adjacent to what is currently the CBD, could feel the impact sooner rather than later.
Glen says the recent economic downturn has put the brakes on the boom for the short-term. ‘I predict that within two years Woodstock will follow Somerset Road and Kloof Street in its renewal.’

Aquacor’s Matthew Quinton agrees, but puts a positive spin on it: ‘Owners were getting greedy, putting a huge price on land and buildings, which radically curtailed development and investment. Now they’ve been bitten with a healthy dose of reality and prices have come down. Makes it worthwhile for developers again.’

‘Money that’s been invested into the area over the past few years? Close to a billion? More? Who knows? But it’s big numbers.’

‘Why? It’s right on top of the CBD. Excellent position. But it doesn’t cost as much as town. There are good-sized sites. It’s close to all arterial roads.’ He adds that it’s the very grittiness and edginess of the suburb that has attracted the creative industries that are underpinning the commercial redevelopment of Woodstock. It’s unapologetically urban. ‘Glass, air-conditioned offices on the 28th floor, these aren’t for ad agencies. Whereas that kind of environment is reassuring for banks or insurance companies.’

Dianne Ormrod, a residential estate agent who’s been operating in the area for 20 years, comments, ‘Woodstock is a large suburb. Upper Woodstock, above Main Road, is quite a small area, but it has a wonderful Victorian character. Below Main Road is the commercial district and it too is divided up into pockets. But in between these kinds of areas are old houses and old streets where families have lived for generations. Many of the slumlords have gone. So it really is a mixed suburb on many levels. And it can only continue improving.’

Dianne is of the opinion that the commercial developments and residential upliftment in some parts of Woodstock feed off each other: ‘You’ll find a lot of creative people buying houses in Woodstock; many journalists, artists, a crime writer, photographers, architects, magazine people. Commercially, there are art galleries, film companies, design studios, décor shops. There is a sense of a creative suburb at play. Many people work from home too.’

Antony Payne of Glenkey Construction says, ‘We tested commercial and residential development opportunities close to the City Bowl by renovating a house we owned in Upper Woodstock. We found significant interest in Woodstock, even during the downturn in 2009, provided that any development or redevelopment was a professional job and not just a quick DIY lick of paint, and that the property price was market related. Buy-to-rent is still an option, but I think the preferred route would be upmarket redevelopment of old buildings with a balance between investors and owner-occupiers. I believe Woodstock has the development potential if managed correctly to be to Cape Town what the Docklands was to London during the late 1980s/1990s.’

One of the most creative spaces is Buchanan Square, a hop and a skip away from The Palms in Main Road. Caroline Coates of Redefine Properties says they have already spent upwards of R200-million on the redevelopment of the buildings. ‘We saw the potential in Woodstock some time ago and when Ogilvy – the large advertising agency – moved in, something sparked. We saw fantastic opportunities to refurbish and become part of this exciting urban renewal.’

The sectional-title aspect of Buchanan Square is attractive to owner-occupiers. Martin Bingham, owner of Kasush, an upmarket hair salon, has invested in a 52m2 double-volume space. ‘I’d been renting space at the entrance to the Waterfront, but I really wanted to buy, and town just wasn’t an option. I also needed a place with plenty of safe parking for up to 10 clients at a time.’

He investigated the area and drove around tirelessly. One of his clients, an architect, told him to check out Buchanan Square. ‘It was perfect. Easy access from the Southern Suburbs, where most of my clients live. Equally good from the northern suburbs. And the clients could park their X5s inside and leave the windows open with their cellphones and Chanel sunglasses on the seat. It’s that safe. It’s like a self-contained village.’

Martin says he hasn’t lost a single client since relocating. ‘Buying here was a no-brainer. The restaurant Nonna Mia has moved next door and we’ve both bought our shared deck space too – great for clients to sit out there while their hair colour is taking. I love the fact that we’re in a creative hub, not a corporate mortuary. Plus it’s a great investment. I’ll be getting rent for it in 20 years when I want to retire.’

Caroline says many of the previous tenants of Buchanan Square took the opportunity to buy the space they’d previously rented. ‘Mandy Retief at Orange Films was the first. Many followed. Much of the attraction – apart from the price of R7 500/m2 – is that they’re not buying off plan. Each space is unique.’ She has also commissioned a niche magazine, The Buchanan, for the tenants and prospective buyers. The magazine profiles tenants and spaces and even explores subjects such as urban renewal and other businesses in Woodstock. They’re all there: Michael Stevenson Gallery, IG Productions, Chameleon Casting, Lisa Firer Ceramics, Soft Light City, Stuart Boyd Architects… The list goes on.

Down in Albert Street, the buzz is all about the Bromwell. The old hotel, once home to hookers, drug dealers and desperadoes, is now a boutique mall and popular outdoor bar. The clientele is young, urban and seriously stylish. Next door, a massive old red-brick warehouse is transforming into the 20-room boutique Graffiti Hotel.

Andries van Wyngaard, marketing director of the Mad Group, says he believes the foresight and investment of Madison Properties helped drive the boom and led to redevelopment on a significant scale: ‘Harbour Place. 360 Degrees. Residential apartments and numerous other residential complexes. The revamping of the Biscuit Mill into an avant-garde, chic shopping experience with thriving Saturday and Sunday markets. The Bromwell Boutique Mall. High-rise triple-A office parks, such as Ogilvy. A new 176-room hotel, opening end of April. Graffiti Boutique Hotel opening end of May. Antique furniture shops, unique fashion boutiques and restaurants…’

Matthew, whose residential development, 4 Church Square, is one of the area’s success stories, says there are still risks attached to Woodstock, despite the investment and the upbeat sentiment.

Woodstock’s urban edginess, a product of its mixed-race communities and commercial life, is its main attraction. ‘The “out-of-the-box” species prefer the genuineness of Woodstock!’ Andries says.

Broll’s William Wallace says the area lends itself to the creative community because of its strong heritage aesthetic. ‘The quaint little buildings and streets have that London vibe to them.’ He believes the trend towards refurbishment is best. ‘There are large tax incentives, and the old buildings have lots of character – something you don’t want to take away from the area. Investing will get you a good return, and whether commercial or industrial, your property will be paid off in 10 years, and there will be good growth on your property over the years in terms of value. You are currently looking at yields of between 11% and 13%.’

In a nutshell, Woodstock is ‘a good-looking investment with good-looking returns’, according to Matthew.

Words Glenda Nevill Photographs Denver Hendricks :