Focus on The Strand, Western Cape, South Africa

Two roads take you from the N2 into the Strand: the R44 takes you past the sprawling Somerset Mall and a multitude of new office and semi-industrial parks; the other is Main Road which takes you down a path reminiscent of Voortrekker Road in Goodwood with its second-hand furniture shops and used car lots. If you’ve never been to the Strand, neither road prepares you for what you’ll find when you reach the seaside.

When I was there five years ago on a wintery Sunday drive I remember seeing huge, stark ‘70s-style apartment blocks along a wide deserted beachfront interspersed with what looked like residential hotels but equally stark. Behind these lay a low but vast horizon of typically South African red-brick houses from another (thankfully) bygone era, off-set by green and white plastic awnings. There were also a lot of caravans, churches and mosques. The area didn’t make a big impression.

Now I’m back at the seaside, and am astonished and amazed by what I see on the one hand, and more than a little disappointed on the other.

The ‘70s monoliths are still there, and most of the brick houses. But a new breed of Dubai-style buildings line the shoreline, ultra-modern glass and stainless-steel structures, gravity-defying curves and – something almost entirely missing from the ‘70s blocks – huge, open entertainer-sized balconies. All quite amazing. The disappointment sets in when I see the state of the central business district (CBD) and what has become of the beachfront and the Strand Pavilion.

The point about the beachfront is that – apart from a lovely beach – there really isn’t one. Amenities are few and far between: there are a small sprinkling of restaurants along nearly four kilometres of coastline but when I try to find a coffee shop open after 1 p.m. on a Saturday, there isn’t anything suitable to be found. I settled for a cola at the very blue but bleak Sandbar Café, sunk into a windswept embankment like a Second World War bunker.

Speaking to the locals, there’s a chance the beachfront may be reborn, if the community (because the Council, it seems, has other priorities) gets its act together.

To understand how Strand’s rebirth may happen, you need to understand its original conception. Together with Gordon’s Bay, Somerset West, Lwandle, Macassar and Sir Lowry’s Pass, the Strand forms part of the Helderberg – a visually stunning area some 50kms southeast of Cape Town, bordered by the warm waters of False Bay and the magnificent Hottentots Holland and Helderberg Mountain ranges. Macassar is important to the history of the Strand as it’s from here that its first permanent residents arrived. Macassar is the site of the kramat (shrine) of Sheik Yussaf of Bantam, one of the South African Muslim community’s holiest places. Exiled to the Cape by the Dutch in 1694, the Sheik died five years later and while Macassar became his final resting place his followers – many fishermen among them – found the sea off Macassar inhospitable and ventured further east, settling a few kilometres away along what is today known as Strand’s Mosterds Bay.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Strand had a vibrant fishing industry. By the mid-nineteenth century it was also a thriving vacation resort – the oldest on the Western Cape coastline – after local magistrate Daniel van Ryneveld allowed farmers from the Boland to camp and eventually erect holiday homes on his farm. Known then as Somerset Strand, the seaside suburb of Somerset West, the area soon outstripped its parent and, in 1897, became a municipality in its own right.

For years its remained popular with Afrikaans holiday-makers many of whom become permanently ‘stranded’ – with its high number of retirees, it’s been called the Afrikaaner Sea Point. Development spurted briefly in the ‘70s when, to accommodate its increasing popularity, the first of the seafront high-rise blocks went up along the dunes to the northwest of the tiny CBD. Then, with a few exceptions, it all kind of stopped.

Monte Jordaan, managing director of the development marketing company, Multi Projects, explains: ‘There are reasons it got stuck. When the first high-rises came with apartment-style living it was a paradigm shift because, traditionally, the Strand was a typical Afrikaans farming retirement village for areas like Paarl and the Boland, and it was a fishing village.’ In spite of the large Muslim community, it was also the last beach in South Africa to remove its apartheid signs. (It’s poetic to note that nearly 20 per cent of the new wave of beachfront development has been bought by members of the Muslim community.)

In the ‘80s the Gautengers arrived and by the mid-’90s foreigners were taking a look. There really wasn’t much that tempted them to buy. Working with local developers such as Paarl-based Aslo Properties (amongst others), Multi Projects stepped into the gap. ‘We saw the need picking up around ‘98,’ says Jordaan. ‘We had individuals from Gauteng and overseas coming into the area saying it’s got fantastic beaches, fantastic scenery. But they were looking for a more sophisticated design and there was nothing on offer.’

Wavecrest (the first block to be marketed by Multi Projects) emerged, which in turn spurred on the building of the much-discussed Atlantica, with its huge green sailboat shape and exclusive lifestyle offering. When it hit the market in 2003, it sold at an unprecedented R18 000/m². From then everything exploded and there’s currently more than R1.7bn worth of property under construction or recently completed in the beachfront vicinity.

This includes two other projects being marketed by Multi Projects: the gravity-defying 81-unit Ocean View with its purposely skew columns to hold the weight of the building, and Topaz, which will be the highest residential block along this coastline, and one of the tallest in South Africa. (Buildings along the Strand have bulk but no height restrictions.)

The architects were local and Jordaan is passionate about our talent. ‘There are 400 professionals from the Western Cape working in Dubai on the best projects in the world. We’ve got fantastic architects, fantastic engineers and we always think the best comes from overseas. Our architects and engineers are proving that they are up there with the best. But it all depends on the mandate of the developer: if he actually gives a mandate to an architect and says, "Here is a piece of ground, design something spectacular," and the architects are allowed to utilise their creativity, wonderful things can happen.’

Speaking to Strand locals, a few concerns about the new developments are noted. Some estate agents worry that property is becoming too pricey and places are starting to stagnate on the market – both new units as well as older properties – in particular the old homes along the beachfront whose owners are holding out in the hope of selling high to developers. Although there are prices of just on R38 000/m² on offer for beachfront apartments, the average selling price is between R9 000 and R11 000/m², according to Property24.com’s Sold Price Index (SPI).

Ian Riddle, principal of Pam Golding Properties, Strand, believes that the foreign market is not as lucrative as it’s made out to be. ‘Most foreigners are looking at €190 000 to €220 000 (about R1.5m- to R1.75m) for a property.’

But there are still great investments to be had: you struggle to find a two-bedroom unit for under R500 000 in Cape Town, but I spotted a number in the windows of Strand estate agents, along with quite a few houses under R800 000.

Other concerns shared by everyone I spoke to are the lack of infrastructure and the decay of the CBD, which sits ironically in the best part of the beachfront as far as tourism and trade are concerned. Two main reasons are blamed for the rot: the opening of the mega Somerset Mall in the mid-’90s, and the closure in 2002 of the heart of the local Strand community – its precious jetty.

The jetty, which lies next to the Strand Pavilion at the junction of Main and Beach Road, was the primary launch pad for local fishing boats. In spite of this, there will be little – if any – money from local government to fix it. The community has launched its own ‘Save the Jetty’ Trust to raise R12-million to repair the jetty and upgrade the existing facilities to an acceptable level, including the local informal trading environment.

Sanet Collard, the Trust’s volunteer secretary (everybody’s a volunteer on this one), explains.‘In October last year, we got permission from the City of Cape Town to go ahead on certain conditions. In January we had a public-participation meeting and the mandate we got from the public was to replace the jetty with something similar.’

Only this, and nothing more. I get the feeling the Trust was hoping for a bit more vision. ‘You must remember that there are seven old-age homes in the Strand. There’s a lot of empathy and sympathy for what was before and not everybody’s happy with the development that’s already taken place.’

Businessman Sedick Crombie is the chairman of the Strand Jetty Trust. His family have been part of the Strand for more than 200 years. ‘We learn all the time and we never had any preconceived ideas about what we wanted here. But as we go along and get specialist advice we realise that what was feasible 40 years ago is not necessarily feasible today. Also, if you expect people to contribute R12-million voluntarily they will want a return on that investment. So we are caught between two debates: you can’t privatise the jetty because it’s a public utility, but yet you expect business to contribute.’ A report of the Trust’s findings and recommendations will be presented to the public at a second meeting this month.

Everyone I speak to tells me that what keeps the CBD going is a handful of longtime family businesses such as Friedman & Cohen, a much-loved old-fashioned department store (which recently celebrated 100 years of trading) and Millers, a traditional small-town clothing store and local school outfitters. I wonder why they’re still here.

‘We’ve stayed because we’ve been doing business in the Strand our entire lives,’ explains Cedric Miller. ‘I took over this business from my parents 30 years ago. Friedman & Cohen is into its third generation. People are loyal to us. We’ve all grown up together. We complain like hell but it’s still home.’

Miller’s vision for the Strand is not to take on Somerset Mall, but to complement it. ‘I say bring the seagulls back to the Strand. Everybody knows it was a fishing village and that’s what you’ve got to use, what it was originally structured for. Create a nice upmarket fishmarket – like Hout Bay did – so that people will say, "Let’s take a drive to the Strand and see if they’ve got nice fish today."

‘And develop a more upmarket shopping environment. We can’t go head-to-head with the Mall. We’ve got to go smarter. But you’ve got to create the right environment to attract this. I don’t have the money for that kind of development, but if I did I’d really go for it.’

It’s a sentiment shared by many in the CBD, among them attorney Daantjie Malan, the initiator of an exciting concept developed with a team of architects and flow feasibility consultants. They plan to revitalise the area opposite the Pavilion into a waterfront with shops, restaurants and even a canal. Small hitch: it has to get through council, which since centralisation of municipal activities means the Cape Town City Council. In the beginning even the politicians were excited, but it’s been three years down the line now.

‘The red tape is the stumbling block. Here we’re looking at closing just a little street – Pickle Street – but it’s taking forever. If an investor wants to come and put his money down, he’s not going to sit for that long to see whether something’s actually going to happen.’

Along with the fact that committed developers are required, there are other problems. Most local businesses have bought into the concept and agreed on the price, but one or two insist on holding out. Which is a big problem as the options taken up with the willing property owners expire in March.

‘I don’t know if I should call it human frailty or miscalculation,’ Crombie says. ‘When we read that they’re selling in Camps Bay at R25 000/m2, we expect the Strand to sell for the same. And that has been one of the major stumbling blocks for progress. Market-related value will place an owner’s building at R1.2-million but he expects R4.8-million. I think people are shooting themselves in the foot. The Strand CBD is of such a nature at the moment that certain property owners are prepared to continue with the development and simply cut out those who are not inclined to give their property into the scheme at a market-related price. Eventually when the development starts, and they are on the sidelines, they will then want to come in and at that point the developer may say to them, "I’m now only prepared to pay you R900 000."

If everyone does not come to the party, it means that after March 2006 the entire process will have to start all over again.

‘I’m starting to lose steam,’ sighs Malan. ’But I’ve been sitting in this area for close to 20 years now and my office looks down on the sea and the jetty and all I think about is the potential.

‘I believe that something will happen – I can see the picture for the whole Strand.’



Words: Carola Koblitz Photography: Derek Fannin - The Property Magazine
- www.thepropertymag.com