Beyond Buildings: Street level thinking in Braamfontein

New and proposed developments to the east of Braamfontein in Johannesburg are attracting investment and residents.

Two major routes form the focus of Braamfontein’s new energy. The first is the highly-anticipated north-south connection along Rissik Street between Park Station and its related transport activities, and the planned future Metro Centre Precinct. The second is the proposed pedestrianisation of Juta Street, from its eastern point adjacent to the M1 freeway through to Rissik.

Public and private sector visions for Braamfontein’s public realm, which has been evolving for almost a decade, informed the current work on both routes.

The first of these was the Braamfontein Super Plan by Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, commissioned in 2009 by a young South Point Management Services with the intention of introducing a network of public spaces to connect South Point’s properties. The heart of these, at the intersection of Melle and Juta, resulted in the public square known as The Grove.

The second was the Walkable Braamfontein Plan – commissioned a few years later by the Braamfontein Improvement District (BID) and funded by the BID and the University of Witwatersrand – to rally new landowners around an urban vision. This report, completed at the beginning of 2016, identified insufficient pedestrian public space for what is now an area largely characterised by affordable and student accommodation as a major challenge.

Ndumiso Davidson, CEO of South Point Management Services, says: “Over the last 15 years, Braamfontein has been transformed from predominantly commercial to predominantly residential. So the idea of a promenade and linear park speaks more to the needs of the community that now exists in the area.”

Braamfontein Gate

At the junction of these two routes stands the imposing Braamfontein Gate building, formerly known as Total House, which is currently undergoing a major refurbishment and transformation from its previous commercial activities to middle-income residential.

The project kicked off in mid-2015 when Local Studio Architecture & Urban Design was appointed to come up with a plan to retrofit the 30-storey concrete and glass tower with a range of unit types. Several design iterations later, approximately 400 one- and two-bedroom apartments are under construction, ranging in rental from R4500 to R8000 per month.

The building essentially comprises two 15-storey buildings on top of each other, separated by an open service floor, each with its own lift core. Completed in 1976, the building had been vacant since a fire in June 2014 damaged the floor slab on the eastern side of the 29th floor and destroyed the building’s electrics.

The architectural response to the existing structure was to re-use as many elements as possible, working with the colour palette, signage and character of the existing building.

Internally, a rigorous grid of lightweight walling was set up to divide the floor plates in the most efficient way possible, allowing for about 16 units per floor. The prefabricated system, FutureHouse, comprises an expanded polystyrene core encapsulated in high tensile steel galvanised wire mesh, which was gunnited on either side to ensure good acoustic and thermal qualities.

The units all have identical specifications. The entire hot water supply is generated by heat pumps located on top of the core and western portion of the roof slab. The fire-damaged slab on the east of the top floor was condemned and removed, opening up a triple volume space that was covered with a lightweight roof and now has the potential to be repurposed as an events space.

On the ground floor, which is a tenant area, there is a business centre and a gym as well as a soccer pitch, playground and pool outside.

New pedestrian routes

StudioMAS Architecture & Urban Design proposed a new connection between the transport activities at Park Station and the planned Metro Centre Precinct building.

Pierre Swanepoel of studioMAS says: “The Metro Centre campus is disconnected from the surrounding urban fabric – it has never been linked to the rest of the city from a pedestrian point of view.”

At the end of 2016, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) appointed Local Studio to undertake a proposed linear park along Rissik Street as a way of providing a safe pedestrian promenade between Park Station and the Metro Centre Precinct. The concept is to provide very simple terraces to deal with the slope, with green spaces and adequate shade. Seating will be incorporated into the terraces, with additional streetlights and low-level LED lighting within the terraced platforms.

A traffic study for this intervention is currently underway. It will also evaluate the impact of almost completely pedestrianising Juta Street – with access allowed only for residents and delivery vehicles.

The last 30m section of Juta before Rissik is currently a servitude to the north of Braamfontein Gate, which the developer is willing to open as a pedestrian thoroughfare. This will facilitate a continuous east-west connection through Braamfontein to Rissik.

Public space partnerships

The project has become a test case for how the private and public sectors can work together to create a better quality, better managed urban environment for city residents.

Chapman believes this collaborative model – with capital investment by the public sector and private sector investment in terms of operations – is the way of the future.

Stefan van Niekerk, strategic urban designer at the City of Johannesburg, concurs: “The reality is that the city can only do so much in terms of investment into, and maintenance of, public spaces. So we need to be defining our investment in terms of where the city’s mandate begins and ends.”

As pilot partnerships, the new developments in Braamfontein hold great promise for public-private engagement that can begin to express the joint vision for good urbanism.

By Karen Eicker

See earthworks issue 37 Apr-May 2017 for the full feature.

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