Govan Mbeki Avenue fiasco

Millions more to be spent on roadway in 'complete mess' heart of city

In a desperate bid to revive the heart of Port Elizabeth and halt the exodus of retailers from the city centre, the Mandela Bay Development Agency will spend R5m this year alone to begin an overhaul of Govan Mbeki Avenue.
About a decade ago, the agency spent about R80m on the central business district’s rejuvenation project, with the Govan Mbeki precinct the centrepiece of the revamp.
Despite this, the once-bustling avenue at the heart of the city has become a shadow of its former self, with landlords battling to halt the departure of major businesses and to attract new tenants.
The revamp created pedestrian walkways and formalised working space for vendors to sell their goods from kiosks.
In the process, however, Govan Mbeki Avenue – in particular the stretch between the City Hall and Russell Road – was largely turned into a one-way street with fewer parking bays.
MBDA chief executive Ashraf Adam described the street as “a mess” at the MyCity Talks, held at the Feather Market Centre two weeks ago.“Govan Mbeki Avenue needs to be overturned. It’s a mess, it’s a complete mess.
“That mess has led to several things. It has led to the abandonment of the city by capital. Woolworths is gone. Edgars is gone; the banks are gone. Even the Reserve Bank is gone.
“One of the reasons is that the road is a problem. We did it; the MBDA did it,” Adam said.
“And if it weren’t for the students and for government, the CBD would not function at all ... we have to find ways to renew the CBD.”
Agency spokesman Luvuyo Bangazi said on Friday it would announce its plan of action as soon as the planning team had concluded its work.
“Fact of the matter is that the MBDA needs to take action to improve the trading environment in Govan Mbeki Avenue soon and the entire CBD regeneration,” Bangazi said.
“We have budgeted R5m in the 2018/2019 financial year for the adjustments and refurbishments.”
Asked what he meant by refurbishments, Bangazi said these could involve steps to improve traffic flow and ensure the kiosks for hawkers were improved to work better.
“We haven’t budgeted for major road changes in this financial year. But it could be that our planning team will say in the next two to three years we should budget for such.”
The Bemprop Group, which owns about 30% of the commercial properties in the PE CBD between Vuyisile Mini Square and Russell Road, said the revamp about a decade ago had had an “an extremely negative impact” on the CBD.
Dr Suleman Bemath and Lynn van Niekerk, owner and property manager respectively at Bemprop, said: “In the past the PE CBD was an extremely vibrant area and property owners had no problem attracting national retailers at competitive rental rates.
“This has however changed drastically, and we are finding it difficult to fill our vacancies.
“Rentals have largely stagnated and in a number of instances, reduced in order to retain existing tenants, whereas malls and shopping centres show positive rental growth.
“A number of national retailers, which include Edgars, Woolworths, FNB, PEP and most furniture stores, have closed their stores in this section of the PE CBD.
“This is of course of great concern to us as property owners and suggests that these retailers found the CBD stores not to be financially viable.
“It certainly has become much more of a financial strain to retain properties in the CBD of which the majority [are] largely vacant in terms of the office component and therefore reliant on rental income from the ground-floor tenants to try to sustain the entire building,” they said.
“Rates charges are exorbitant, and above-inflation municipal charges relating to electricity and water further impact negatively.”
Bemprop said it had raised concerns about the effect the reduced number of parking bays in Govan Mbeki Avenue would have on business since the completion of the rejuvenation project all those years ago.
“They have mostly been in denial.
“We are, however, very thankful at this point as Mr Adam is the first person who [has] acknowledged that there is a problem and that it has to be addressed, failing which the PE CBD will sadly die,” Bemath and Van Niekerk said.
The MBDA will start working on the alterations in Govan Mbeki Avenue in this financial year, which started this month.
Extensive engagement between it and property owners has informed this decision.
“The property owners – Govan Mbeki Avenue business forum – approached the MBDA early in 2017 to say the feedback they are receiving is that customers say they are battling with parking and movement in Govan Mbeki Avenue.
“The MBDA and the operations team, accompanied by city officials, went on a walkabout in Govan Mbeki Avenue engaging business, formal and informal, to gain first-hand insights,” Bangazi said.
Bemprop has taken it upon itself to get an architect to draw up a proposal on how to increase the number of parking bays in the street.
These include turning Govan Mbeki into a two-way street and either reducing the number of hawkers’ stands or the size of the units.
Other proposals are to move the tree line and street lighting to the east and create new pedestrian crossings.
“The parking in Govan Mbeki Avenue is currently free, and we strongly feel that an interim, more immediate solution would be to introduce paid parking which will alleviate the problem of staff members taking up the limited bays we do have available, for the day,” Bemath and Van Niekerk said.
World Bank urban economist Carli Bunding-Venter said the key to revitalising inner cities was to “get people back to live in CBDs – often done through initiatives like in Cape Town to address crime and grime issues”.
“Every city has pockets of underused and under-utilised land or distressed and decaying urban areas,” she said.
“These ... weaken the city’s image, livability and productivity. They are usually the result of changes in the urban growth and productivity patterns.”
Bunding-Venter recommended that the private sector be lobbied to pump money into urban regeneration Projects.

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