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Sea Point points the way to urban regeneration

The Point, Sea Point, Cape Town. The Point, Sea Point, Cape Town.

Is Sea Point doing a 360˚? From the beach playground of the 70s and 80s to retail wasteland of the 90s and early 2000s, to present day -- a High Street once again alive with restaurants both simple and chic, coffee bars, salons and shops -- the urban heart of the Atlantic seaside is on a major comeback, and a sustainable one at that.

"Sea Point is Hillbrow's alternate reality," says architect Robert Silke, design partner at Louis Karol Architects. Silke, who grew up in Sea Point in the 80s, remembers the days when its High Street had pharmacies on every block, toy shops in abundance and the air smelled of soap and perfume.  Then, at Sea Point's commercial height, came the development of the V&A Waterfront. Locals and tourists flocked to the Waterfront, leaving Sea Point's restaurants and shops empty. Eventually they collapsed. Main Road became Third World, and crime crept in.

Why has Sea Point since reinvented itself while Hillbrow seems likely to further wallow? Silke explains: "There are many differences between the two. In Sea Point, there has always been less fear, and many of the original property owners held onto property. With its large satellite population of domestic workers, Sea Point attracted non-white South Africans first as apartheid and Group Areas Acts collapsed, and later on, foreigners from other African countries. Cape Town is an older city with a more mixed race history; a Creole town that knows how to loosen up. There were enough property owners who realised that just because Sea Point was becoming more mixed didn't mean it was the end of the world. Ultimately, it was Sea Point's Third World nature that saved its High Street."

Over the last several years, lower rents have attracted a bevy of new businesses, particularly restaurants. Like La Bohème and La Brixa, sister restaurants started by an ex-Caveau wine expert, modern French restaurant La Mouette and Andy's Sushi Bar, launched by a former Willoughby's chef. There's also a branch of Nü Health Food Cafe along with many new Chinese restaurants and markets. "It's still very affordable to start a restaurant in Sea Point," explains Silke.

"We are now seeing the second wave in Sea Point's renaissance, which is not to be confused with gentrification:  a shift towards wealthier residences and businesses that results in the exclusion of lower income groups," says Silke. The current renaissance means sustainable and genuine regeneration; not just a temporary boom. A lot of kudos go to the police, who have dealt well with crime, as well as the National Government, who rolled out the successful MyCiti bus system, says Silke. And then there are Sea Point's visionary players, determined to champion it into a new age.

Two of Sea Point's most devoted champions are Saul and Paul Berman, brothers and self-made magnates in the construction industry. The Bermans grew up in Sea Point and never left. Unlike others, they never stopped believing in it. Twenty-five years ago, Saul started his business, and was joined by brother Paul five years later. Over time, they have bought seven properties in Sea Point, all with the aim of improving the area, one project at a time.

Nowhere is the newly revitalised Sea Point more evident than The Point, the massive redesign and rebuild of the Checkers Galleria on Regent Street, now in the final stages of completion and already mostly let. The double-storey Galleria built in 1984, which was centred around a Checkers store, was purchased by the Berman Brothers for R52m, and has been totally transformed into a light and airy nine-storey shopping and lifestyle centre servicing all ages and incomes. It is currently valued at R300m.

The Point's tenants range from the completely redesigned Checkers store, which is reputed to have  the biggest Kosher market in the Southern hemisphere, to Knead, the artisanal bakery and café, which Silke calls "the throbbing heart of Sea Point," to Sportsman's Warehouse, BUC SWEAT Gym, PnP Clothing and Dischem. There are also smaller boutique tenants, such as NV80, an upmarket bar and grill started by the Gonçalves brothers of Pigalle Restaurant Group, Lorna Jane, the popular Australian active wear brand and Bank's Kitchen Boutique. Above the retail shops are health and lifestyle specialists such as beauty therapists, cosmetic surgeons and chiropractors, as well as offices. In total, there are 21 office, 24 retail and ten health and wellness tenants.

To redevelop this mixed-use property into what they hoped would become a flagship for the new Sea Point, the Berman brothers turned to Louis Karol Architects, the firm responsible for designing the new Blue Route Shopping Centre and the original and subsequent Victoria Wharf builds, as well as Portside, the first skyscraper built in a South African CBD since 1993 (in a joint venture with dhk Architects.) Says Saul Berman: "We needed an architect who could realise a radical and modern design, and could also understand both the commercial and the business side of things; Louis Karol and Robert Silke are most capable of both.”

The old Checkers Galleria was typical of 1980s' builds. It was designed for efficient flow of trolleys and delivery trucks, with little regard for people, other than to keep their focus on goods for sale rather than the outside world. Blank and windowless exterior walls were a barrier between customers and street life, and while the Checkers always worked, the centre itself collapsed, says Silke. "When you block out the windows, you kill the street, and dead streets are like open wounds, destroying city life," he says.

The new centre is one of the tallest buildings in Sea Point. It was a colossal build, with mining equipment brought in to build the additional basement required for the foundation and increased parking. According to Silke, this was the first building project in Cape Town to be undermined while tenants were still trading – Checkers was open as usual while a fourth basement was blasted underneath. Now there are a total of 480 parking bays underneath what Berman calls "Sea Point's first true shopping centre."

With the brief from the Bermans to open the building to the streets, its walls are glass and modern, yet its shape was inspired by old Sea Point style moderne – late art deco from the 1930s to 1950s. Unlike its predecessor, its cafés spill out onto the sidewalk and it has multiple entrances and exits. "It is a reaction against how impenetrable the building was," says Silke."Yet while it is open, its views are not panoramic; they are gritty and urban. This is no fantasy world; it's a vision of a confident, new and functional world. It is intended to celebrate the now, and is totally tuned to what the area needs," he says.

As for its developers, they are 100% committed to Sea Point, and always have been. "We knew that if we built up Sea Point, the values would increase," said Saul Berman. "If we don't rejuvenate the area, people won't want to live here. That's why we invested so heavily in The Point's externals, as well as its interiors.  Now it's a place where people are coming to hang out with their neighbours." Adds Silke:  "The Point has become one of those special parts of the city where friends meet, where boys meet girls and where chance encounters can happen."

"Sea Point might have been one of South Africa's first urban casualties," says Silke. "Instead, it's one of the first urban successes." As for the future of retail/commercial development, Saul Berman believes it's in boutique shopping centres like The Point, not in massive sprawling malls. As for Sea Point, he'd take things a few steps further:  in 10 years time, he'd like to see a significant portion of Main Road designated for pedestrians only, with access to underground parking from side streets, further revitalising the High Street. 

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