Long-stand­ing pas­sion for Egoli fu­els at­tor­ney’s drive to re­store in­ner city’s shine

Business Day - - COMPANIES & MARKETS -

At­tor­ney Ger­ald Ol­itzki, who is well-known for buy­ing and de­vel­op­ing build­ings in Jo­han­nes­burg’s in­ner city, says the per­cep­tion that there has been no size­able in­vest­ment there in the past two decades is in­ac­cu­rate. Re­cently Divercity Ur­ban Prop­erty Fund was launched with R2bn of in­ner-city as­sets. The group com­mit­ted to in­vest­ing a fur­ther R2bn over the next 18 months to re­de­velop Absa Tow­ers Main and cre­ate the new mixe­duse, six-block Jewel. Some com­men­ta­tors have said this would be the largest once-off in­vest­ment in the in­ner city in decades, but Ol­itzki says many peo­ple have been putting money be­hind projects in Jo­han­nes­burg since the turn of the mil­len­nium.

Is Jo­han­nes­burg’s in­ner city in dire straits?

Jo­han­nes­burg is very large and the in­ner city has many faces. There are parts that need at­ten­tion and in­vest­ment, but there are also parts that are be­ing man­aged very well and are of a world-class stan­dard.

How long have you worked in Jo­han­nes­burg and why don’t more com­pa­nies have of­fices here?

I started my le­gal ar­ti­cles in 1973 in an in­ner-city build­ing. Forty-five years later my com­pany has re­de­vel­oped and now owns that build­ing. So, I’ve never ac­tu­ally left the in­ner city. I still work as an at­tor­ney in my own le­gal prac­tice and run a prop­erty de­vel­op­ment and man­age­ment busi­ness.

I think when many busi­nesses de­serted the in­ner city, they cre­ated big­ger prob­lems and ac­tu­ally led to worse de­cay as they cre­ated a vac­uum. The in­ner city was thriv­ing up to the mid-1980s and then cor­po­ra­tions de­cen­tralised. Many locked up their build­ings and left.

The vac­uum brought in a crim­i­nal el­e­ment and peo­ple were left job­less and home­less. So my­self and nu­mer­ous other in­vestors and de­vel­op­ers and peo­ple who care for the in­ner city have spent more than two decades fix­ing up old build­ings, cre­at­ing new ones and mak­ing the in­ner city some­thing to be proud of.

We have fo­cused on re­de­vel­op­ing build­ings into thriv­ing of­fices.

To say that re­cent in­vest­ments by some pri­vate or listed groups will bring cor­po­rates back isn’t re­ally of value. Cor­po­rates are al­ready here. The likes of Old Mu­tual and Hol­lard have taken space in many of our of­fice build­ings. They know that get­ting R85/m² for CBD of­fices and ac­cess to the broader pub­lic is at­trac­tive. So you have banks open­ing of­fices and branches here that serve peo­ple who work in and walk along the streets ev­ery day. Yes, there are big busi­nesses and banks in Sand­ton, but these groups tend to serve a dif­fer­ent clien­tele and these groups are pay­ing rent up­wards of R200/m²

What is the most im­por­tant in­ner-city project you have worked on and why?

Gandhi Square is the heart of the in­ner city and I started there. In 1993 I ap­proached the city coun­cil about re­viv­ing the square, which was then called Van der Bijl Square, and was turned down. I then spent from 1994-1999 try­ing to per­suade the coun­cil to give me a lease. I even­tu­ally got a 45-year lease over the square, with the help of Graeme Reid of the JDA [Jo­han­nes­burg De­vel­op­ment Agency] and Neil Fraser of the Cen­tral Jo­han­nes­burg Part­ner­ship. The square was re­named Gandhi Square. It also be­came the first City Im­prove­ment District (CID) in Gaut­eng. It is now a thriv­ing square vis­ited by in ex­cess of 250,000 peo­ple per day. It has also helped bring busi­ness to the streets around it. The busiest McDon­ald’s is here. We have many suc­cess­ful re­tail­ers here too. There are pos­i­tive sto­ries about peo­ple who had strug­gled in the in­ner city and are now run­ning suc­cess­ful busi­nesses.

Why don’t you de­velop res­i­den­tial prop­erty? Surely there is a short­age of hous­ing in the in­ner city?

Nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies have de­vel­oped high-qual­ity, af­ford­able and some­times up­per-mar­ket apart­ments and other res­i­den­tial as­sets. These are the peo­ple be­hind the likes of City Prop­er­ties, Afhco and oth­ers. We don’t do res­i­den­tial, as oth­ers have the skills to do it.

As much as 90% of in­nercity prop­erty is in white hands. How can this be changed? How can black peo­ple get into this mar­ket?

We do a lot of busi­ness with black busi­ness peo­ple who want to in­vest in the city. We have struc­tures in place in our leases which help them get into the mar­ket. We have also sold nu­mer­ous build­ings to black­em­pow­ered prop­erty funds, in­clud­ing Re­bo­sis, As­cen­sion and Delta.

What’s next for Ger­ald Ol­itzki?

I will launch a new re­de­vel­op­ment project in a part of the in­ner city in the next few months. I’m very ex­cited about it and am con­fi­dent it will make life eas­ier for peo­ple work­ing and trav­el­ling through this spe­cific area.

ALIS­TAIR AN­DER­SON

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