|Call him Mr Joburg, or just a citizen who really cares about the city he lives in. Either way, Gerald Olitzki is deeply committed to Joburg's future - and he won't rest until the city regains its former glory.|
DON'T tell Gerald Olitzki there's no hope for Johannesburg's gritty inner city. He has spent the last 10 years fighting to prove just the opposite.
He pioneered the revamp of the city's main bus terminal - Gandhi Square - and the lawyer-turned-city-property-investor vows that he won't rest until Johannesburg's streets are clean and safe.
During the past decade, when many white-owned businesses packed up shop and hurriedly migrated northwards from the city centre, Olitzki stayed put. "I never left Johannesburg - I love this place," he says.
His dream of a turnaround of Johannesburg's city centre was born as early as the 1970s, from the grimy view of a downtown building overlooking the then Van der Bijl Square, the city's almost derelict bus terminal.
"I looked outside my window and saw this big open space, which was the bus terminal. It had become horrible and was filled with hobos, street kids and glue sniffers."
He watched sadly as historical buildings all around him were torn down for development. "They were tearing down the history of Johannesburg…I knew I had to do something," he says.
Throughout the 1980s, he held on to his dream of revamping the busy bus terminal. But despite being armed with beautiful artists' impressions of a new-look terminal - complete with trees, cleaners and security - he was turned away from government and business offices for years.
In the 1990s, he approached the then Democratic Party with his plans for the area. "They told me to stop smoking the bad stuff," he says, with a wry smile.
For Olitzki, that was a constant refrain. "I had already bought my first building in 1989. It was a decayed office block I was going to restore to its former glory and I had a blueprint for what I was going to do with Gandhi Square… If you had seen my plans then you would also have said I was dreaming."
But he would not give up and in 1994 Olitzki approached the former Greater Johannesburg Metro Council, promising he could give the city's first democratic local government a new bus terminal, "almost for free".
In exchange, businesses operating around the square would have private title - rights over the pavements and squares outside their premises - and would pave and clean up the Square.
Gandhi Square was finally born in 2001. "It took 10 years, but they bought into it," he says.
It cost over R2 million to re-fashion the Square - and tens of thousands of Olitzki's hours building his dream. But project partners such as the Johannesburg Development Agency and the Central Johannesburg Partnership agree: It worked.
Olitzki says the private sector has poured millions into fixing up the bus terminal. And it shows. Twenty-four hour security guards patrol the area and cleaners keep the prominent red and black "African-themed" paving tidy.
However not all businesses have bought into the concept and some are selling liquor to underage school kids. Olitzki says he is trying to buy these establishments out.
Despite this, an array of florists, banks, bookshops, coffee shops, bars and restaurants have returned to the bus terminal they abandoned years ago.
Olitzki wastes no time in blaming the city's notorious decline on what he refers to as the "Great Trek".
"The whites who were leaving were a new kind of Boer Laager type, as they saw more black people coming into town.
"They went to Sandton and surrounded themselves with French and Italian architecture…and this is what contributed to the decay of the inner city. This was the vacuum that pulled in the squatters."
"The city is in a metamorphosis," he says. "Things are changing. There's been no crime on the Square for years. I am happier standing here at the Square at 2am in the morning than outside my home in Linksfield."
Gandhi Square, it seems, was the catalyst for downtown Johannesburg's facelift. "It was the watershed that would make or break my big dream.
"The first thing was to make Gandhi Square safe and to get people to believe it was safe. You can't just address one element in order to get a 'world-class' city - if you want to see true revival in a city you have to look at growth everywhere," he says.
And that's precisely what he has achieved, together with local business and the Johannesburg Council. A "safe and clean spine," running east to west across the city centre, is now up and running.
The spine incorporates Main and Fox streets, where pedestrians treading on the colourful paved streets have right of way.
Security guards patrol these streets and their surrounds - setting them apart as safe and clean zones - while similar spines have been set up at the City Hall. The spine connects with the central improvement districts in downtown Johannesburg, which have been facilitated by local business and the Council.
"You're walking through my dream," he says. "The businesses around here have seen that central improvement districts are beneficial to them and the whole city.
"But the problem is that even though those people who work in the inner city know it is fine - there are of course good parts and bad parts - people still perceive Johannesburg as unsafe".
But slowly business is returning to downtown Johannesburg, keen to capitalise on what could turn out to be a fortune.
His quest to make the city centre safe and to attract business has turned to restoring buildings, including national monuments like Elephant House on Market Street. He bought his first building - rundown and decrepit - in Gandhi Square in 1989, saving it from implosion.
But this property aficionado, often called Mr Joburg, refuses to reveal how many inner city buildings he owns.
What is certain, though, is that he has transformed numerous derelict buildings into A-grade offices, with tenants such as NGOs, unions and entrepreneurs, jostling for space. He manages his buildings himself - and judging from the number of tenants he chats to today, he has built meaningful relationships.
While downtown is slowly becoming an office mecca, Olitzky envisions city streets crowded with restaurants and tables after dark.
"The reality is that a lot of people use the inner city - to work and for transport outside the city. It is the shopping centre of Soweto.
"But we can't have an inner city that dies at 5pm. We need viable residential and retail space. If we can just get 5 000 of the million people who go to the city every day to stay behind, that will make a huge difference."
The goal is to attract middle class and upper middle class people back to the city, he says. "But first we have to create the environment that will harness that…once there are good restaurants close to work and in the safe zone, why not live here?"
The downside of the so-called safe zone concept is that it is seen as "elitist". But Olitzky believes the rest of Johannesburg's city centre will also experience the changes that downtown Johannesburg has seen.
"In time that will all come. What has happened to Gandhi Square and downtown Johannesburg is radiating into the rest of the city. I like to describe it as a very positive veldfire."
He stops to look at the once derelict building overlooking Gandhi Square, where his dream was born. He now owns the building and has called it Umoya, or "winds of change". "That change is sweeping across the city," he says.