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When Jonathan Liebmann took a good look at Johannesburg’s central business district he didn’t see the seedy, neglected inner city of South Africa’s economic hub as most others did. Instead, he saw opportunity and the capacity for change.
VENTURES AFRICA – After returning home from travels abroad, 24-year-old Jonathan Liebmann missed the urban lifestyle he had enjoyed in cosmopolitan cities like Rio and Berlin. Determined to recreate this way of life, he set about trying to find a place in the city that would serve his purpose as a live-and-work space. He found a small factory in Milpark, Johannesburg, which he renovated and converted. Realising the development potential and thoroughly enjoying the refurb, Liebmann was motivated to pursue his project on a bigger and better scale. But first he needed a location to realise his vision.
Liebmann was drawn to the dilapidated and crime-ridden eastern side of Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD). Neither locals nor tourists wanted to venture into the area but Liebmann saw opportunity, his mind whirling with ways to turn it into a place where people could live, work and play. In 2008, he bought an old warehouse and collaborated with architect Enrico Daffonchio, of Daffonchio and Associates Architects, to convert the empty industrial space into what became ‘Arts on Main’. The development featured a restaurant, rooftop bar and exhibition and studio space for some of South Africa’s most respected artists, among them William Kentridge, who became the lynch pin of this unified, supportive artistic community.
During the construction of Arts on Main, Liebmann began to imagine something bigger still. He wondered if it would be possible to grow the entire area surrounding Arts on Main into a fully integrated, mixed-use community and mixedincome residential offering. And so the scope of his project widened along with his vision. With the backing of a silent partner and financier, Liebmann began transforming a larger section of the eastern CBD into a neighbourhood he came to call the Maboneng Precinct – Maboneng meaning “place of light” in the local Sotho tongue.
Additional developments were swift in coming, Liebmann’s property holding company, Propertuity, adding Main Street Life, Revolution House, Main Change, Fox Street Studios and the Museum of African Design (MOAD ) to the burgeoning precinct. Where one there was little but rundown buildings, rubble and neglect, visitors to Maboneng now find trendy cafes, independent retail stores and restaurants flanking tree-lined streets, and businesses opening right onto the pavement. Above, modern apartments, lofts and penthouses house hundreds of residents. Art galleries, a hotel, cinema complex, museum and plenty of collaborative work spaces, entertainment venues and creative factory spaces round out the neighbourhood.
When he first started the project, Liebmann had no idea how big Maboneng would become or how quickly it would grow. “I think you only understand certain things once they’ve actually happened and this is one of those things,” he says, going on to describe it as a “relatively unbelievable state of affairs”. The Propertuity portfolio currently holds 35 buildings, seven of which have already been developed, with plans in place to develop the rest over the next five years. The area currently spans one square kilometre, though Liebmann says the company is always interested in acquiring more spaces. The goal, he says, is to have 100 buildings within the next five years.
On the residential side, which Liebmann says has seen a good demand thus far, some 300 apartments are already complete and have either been sold or tenanted. The plan is to roll-out another 700 units over the next two years. According to Liebmann, the target market for buyers is broad, spanning a range of between R350,000 ($35,000) and R3 million ($300,000). “Our ambition is to create a fully integrated mixedincome community, so having that range is important to us,” he says. “I feel that having various income groups in the same space can create opportunities that wouldn’t exist in single-income brackets.”
In terms of commerce, the Maboneng Precinct has brought about phenomenal change. Liebmann says that before, the area was “a blank canvas with very little commerce” but that since the launch of the development, at least 100 new businesses have started operations here. He estimates that some 80 percent of businesses in the district are new and only 20 percent pre-existing. While it is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers, he further approximates that there are around 1,000 people employed in the district. The social impact, too, has been significant, and Liebmann believes the precinct provides an important platform for people to engage with Johannesburg’s urban core. “It has changed the way people live, work and play, as well as given people a sense of hope that rundown neighbourhoods or rundown city centres in South Africa still have massive potential to make comebacks – something that many people have forgotten about,” he says.
While Maboneng may currently be enjoying great success and interest, this was not always the case. “In the beginning there was a lot of negativity,” Liebmann recalls. “People thought the idea was impossible, that it was crazy and wouldn’t work. But an entrepreneur with a new idea always comes up against sceptics. I just kept my head down and tried to execute on all of the plans. People have now started to see, to stand up and take notice of what’s happening here. So it’s looking good.”
Funding proved something of a challenge, too, though Liebmann was luckier than most entrepreneurs in that he had the support of a private equity backer, who was his primary investor from the get-go. More recently he has managed to secure financial support from local banks, to the tune of some R300 million ($30 million). Liebmann says securing such funding was not easy but that the banks have finally seen the opportunity the precinct presents.
Perhaps his biggest collaborators, however, are those who bought into the idea at ground level – the tenants, the individual investors and residents, the businesses, his own professional team. Without their belief in Liebmann’s vision, Maboneng would not be what it is. Nowadays, Liebmann’s team has a list of anxious retail tenants waiting to occupy the newly developed spaces in the Precinct. “I guess the tables have turned,” he says, amused.
When asked what he considers his greatest success Liebmann pauses to consider. “I think a lot of people have ideas and dreams about doing big things but I think my personal success lies in following through and executing the vision,” he says. A passionate young businessman, I ask what drives him. “My personal need to have a great city to live in,” he answers. “I have a lot of energy and I channel that. I’m obsessed with transforming the environment and I’m obsessed with business. I’ve taken those passions and combined them into one. My previous business taught me to only operate in an industry you are passionate about. I learnt that the hard way and what I’m doing now reaffirms this belief.”
A talent as bright and promising as Liebmann’s has not gone unnoticed, and he has received plenty of requests from other cities, other countries even, to do for them what he has done for Johannesburg’s CBD. But Liebmann only has eyes for Maboneng and wants nothing more than to see the neighbourhood succeed. “Property changes people’s lifestyles and I’m very much a lifestyle enthusiast,” he says. “It is a high-impact industry and I like the impact that it has on society, on the public space, on people’s lives. I love being involved in something that is significant.”