Harare’s barely evolving skyline

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A READER of this column requested that I write about how Harare’s architecture that has not changed much over the years so I decided to do some research on that.

Deborah Peters,consultant

Recently, I gave a “Pecha Kucha” presentation talk on “Smart Cities” where I started off by discussing Harare’s historical buildings starting from its founding as Fort Salisbury in the 19th Century. I also became more aware of city planning during my recent run for Harare council.

Over the years, Harare has retained a lot of its character due to an abundance of original colonial buildings because this is not a city where there is a lot of construction going on and you rarely see construction cranes. I tracked down Zimbabwe’s most eminent architect, Mick Pearce, the man who designed Eastgate Shopping Centre and who is known for borrowing from nature in order to produce modern, green buildings.

He talked about the new Eastgate Market building which he has designed for his long-standing client, Old Mutual, located across the street and connected to Eastgate Mall by a pedestrian overpass over Robert Mugabe Road. The Harare central business district (CBD) has been overtaken by vendors and research shows that vendors around Copacobana pay more rent per square metre than retailers in Manhattan so Eastgate Market is aimed at being a better and affordable alternative for Harare’s vendors.

The market covers most of the block between Robert Mugabe Road, down Wynne Street, along Robson Manyika Road then halfway past Third Street so it almost goes as far east as Fourth Street. It is located in the busiest part of downtown which is full of fast-food outlets and betting shops. This market follows international trends where derelict neighbourhoods are becoming gentrified by the introduction of restaurants, housing and markets.

Eastgate Market is almost complete, it stands on two levels with the vendors’ stalls at street level and flats on the second level. This development, which is opening soon, will change the CBD because it will help clear the vendors from the sidewalks and clean up the city. Most of office buildings in the city are empty as corporate tenants have abandoned the city centre and the market will set a trend revive the CBD for to become residential then these office buildings will be converted to residential apartments with food outlets and supermarkets on the ground floor.

There has been no high-rise buildings built in Harare since Joina Centre opened in 2010 and construction of the mall was a financial disaster. Development started in 1998 and ran into the hyperinflation era which wiped away value. Eastgate Mall was commissioned in 1992, completed in 1996 and has become renowned for its innovative design which resembles a termite mound. According to Pearce, Zimbabweans have stone-masonry in their DNA as evidenced by the Great Zimbabwe and other stone ruins around the country.

Eastgate Mall was built with brushed concrete on the outside to resemble stone as an architectural expression of our history. Another Pearce-designed building is the beautiful Agribank Building which had some challenges during construction in his absence when there were shortages of the steel panels up the sides, but the issue has been rectified.

There is a lot of capacity in commercial real estate market in Harare as buildings are not selling and there was no incentive to construct new buildings after the hyperinflation era.
On the residential side, there has been no mass housing scheme built since the 1960s and 1970s. Those days government built new townships for labourers very quickly and economically using lightweight materials and houses from that era are still standing. You need cheap money at 2 to 3% to providing low-cost but mortgages in Zimbabwe stand above 15%. Overseas the average mortgage last 25 years whereas in Zimbabwe they are about five years, if you can get a bond in the first place.

Another popular option in places like Japan is the use of pre-fabricated houses, but that requires a level of industrialisation that Zimbabwe does not have.

Most houses in Zimbabwe are self-built, the cost of an informal brick-layer in a place like Hatcliffe is US$15-US$20 per square metre compared to a commercial contractor who charges US$500 per square metre so most residents in Harare build for themselves.

The Zimbabwean diaspora has financed a large number of houses in recent years and are the biggest source of finance for new homes. Right now there is a surplus of sellers asking for cash in foreign currency while there is a cash shortage so the housing market is stagnant and there is no capital gains in real estate. There are property sellers who will accept a fraction of the asking price if they get US dollars.

My next conversation was with Jonathan Waters, who published a book titled Harare — Urban Evolution: A Photographic History in 2015 and he talked about the new retail and office parks coming up in the northern suburbs, including the Village Walk in Borrowdale.

Many corporate tenants have moved to office parks in Borrowdale and Mount Pleasant because they got tired of dealing with vendors and the shortage of parking in town. The US$1 minimum parking in town is also a sore point and when you drive around the city these days you see many vacant parking bays while several vehicles are clamped by overzealous parking attendants because of outstanding parking fines which are as little as US$3.

There is a trend towards the decentralisation of Harare due to the lack of foresight of City of Harare. Nowadays many office blocks in Bulawayo are being converted to student housing while owners of office towers in Harare are hoping to start converting them into apartment buildings.

Any building over 100 years old should be listed and protected yet in 2013 a building from 1910 was demolished. Fines for destroying listed buildings are too low so landlords are tempted to rebuild those smaller buildings with larger structures to collect more rent because the land they stand on is often more valuable than the building.

The Avenues, Robert Mugabe Road and Eastlea have a number of colonial buildings that need to be protected. The area I live in, Harare Ward 7 includes Avondale and Belgravia, both of which have been rezoned for commercial use. Rezoning only formalises the illegal commercial use of residential areas which is going on for years. There is no suburb in Harare which is free from commercial use of uses, even in areas away from main roads.

City of Harare is selective about applying the law because most businesses to obtain normal license while a vendor can set up outside their front door … City of Harare needs to look at ways to make it attractive to come into town again by sorting traffic and synchronising traffic lights.

My final interview was with Michael Swan, the manager of Aspindale Park, the new property development belonging to Billy Rautenbach, located next to tobacco warehouses and set on 55 hectares. There are 2 000 stands measuring 200 to 365 square metres starting from US$17 000 with a US$5 000 deposit and payment terms of one, three and five years. Each stand comes with approved building plans and the civils have been completed including sewers, water and roads. In addition, these three or four-bedroom starter homes come complete with WiFi. I saw three show houses belonging to the developer, as well as two shell houses selling for US$70 000 each where buyers will add their own finish.

While the standards of the showhouses is high, construction will be carried out by contractors of the buyers’ choice. Several contractors have bought stands and put up showhouses of varying quality and there is an interior decorator who has put up a fully decorated showhouse which is on sale only for US dollars cash.

Aspindale Park is located in an industrial area so these houses are ideal for somebody working close by because when I went to see the development late Monday afternoon, the traffic back across town was a nightmare, but it is good to see new investments in Harare.

Peters is a business and investment consultant. She can be contacted on Twitter:@debbienpeters and e-mail: deb.n.peters@gmail.com

One thought on “Harare’s barely evolving skyline”

  1. Chiko says:

    The Eastgate SME Market building will not clear vendors on the streets. The street vendors sell fruits and vegetables, some spread on the road surface, some in carts. The new building is not targeted at those types of vendors. That building is not the best that Old Mutual should have put on that prime office/retail location. The best would have been a modern mixed-use high-rise structure possibly with two towers of office space, hotel accommodation, fast-foods and retail on lower levels. That would have complimented the old Eastgage building across the road, ZB Life Towers next to it, LAPF’s Fantasy Land, and the Meikles Hotel. It would also have encouraged similar future development at Duly’s where the new OK Supermarket was created. Sadly Old Mutual lost it. Understandably they were rushing to build something after winning the court battle against ware veterans who were claiming ownership of the old structure. Regardless, Old Mutual should still have taken their time to come up with something most suitable for that prime spot.

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