News analysis

Standard Bank's former head office in Adderley Str
Standard Bank's former head office in Adderley Street. Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • As banks go digital and close branches, they have to decide what to do with their old offices.
  • Standard Bank’s former Cape Town head office has stood empty for eight years.
  • Absa is converting part of one of its big buildings into high-priced flats – which will contribute to gentrification.
  • That must scare politicians who want urban spaces to be more inclusive.
  • For more, go to Business Insider SA.

Last week, precariously perched workers began removing the old Absa logo from the bank’s multi-storey former Western Cape head office – readying it to become the latest gentrified block in the foreshore area of Cape Town.

With prices touted to be in the region of R48,000 a square metre, the 34-storey Foreshore Place on the corners of Adderley and Riebeek streets, abutting St Georges Mall, is in a glorious location in an increasingly congested part of Cape Town.

The building must concern city planners, though.

absa foreshore
Part of the Absa building in Cape Town's will be converted into flats. (Photo: Dogon Properties)

The city centre of Cape Town is becoming unaffordable and the failure of the City to get its own foreshore urban-renewal development off the ground has it facing increasing criticism for the lack of affordable access to the city – and its jobs.

While the politicians try to figure out what to do next, private sector developers are pushing ahead despite the record numbers of apartments for sale and for rent (at falling rates) in estate agent windows. The Airbnb boom, which dramatically ratcheted up prices three to four years ago, has passed, and poorer residents have been forced further out of the city. City officials don’t know how to solve the problem.

Developers are not in the business of making small margins if they can help it. The higher the spec of the buildings they can deliver, the more they stand to earn.

Foreshore Place, for example, is the latest example of a mixed-use development which will have 15 floors of commercial space, topped by 99 one-bedroom flats, 9 two-bed units, and 63 studio apartments over 11 floors. Floor number four is where the fun happens, with a residents’ lounge and entertainment area. Downstairs will be a mix of shops, restaurants, and banking facilities.

See also: A direct flight between Cape Town and the US is a start – now let’s not kill Airbnb please

At these sorts of prices, the developers say, millennial buyers are looking for the convenience of location over square meterage in an area where they can simply hop onto their e-bikes and nip to work, sucking on a latte from the shop downstairs. It’s all very NYC.

In the Johannesburg City Centre, local authorities appeared to be making headway in converting old offices into considerably more affordable dwellings and property managers have successfully turned around grand old apartment blocks that fell into disrepair in the 90s. Still, there are also some eye-watering asking prices.

The old Barclays Bank headquarters in downtown Joburg has been redeveloped and its penthouse is on the market for a staggering R3.99 million. This is a record asking price for a discerning buyer convinced that urban decay in the surrounding areas can be reversed.

Standard Bank’s conundrum

It’s little wonder that Standard Bank, which is dramatically reducing the number of properties it occupies, has yet to make a decision on what to do with its former Adderley Street headquarters in Cape Town.

The iconic stone building served as the bank’s headquarters for 68 years. The HQ had moved from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town to take advantage of the city’s superior communication links to London in the late 1800s.

In 1953, Standard moved its head office to Pretoria and later to downtown Johannesburg. The group now runs its global business out of Rosebank in Johannesburg.

There are a number of proposals on the table for Standard Bank. There is talk of turning it into a museum and incorporating it into the Cape Town open-top bus route, for instance.

A collaboration with the hard-to-access Absa Money museum at its headquarters in Johannesburg is a pipe dream, but would be an ideal addition to the heritage tours done around there.

Inside Standard Bank's former head office in Adder
Inside Standard Bank's former head office in Adderley Street. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The banking hall is a majestic location and could become an iconic site for a coffee shop where Standard Bank’s clients could entertain guests. The problem in that area is parking and until the City of Cape Town is able to sort that problem out, Standard Bank will probably bide its time.

It’s a pity.

Any innovative use of space in inner cities that encourages development and the flow of people into those spaces is good for urban renewal. With the popular tourist haunts of Long Street and others beginning to lose foot traffic due to rising crime incidents, a serious collaboration is needed to restore confidence in high-density urban areas.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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