The River Club development on the Liesbeek River highlights questionable processes undertaken by the City of Cape Town in relation to members of a large and influential group of property developers. This is exactly what Crispian Olver has written about – particularly in his book, A House Divided (2019).
Leslie London and Tauriq Jenkins have been leading a campaign with local activists, including a range of Khoe leaders, environmental groups, civic associations, unionists, faith-based organisations and social justice activists to stop this high density, over-bulked, massive concrete development, which boasts Amazon as an anchor tenant.
The city granted approvals for the development by rezoning property formerly zoned as open space to allow a 150,000 square metre development to proceed. The property involves state (Transnet) land that was privatised and sold to Liesbeek Leisure Properties (LLP) in 2015 and immediately transferred to the current owner, the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust (LLPT). The Transnet selling price was R12-million plus VAT but a few months later, when a bond was raised from Investec, the price had ballooned to R100-million. The development is now billed as a R4-billion+ investment project.
The campaign to stop the envisaged development is based on environmental concerns in a time of frightening climate change and on heritage issues – factors that are intimately interlinked on this site.
Despite all the claims by apologists of the development and those claiming neutrality, it was an area where Khoe people had over the centuries passed into Table Bay to put their cattle to pasture and where traditional roads crossed in all directions to their summer pasturages and villages. It was the first land that the Dutch colonists alienated from the indigenous people for private settler agriculture. It and the land of the Two Rivers more generally demand the status of national memorials. Indeed, the South African Heritage Resources Agency is currently busy with a process to evaluate the Two Rivers Urban Park as a national heritage resource.
Amazon is to be the anchor tenant at the R4,5-billion precinct at the River Club in Observatory. Photo by Nobathembu Ndzengu
Environmental experts, including those working for the City of Cape Town, have highlighted that the development will cause river degradation and flooding and will threaten endemic species. They have detailed a number of fatal flaws in the recommendations and findings with regard to surface water modelling, the biodiversity assessment, an incomplete Environmental Management Program (EMPr) at the time of approval, and lack of independence between assessment, execution, and compliance checking on the part of consultants hired by the developer to do this work. As a developer pays for the specialist reports that support an application, there is pressure on consultants to downplay unfavourable findings. And, in the end, appeals submitted are ruled on by politicians, who tend to support revenue generation over other concerns.
Unsavoury aspects of approval
There are other issues of concern regarding the way the city and indeed the province have handled the development:
1) The city supports the development because it gets a bridge over the river and the connection of Berkley Road in Maitland to Malta Road in Salt River will reduce traffic congestion and allow for a MyCiti bus rapid transit (BRT) route. It appears the city has long supported the development as it has, since at least 2014, planned to construct the road extension,
In 2018, the city joined the developers, and two provincial departments (including Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning – DEADP), to appeal a provisional protection order issued to Heritage Western Cape over the River Club property. The order granted a two-year stay to allow for its heritage grading before any application to develop the site could be considered. This means we should be concerned about the impartiality of the city and DEADP as the authorities that granted environmental authorisation and land use approval.
2) The city’s property division gave provisional approval for land owned by the city to be incorporated into the development application as far back as 2017. It is clear the city decision-makers were intent on approving this development from its inception, no matter what the evidence showed, and gave every assistance to the developers to achieve their objective.
3) A shortlist of five appropriately zoned sites for Amazon’s relocated Cape Town office (including the V&A Waterfront and Canal Walk), were originally proposed – and the River Club was not one of them. Several architects, environmental, heritage and town planning professionals believe the site is not appropriate for such a development and involves a much higher degree of risk than several of the other qualifying sites.
Interestingly, Amazon had sent requirements to prospective developers, pointing out that one of Amazon’s top priorities in choosing a developer and site was to ensure that there was “a clear path to regulatory approvals”. But at the time (2018), the River Club site was under the two-year provisional protection order. Four years later, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) has started the process to investigate grading the site as a national (grade 1) heritage resource and is itself considering applying for another provisional protection order. The site is today still the subject of a judge’s interim interdict to stop further building, though the developer is proceeding while court processes unfold and campaign leaders are subjected to lawfare, insinuations and threats.
Traditional and political leaders during the walk of resistance at Liesbeeck River in June 2021. Photo by Mzi Velapi
Given the current unsustainable paradigm where land is monetised and landowners seek to increase its value – no matter the environmental impact – there is a perverse incentive to find an engineering solution to make the land developable, at all costs. This is precisely the case at the River Club. The short-sighted worldview that prioritises economic growth above all else, and permits the development of all land has led to climate change, pollution, ecosystem degradation, and catastrophic species decline. The Observatory Civic Association is on record as not being against any development on the River Club site, just the over-bulked form of the approved development, which, as corroborated by expert affidavits, is problematic on environmental, heritage, and town planning grounds. The River Club Phase I Heritage Assessment made recommendations for how the development could respect the intangible heritage of the site, but the developers, the city and province have all chosen to ignore these.
Lalou Meltzer is part of the Liesbeeck Action Campaign and Jens Horber is an independent consultant