Reinventing precinct

Church Square behind the Groote Kerk may soon be getting a makeover.

Urban Lime, a commercial property group which has invested heavily in Church Square, has partnered with Future Cape Town and the City of Cape Town to start the process of revitalising the precinct.

After a tour of the iconic Speakers’ Corner building earlier this month, which is being renovated after having stood empty for almost 20 years, a research report by Future Cape Town was released to evaluate the current use and potential, and to provide guiding recommendations over the short- and medium-term for Church Square. These include better lighting on the square, a basic “how to use Church Square” guide, the implementation of a friends group and improving the wi-fi access.

Church Square, which got its name from its location in front of the Groote Kerk, was turned into a public space by the City of Cape Town in 2006 after it had been used as a car park for many years.

The Mayco member for transport, Brett Herron, said the main purpose of the project was to transform the square from a parking area to a pedestrian-friendly public space that accommodated the overflow from restaurants, a slave memorial and a historic sculpture.

However, he said, public spaces need active “edges” to make them come alive.

“In this sense there has been limited private response or interest to date following the City’s investment in this public space.”

Mr Herron said Urban Lime approached the City last year to explore the idea of making better use of the space.

Urban Lime’s group marketing director, Katie Friedman, said the company had started acquiring and renovating buildings in Church Square in 2013.

“The first building purchased was the Speakers’ Corner building at 37 Parliament Street. This beautiful heritage building is one of the oldest buildings in the city and restoring and re-purposing the building for the 21st Century has been both rewarding and challenging as this grand dame has revealed her secrets from the last 200-odd years.

“Renovation of the building started in 2014, which continues today, and is expected to be complete by June (this year).”

While the origin of the name of the building could not be verified, the City believed it may have been drawn from its close proximity to Parliament, and the history of Church Square.

According to the City, the history of the building dates back to 1896, when plans were prepared by prominent Cape Town architect John Parker as a business premises after a building which had previously been on the site, was demolished.

It later became known as the Cardigan Chambers, and by 1899, housed a hairdresser, a “gentlemen’s outfitter” and attorneys.

The prominently located building is a good example of Parker’s work and of Victorian civic architecture in Cape Town. The adjacent building facing Parliament Street was the site of the one-time Masonic Hotel, subsequently the Commercial Hotel, a flat-roofed double-storey building.

A substantial new building designed by Forsyth and Parker, one of the leading architectural practices of the time, was constructed for WB Pickles in 1929. The name of the company is still visible, carved into the granite shopfront.

In 1967, this property was consolidated with the corner building and linked internally. This building is similarly of high local architectural, aesthetic, historic and associative significance.

However, Ms Friedman said Speakers’ Corner’s last tenants, owners of Bread Milk and Honey cafe in Spin Street had named their original cafe Speakers’ Corner in 1998.

The cafe’s manager, Mandy Mitchell, was however not able to confirm this.

Having bought about six buildings in the Church Square precinct, over the years, said Ms Friedman, Urban Lime started looking more closely at the area and were surprised at the lack of activity on the square.

“Church Square is steeped in a painful past with both major architectural and historical significance for the city. We continued to acquire commercial property on the perimeter of the square and started to conceive what an active, relevant city-square could look like.”

Urban Lime then approached Future Cape Town, a non-profit organisation which works to expand public access to urbanism in order to promote a more visionary and inclusive city to evaluate their ideas around what should be done to improve Church Square.

The director at Future Cape Town,Rashiq Fataar, said during the study period, they evaluated Urban Lime’s ideas against 11 criteria: equity, choice, access, connectivity, diversity, ownership, participation, inclusion, beauty, innovation and wellness.

“We then drew conclusions on their thoughts and some recommendations on what the priorities of the square should be.”

According to the report compiled by Future Cape Town, Church Square supports the concepts of urban justice and equity, given Cape Town’s history of apartheid spacial planning. The report says that more innovative interventions could be implemented in the future.

Mr Fataar said Future Cape Town had not proposed designs or a plan for the square, but rather drew conclusions about ideas, and made recommendations on what everyone should be focusing on as business owners, the city and shops. The aim was to get everyone involved, rather than leaving it up to the property developer alone.

He said they looked at short- and medium-term goals so as to not get constrained by future visions only.

“There were things that could be done collectively in a very short term, for example, adding signage, increasing the lighting quality and developing a guide, so that any member of the public can better understand how they can use the square.

“Pilot interventions are also recommended before making long-term changes, for example the addition of shelter, moveable seating, and experimenting with different creative structures to evaluate whether they work and how people respond.”

Among the suggested short-term goals, to be achieved in the next six to 18 months, was the creation of a Friends of Church Square-type entity, a multi-disciplinary group whose members had the knowledge, energy and resources to give input to the operations so that many views could be considered rather than having one concern dominating the agenda.

The medium-term goals recommended by Future Cape Town were that more power points be installed for events, possibly putting up a stage, adding more trees and the implementation of traffic calming measures at the Parliament and Spin Street intersection.

Ms Friedman said Urban Lime was working with a number of stakeholders, including the City, landlords, residents and body-corporates at the square to create a master plan which took into account different requirements and concerns of everyone.

“Changes are already becoming visible on the square as building renovations are drawing to a close, and others are starting. People will start to see new life in the square as food and beverage retailers start to occupy and tenant the shops. Further exciting announcements will be made as tenants are secured and permissions are granted,” she said.

Mr Herron said the vision the City had for Church Square was a vibrant, well-utilised public space that offered relief to the inner-city built form and also invites people to see and use the heritage resources in the vicinity.

“This space is a part of the urban fabric and deserves the attention it is currently receiving.”