Feature: Pleasures and plans at the V&A Waterfront

Cape Town’s landmark V&A Waterfront is going through something of a growth spurt. Already the most visited destination in Africa — it attracts about 25-million people a year — the precinct intends to add 300,000m² of space over the next twenty years to bump that number up to 35-million.

With shops and offices near the ocean, the occasional seal popping up on the surface of the sea and kayaks launching from the waterfront, the country’s oldest working harbour is one of South Africa’s biggest real estate successes.

Though 30-odd years old, the V&A has grown exponentially since the Public Investment Corp (PIC) and Growthpoint Properties took it over to become “the most iconic real estate in South Africa, if not on the African continent, and arguably one of the most iconic in the world”, says Growthpoint CEO Norbert Sasse. While the PIC and Growthpoint paid only R9.2bn for the development in 2011, its value is today estimated at just under R20bn. It makes up about 2% of the Western Cape’s economy and adds 28,000 jobs to it.

Wrenelle Stander is the CEO of Wesgro, the Western Cape’s tourism, trade and investment promotion agency. She says the Waterfront “has played a key role in the regeneration of Cape Town’s inner city, helping to revitalise the area and attract new investment, thus contributing to the ongoing development of the city as a whole”.

The numbers are upbeat, with Growthpoint’s most recent interim results showing the precinct has rebounded from the pandemic. Retail sales in December were at a record R1bn, which is 28% above the December 2019 figure; vacancies were at a minuscule 0.7% across the precinct; and visitor numbers for the rolling 12-month period ended December 31 were up 34.7% and are at 79% of pre-Covid levels. In December, V&A hotels achieved occupancy rates of 84%, 21% up on pre-pandemic occupancy.

The “city within a city” is today much like an independent municipality. And, increasingly, it’s taking control of its own water, energy and waste needs. It’s an important step in a time of climate change, not to mention severe load-shedding.

The V&A has the biggest concentration of green buildings in Africa and features a desalination plant. It’s pioneering wind turbines and waste-to-energy plants and is already about 80% on its way towards running its own waste recycling unit.

Management has spent about R250m on infrastructure to mitigate load-shedding, including the installation of solar equipment. However, it has had to run 48 generators to keep the shops, restaurants and mall infrastructure running, which pushed diesel consumption to almost 890,000l in the past financial year.

V&A CEO David Green talks of the Waterfront as a “neighbourhood”. “It’s constantly repurposing, maintaining the look, the feel, the character,” he tells the FM. “This is all about heading towards being carbon neutral.”

Green conducts most of his meetings on walkabouts, which allows him to keep tabs on what’s happening on the ground. We pass a yellow container — a pioneering modular black-water treatment plant. The water it generates is used to flush toilets and for irrigation around the precinct.

Of course, not everyone is a fan of the Waterfront. Some love it, some believe it’s an inauthentic version of the real Cape. For others, it’s a place of excess.

“I think you’re always going to get a variety of public opinions. And it is testament to this place that it gets 25-million visitors a year,” says Green.

“I’m happy if people come, shop at Louis Vuitton and eat at Willoughby’s, and I’m happy if people come, bring their families, look at a boat and bring a sandwiches and coffee. It is a place of relaxation, of refreshment. Our view is that it’s a public place for people to visit, and they can engage at whatever level.”

Some of the V&A workers have been there since the beginning. Rejeanne Vlietman, for example, is general manager of popular Belgian restaurant Den Anker. She’s been at the restaurant for 29 years, beginning as a student in 1994. “When I started we were in the heart of a construction space,” she says. “The Waterfront was newly built, the hotel was open, there was [the restaurant] Bertie’s Landing. We were at the end of the road adjacent to a fish factory. To just watch the property grow over the years has been incredible.”

While the precinct used to be frequented mostly by international visitors, Covid shifted the visitor profile. “Capetonians felt they belonged,” Vlietman says. “It was always seen as an elitist place to visit. But the narrative of ‘It’s overpriced and just for tourists’ is totally incorrect. It’s a whole lot more than that. If people took the time they’d see the Waterfront is like a micro-city within a city; it is an all-encompassing place.”

As Green puts it: “We’re not Disney, and we’re not a tourist attraction. We’re trying engage both local and overseas visitors. For us the locals provide the authenticity.”

According to Sasse, the previous owners of the V&A positioned the development to attract international tourists more than local visitors — something management today is working to address.

There’s been a concerted effort by management to enhance the appeal for locals, offering them canals (you can catch a ride for R70), waterways, a skateboarding park and basketball courts. It’s all worked towards making the V&A a “much more inclusive space than it’s ever been”, says Green. “Most people will feel there’s something in the space that relates to them.”

Still, as Vlietman points out, it’s “a bit of a bubble”. But, she adds: “I’ve personally seen the Waterfront really doing its level best to engage people, empower local business and just do the basics, such as feeding people.” (Management funded a feeding scheme during Covid.)

Among the V&A’s changes is the relocation of the Big Wheel to create more space for a piazza. Historical buildings such as the old grain silos have been repurposed (the Zeitz MOCAA museum is housed in the 100-year-old silos). The Union Castle building used to house a postal service for the shipping line from Europe and is set to undergo its own transformation, which will include providing an outlet for popular Joburg restaurant Marble.

Marble co-owner and chef David Higgs believes the Waterfront has much to offer. “A great amount of traffic comes through there, not only tourists. It’s a place that appeals to locals and internationals for a number of reasons — there’s parking, there’s a safety aspect and it’s clean.”

There are more than 100 restaurants in the precinct, along with markets and 13 hotels with 1,700 beds. More are in the pipeline, and they are likely to be international brands.

The eateries run the gamut of outlets, from those offering takeaways to fine dining venues. There’s Siba in the Table Bay hotel, Pier and The Waterside (part of the La Colombe group). Mmabatho Molefe, chef at the Emazulwini Restaurant, has won the Eat Out Rising Star award and been named among the top 50 future world chefs.

At Makers Landing, the V&A is “incubating” food businesses — pooling small operators so they don’t need to take out long leases and invest in equipment.

When it comes to retail, the V&A is about more than the mall. The Watershed market, for example, with 120 traders from around Africa, is open seven days a week. Meanwhile, the newly revamped Alfred Mall marks the transition from market to the main retail centre at Victoria Wharf.

Ocean-related work has become increasingly important. The Two Oceans Aquarium, for example, isn’t just a popular tourist attraction; it operates as a science institute.

Green sees enormous potential in the ocean economy, and small-scale fishermen receive funding from OceanHub Africa, a venture capital company that supports technological advances in the ocean.

For now, the focus is on growth. The biggest opportunity for expansion is in Granger Bay, towards the Cape Town Stadium. Plans are in early stages to see what can be done to the area, which is now home to Grand Africa Café & Beach and the Oranjezicht City Farm Market — already an important part of the Waterfront’s food ecosystem. A 10,500m² building is in the works for Investec, which will add to the office tally (offices take up more space than retail tenants in the precinct).

Still, it’s important to keep things manageable. By Green’s estimate, the Waterfront could double or treble its infrastructure without running into capacity problems, and create jobs in the process. He says just the increased tourism that this would bring to the city could account for 200,000-300,000 jobs.

But he sounds a word of caution: “If you tip towards a tourism trap, you’re dead; if you tip towards too much on the residential side, it’s not long before that residential [sector] says: ‘This is my place; I don’t really want you in here.’ Gates and fences go up. That has been the death of waterfronts.”


Article by Adele Shevel originally appeared in the Financial Mail