Category Community Upliftment

Florida Road is not just a road - it's a precinct, a concept, the constantly evolving mixed-use urban heartbeat of Durban's active life. Jonny Friedman, CEO of Urban Lime, talks about The Road ahead

If you haven't been near Florida Road in a while, you'll be astonished. Even if you haven't been for a week, you'll be taken aback. The pace at which it's reinventing itself is staggering.  

Remember the vibrancy that was Florida Road a decade or so ago, and then, how it stalled? Well, it's returned with vigour, and the past couple of years has seen this iconic road of historical significance rise from its torpor, to become a vibrant mixed-use precinct that just continues to reshape itself to fit the evolving SA lifestyle.  

Jonny Friedman is CEO of Urban Lime, a group with a long, successful history of urban regeneration in South Africa and the UK. He's passionate about the potential of Florida Road, and to prove that, the group owns around 25 buildings there. They don't go in in a half-hearted kind of way, they think big, substantial and long term. Friedman is entirely hands-on when it comes to the area's vision, and - with his decades of extensive experience in urban regeneration - brings a range of skill-sets to the table. 

He explained his rationale behind Florida Road:  "Urban Lime looks for areas with the potential to be great, but which have gone out of fashion." Urban Lime doesn't do 'new' builds, but specialises in restoration and repurposing properties in clusters rather than singles, so they're able to make a dramatic impact. 

As Friedman says, "What happens is that completely un-investable areas, suddenly become investable. People see the area improve and opportunities present themselves - they want to be part of the change. It becomes a prosperous cycle." 

Urban Lime walks the talk, and their investment is not just about encouraging other landlords to invest. Their positivity and success is contagious, so everybody cleans up their act, gets fussier about tenants, and sees value in caring about their properties and area.

One of the wonderful things about Florida Road is the charm of its historical buildings; not only are they being restored, but also repurposed for contemporary use. Urban Lime may be large investors, but they're not simply focussing on their own properties. There is a clear overall vision, a blueprint if you like, but not one carved in stone. As Friedman says, "The context of that vision is grounded in adaptability which develops as neighbourhoods need change. One has to be extremely sensitive as to how change is applied, and what the results will be. The best urban regeneration projects are rooted in flexibility; it has to be that way to satisfy fickle human behaviour; by its very nature it's incremental." 

Urban Lime's vision isn't simply the road, but to niche out different parts of Florida Road. For example, below Gordon Road, travelling down, left hand side is largely nightlife; above Gordon Road, left hand side, travelling up, is largely restaurants, eateries and bars. But there are plans for so much more, including additional retail - local Durban brands, South African favourites, and international - specialised offerings like an elegant piano bar and additional fine dining. The concept of carving out interesting spaces in the back of buildings is gaining traction, and Florida Road's secret courtyards, squares and little lanes are being opened up, celebrated and enjoyed.     

One thing which Friedman is very definite about: "With urban regeneration changing the narrative of Durban, it's really important to create things that stand out. People need to say 'wow, what's happening in Durban?' The City needs catalytic developments which blow locals and visitors away. Nobody is drawn to the 'ordinary' or even 'quite good'. It has to be stand out." 

Friedman believes that an exceptional Florida Road precinct will tempt those who've gone north, to return and dip their toes back into the water. "Visitors can linger here, on the fringe of the city, until they've grown accustomed to the water's temperature."

Transforming Florida Road from a good street to a world-class one, requires out-of-the-box thinking. Friedman doesn't really think any other way: "There's a whole range of things we are going to do, and are considering, but we can't do it alone: the biggest thing that needs to happen is upgrades to the street scape and public areas. The Municipality has agreed on an impressive master-plan to assist with Florida Road's flow and walkability. They have removed the ratio of parking per restaurant, and the new turning circle at Florida/Lambert/Currie has just started construction. The plan is to reduce two lanes of traffic each way to one along the whole stretch and this will include interventions to extend sidewalks, providing more alfresco dining opportunities, stylish street furniture, better lighting and improved 'walkability' which is really key."

A collective of Florida Road businesses is at an advanced stage of talks with the City to open up parking in the parallel streets, particularly the linking roads between Florida and parallel Montpelier, and the north-facing roads like Lambert and Gordon which are already well used on busy nights, and which would add an additional 500 to 600 parking spaces.  

But by trying to shift the South African psyche away from parking 2cm from your destination, Florida Road has to ensure that people feel, and are, safe. The Florida Road Urban Improvement Precinct (UIP) funded by Municipality collected levies paid by local businesses' for the service, has a very clear mandate: it includes security - vehicular, foot patrols and links to private patrols which manage local initiatives - cleaning and greening staff, communication between all members, general precinct management, and even a branding initiative aimed at re-establishing Florida Road as a South African icon.

Mixed use is at the core of Florida Road, and new commercial/ residential buildings are rising, two large developments at various stages of the building/approvals/sales process.  First is Montpelier Square, a series of luxury apartments with panoramic sea and city views, and a strong architectural heritage element, thanks to the vaulted Victorian reservoir; and the other 2six2 on Florida Road (corner of Lambert and Florida), a contemporary residential building, with retail, offices, restaurants and other commercial business on the lower levels.

Office space is sought after, and four of Urban Lime's buildings have been converted into 'Plug 'n' Play' offices, supplying around 100 different sized spaces, with another 200 envisaged. Specifically aimed at SMME and micro businesses, the spaces get snapped up by entrepreneurs, creatives, first business owners, and so on.  Work and play have been very strategically interwoven.

Public and green spaces are also important. Friedman describes the current thinking: "Florida Road was always an entertainment destination, but now, we need to think about the street from very early in the morning to very early the next morning - who uses it, how do they use it, and what range of choices we provide to make it attractive for all those vastly different groups of people."

The Gordon Road Park public space, is considered woefully underutilised. Together with the city, conversations are happening around a small amphitheatre, big screen for sports, underground parking and more. 

At Florida Fields at the upper end of Florida Road, there are around 3,000 square metres of office space, and about 20 retail tenants. Everybody's drawn to the carefully designed public space that's been created, and it's becoming a place to eat, dance, play, meet family, friends and chill."

Significantly, Friedman considers the Florida Road precinct as effecting a turn-around for the entire Berea area:  

"Everybody gravitates towards a positive narrative. The global trend is for mixed use, smaller-space living, close to work, play, schooling and so on."

Florida Road is on the doorstep of many of Durban's top schools like DPHS and Gordon Road, Durban Girl's College and Clifton College...and so many more. So, whilst Florida Road might have its provenance as the entertainment centre of Durban, it's so much more than that...and it's continuing on that trajectory. 

So, when there's real talk around a network of cable cars to run from South and North Beach, up to Florida Road, you know it's not just hot air. It's a strategic link between what is considered to be the City's major tourist drawcards and, in keeping with Florida Road being that extraordinary place where everybody wants to be, a cable car would be different, exciting, extraordinary for Durban.  

The objective?  To be a Top 50 City globally. Why not?

Author: Anne Schauffer

Submitted 28 Nov 19 / Views 389