On a sunny Saturday morning, Joburg arts and culture lovers buzz around Daville Baillie Gallery, clutching bubbly and croissants. They are not only here to see the artwork of designer Faatimah Mohamed-Luke and her creative director husband Al, who are exhibiting together for the first time: they are also here to visit an area that has become quite a talking point owing to the rejuvenation taking place in it.
The new Victoria Yards development comprises artists’ studios and artisans’ workshops, as well as a small urban farm and event space. Design-wise, it’s characterised by its numbered old cement buildings, some of which feature exposed brick and others still bearing the peeling painted signs of former tenants. Fauna such as bees, bats and owls have been introduced, and lush young vegetable patches and trees have been planted in between the new pedestrian paving and warehouse plots. The result is a veritable urban ecosystem.
Just a year ago the 30 000m2 Victoria Yards project was a mere vision in the head of Group 44 developer Brian Green, and now its farm’s fresh produce is harvested every Friday for tenants’ use. It’s also home to the Impi Brewing Co, which offers craft beers and wood-fired pizzas – and will soon be moving its currently Kyalami-based microbrewery to the premises.
The Victoria Yards property is situated in Lorentzville in an area that has been anchored by fast-food chain Nando’s global head office on
Victoria Road since the early 1990s. A river runs through the Yards, too – the Jukskei, one of Joburg’s largest waterways. Spearheaded by State of the Nation founder Romy Stander (also a Victoria Yards tenant) a huge project is underway to turn the river into a clean, accessible and safe public space.
While it might be tempting to compare Victoria Yards to Group 44’s other (much better-known) development at 44 Stanley in Milpark, the new project’s singularity lies in the fact that ‘all the tenants have to manufacture in their spaces,’ says manager Chann de Villiera.
Among the small businesses already producing on site are Sarah Cronin Designs, which fashions bespoke, life-like lighting and botanical water features from pure brass and copper. Clare McKenzie’s Stitch is a social enterprise in aid of Bethany Home for the abused, creating picnic blankets, bedspreads, cushions and more from shweshwe and other printed fabrics. Tshepo Mohlala’s Tshepo The Jean Maker crafts a premium denim range, and Coote & Wench Design Company creates distinctive repurposed tripod lights. Artists such as Ayanda Mabulu, Blessing Ngobeni, James Delaney and Craig Actually Smith have also moved in.
De Villiera points out the heart of the Yards – the meadow-like area pegged for the entertainment space, a landscaped ‘amphitheatre’ alongside a three-storey warehouse building that is still being renovated. ‘The meadow will be mowed, and you’ll be able to bring your picnic blanket,’ she says. The plan is to host live music events here, starting with a winter festival this month. And inside the warehouse, a large, open room with an inviting fireplace makes an ideal setting for an intimate gathering. Plans are afoot to install a signature restaurant in time as well.
‘We are landlords and creating spaces for rent, but we’re trying to do it in a responsible way and in response to what’s around us,’ says Green. ‘It’s an easy thing to say and a very difficult thing to do because how do we interact with the people that are surrounding us?’ he adds. ‘Well, for example, David Krynauw occupies a large factory on the other side of the river and he employs about 30 people from the area.’ And Nando’s cofounder Robbie Brozin is working to bring in a group to set up sound studios and encourage kids to learn about audio production.
Speaking of longer-term plans, Green mentions the work they are doing with ‘aspiring changemaker’ Simon Sizwe Mayson, who focuses on mixed-income, mixed-use social housing developments that aim to ‘enable the complementary dimensions of collective wellbeing, sustainability and a culture of active citizenship’, as Mayson puts it. Victoria Yards is also collaborating with an enterprise development expert, who is looking at ways of helping its tenants to manage and structure their businesses better.
‘Hopefully we’ll be able to build it up into a facility for people in the area to come to learn about enterprise development and improve their businesses,’ says Green. ‘There is a lot of interest in using Bezuidenhout Valley and Lorentzille as an experiment or place where we can make a difference. We will remain responsible landlords who try to create an environment that can eventually integrate beautifully with the surrounding neighbourhood.’
It’s clearly the start of a long road at Victoria Yards – but with fresh ideas, loads of enthusiasm and much positive energy already evident in and around the precinct, it looks likely to provide inspiration to developers around the country over the next few years.
For more information about Victoria Yards visit victoriayards.co.za.