Gaborone’s CBD: In Search of Lost Time

Less than a decade ago, the Gaborone Central Business District (CBD) was nothing more than this odd piece of land full of empty bushy patches and long straight roads that nobody would use except mischievous adolescents drag racing or learners practicing their driving.

But starting from the late 2000s, the situation changed dramatically. Suddenly there were high-rise buildings being erected and bringing life to this once desolate landscape, a move driven by a government master plan to develop the area. Businesspeople and consumers alike greeted the new developments with excitement and it really seemed like the CBD would finally become the Capital City’s centre of activity.

It is now 2015 and the CBD has come a long way in a short space of time. While it may still be dominated by large patches of undeveloped land, it also boasts of having some of the tallest and most attractive buildings in the city. But a closer look at the details reveals that the road ahead will not be smooth for this flourishing precinct. The truth is Gaborone’s CBD will face an uphill battle as it tries to claim its place as the heart of the city and realise a vision that was conceived more than 20 years ago.

Too Little Too Late?

As far back as 1989, government planners conceived a Master Plan for the development of the CBD. This envisioned the area being developed in three phases running over the course of some 20 years (1995 to 2015). There were to be strict parameters in place regulating the heights of the buildings in each section. The thinking was that this phased development would allow the market to develop the district naturally. Unfortunately, developers were initially not eager to enter the area and government seemed void of a concrete strategy to attract investment. So the CBD languished, remaining an eye-sore that nobody quite understood.

Then the inevitable happened. Private sector players drove the establishment of business districts in other parts of the city, which developed into formidable areas of trade and investment. Three in particular — Commerce Park, Kgale Mews & Fairground Office Park — seemed to corner the office market overnight. By the time government woke up to the reality that the CBD was falling behind, it had already been thoroughly overtaken. Action had to be taken and government introduced a development covenant that forced every CBD landowner to develop their plot within two years of purchase and virtually abandoned the strict parameters and phasing of the original Master Plan.

This move achieved the desired effect but not without controversy. The CBD suddenly started becoming a centre of activity with buildings being erected at every corner and people using the area for more than driving lessons and drag racing. But, one has to wonder, is this simply a case of too little too late?

Landowners and Government: Enemies Or Partners?

Several landowners in the CBD have been given numerous extensions to their development covenants but last year five of them had their plots repossessed for failure to develop within the stipulated time. In the midst of this, the area still faces major infrastructure challenges, which have long been highlighted in the Master Plan, such as a lack of streetlights and access routes.

Sandy Kelly is the Managing Director of property developer Time Projects. The company has invested a great deal in the CBD with the Prime Plaza office development, valued at roughly US$22 million, which houses the Time Projects headquarters along with the headquarters of major corporate brands such as Barclays Botswana.

Frustrated with government’s failure to put up vital infrastructure, Time Projects took matters into its own hands, bringing all the CBD landowners together and contributing money to develop speed bumps and pedestrian crossings. Kelly says they are willing to take it a step further and have made numerous requests to government to allocate the CBD landowners more plots so they can develop amenities such as designated parking areas, but government has ignored these requests.

Another bone of contention is that while the area is meant to be a hub of commercial activity it is being populated by a large number of government departments and parastatals. When I put this to Kelly he concurred that it’s ironic that parastatals such as the Botswana Housing Corporation and Water Utilities Corporation have had undeveloped plots sitting idle in the area for years while the requests of private developers for plots on which to develop amenities have been routinely ignored.

“Government talks about stimulating the private sector but keeps everything to itself — lip service you may say,” laments Kelly. The private sector is able and willing to do more and is capable of delivery, he says.

Government Remains Optimistic

Despite criticism from private developers, government remains optimistic that the CBD will develop into a vibrant mixed-use zone as envisaged in the Master Plan.

Regarding vital infrastructure, the Department of Town & Regional Planning (DTRP) says government provided the major infrastructure for development facilitation, including road, water, power and sewerage, before development started and that government is implementing the remaining infrastructure.

The DTRP acts as the secretariat of the CBD Advisory Committee. This committee is composed of government and private sector representatives and considers designs prepared by project consultants, passing its recommendations to the Gaborone City Council’s Physical Planning Committee to decide on matters of planning permission.

In an emailed response to my questions, the DTRP insisted that the Committee has made recommendations to government to fast-track the development of the remaining infrastructure including street lighting, access and development of an open space network, and that following the recommendations, projects are now in place to develop all of these.

Regarding the question of why the CBD is attracting a large number of government departments and parastatals, the DTRP said the CBD, which is envisaged as a vibrant mixed-use zone bringing the concept of ‘live-work-play’ into the area, is currently at about 40 percent completion. This, it argued, only reflects a small percentage of the total tenant mix of when the CBD is fully developed and government entities existing in the CBD occupy a small portion of the completed 40 percent.

The DTRP is also far from convinced that the development of the CBD may be too little too late, saying: “The Gaborone CBD is the highest order business node within the city. Its situation at the centre of the city strategically places this precinct as the central business hub of Gaborone. It is not too late for the CBD to develop as it provides a higher order and mix of business in one location, which Gaborone currently does not have, at the most convenient point.”

Only Time Will Tell

The original plan envisioned Gaborone’s CBD developing steadily over a period of 20 years so with that in mind one can say that the area is just beginning its growth, since construction on the first buildings only began in the late 2000s. But it can’t be ignored that a protracted development process, bureaucracy, and a private sector hungry for development elsewhere have put the area in a position in which time is of the essence.

Just to throw another spanner into the works, the Botswana market is currently experiencing a liquidity crunch that has made it harder to access funding for property development.

“The biggest challenge that most property investors and owners would experience right now is the fact that people don’t have liquidity: there’s less money in circulation and disposable income is reduced,” the Executive Chairman of RDC Properties, Mr. G.R. Giachetti told me.

RDC are the developers of Masa Centre, a mixed-use property, which includes a hotel, a cinema and several restaurants. Masa Centre was amongst the first developments in the CBD and has grown into one of the area’s biggest attractions. “The lack of liquidity would be a challenge if we had to do the same project today,” says Giachetti. “We had enough difficulties in finding funding when the market was doing better.”

Of course, markets fluctuate all the time so the current scenario may only be temporary but all these factors combined point to one conclusion: it may yet be a long time before we find out if the CBD can live out its destiny of becoming the heart of Gaborone.

Kibo Ngowi is a journalist based in Gaborone, Botswana, who has contributed articles to several nationally-distributed newspapers and the national airline’s in-flight magazine as a freelance writer. He is currently the Deputy Editor of Boidus Focus Newspaper, a monthly publication dedicated to covering issues around Botswana’s building and construction industry. You can reach him via kibongowi@gmail.com

Photo: Gaborone’s Central Business District. Kibo Ngowi.

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