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20 July 2011 ​

by Lucille Davie

The land that once housed the historical Rand Steam Laundries is to be turned into a parking lot as a temporary measure, before the old buildings are reinstated.

IMPERIAL Properties is planning to turn the flattened laundry site in Richmond into a temporary parking lot for Lancet Laboratories; but it will in the long term be required to reinstate the demolished buildings.

The original site, with its row of red-roofed buildings and attractive steam chimneysThe original site, with its row of red-roofed buildings and attractive steam chimneysSeveral loads of gravel have been deposited on the site, in preparation for the laying of the lot.

Imperial controversially demolished the small village of the Rand Steam Laundries & Cleaning & Dyeing Works, dating back to 1902, in January 2008. It was one of the last remaining examples of a steam-driven industrial site in the city.

Imperial bought the property in March 2006, with the intention of building a motor showroom on it. It has subsequently built a showroom barely a kilometre away, in Empire Road in Parktown.

The village had received provisional heritage protection for two years from the Provincial Heritage Resources Agency of Gauteng (Phrag) in September 2006, shortly after Imperial bought the site.

Heritage bodies claimed that Imperial deliberately defied the law, and that, despite being aware that it had to get permission from the City and Phrag, it went ahead with the demolition. Once the bulldozers started their work, it was only at the third order to stop demolition that they were switched off.

By that time only two buildings remained – a large hall-like structure and a tall cylinder, the former water tank. The attractive line of cottages and factory buildings along Napier Road with their distinctive chimneys, were no more.

The site has other significance – it was here that the AmaWasha, Zulu washermen from KwaZulu-Natal, washed the town’s laundry in the 1890s.

Permission to demolish
Imperial apparently applied twice to Phrag for permission to demolish, but both applications were turned down. This suggests that it was aware of the importance of the site but acted in accordance with a disputed demolition order from the City.

This time, Imperial initially appeared to have forgotten the outrage its previous actions elicited in the heritage community. Flo Bird, the chairperson of the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust (PWHT), was taken aback when she noticed that Imperial was levelling the land.

“We were very angry to discover work being done on site without consulting us and notified Imperial accordingly. Abject apologies, which we have accepted, now that they have agreed to apply for the appropriate consent use for temporary parking and to abide by the conditions we are seeking, which will upgrade the pavements and public areas of Richmond,” she wrote in her recent annual chairman’s report.

Bird has drawn up a list of conditions that the trust would like to see met for any work carried out on the site, and Imperial is now working with PWHT. The trust is a significant heritage pressure body and although it cannot enforce conditions, it is supported by Phrag.

The first issue is that Imperial will have to have the site rezoned for business before any work is done. At present it is zoned residential, obtained by the previous owners who had permission to erect a 17-storey block of flats. It would be illegal for Imperial to use the site for business without it first being rezoned, stresses Bird.

The application for rezoning is at present with the City’s planning department, confirms Thando Sishuba, the head of Imperial Properties.

The parking lot is seen as a one- or two-year measure, but in the long term Imperial will be required to re-instate the buildings it demolished, a condition of the rezoning, says Bird.

Sishuba says Imperial was approached by its neighbours, Lancet laboratories, to do something with the site, which has been vacant since the demolition in 2008. Rubble has been dumped on the empty plot, and criminals are using portions of it as a refuge.

For the future re-development of the site, which will be mixed use, he is ideally looking at finding an anchor office tenant, with retail tenants along Napier Road, he explains.

“We would consider a major retailer as well as a combination of smaller businesses like coffee shops, bookshops or dry cleaners – anyone who would lend credibility and credence to the area. We want a 24-hour city feel, a bit of a vibe.”

He stresses that Imperial is keen to undo any distress its 2008 demolition caused. “We are working hard to reverse whatever damage was done. We want the entire city of Johannesburg to be proud of what we do. We are doing everything acceptable to abide by the normal statutory processes.”

He talks of a “negotiated settlement with regard to the imposed rezoning conditions”, towards which all parties are working.

Bird is adamant that certain conditions will be fulfilled in the short-term development of the site. The parking area is to be gravelled not tarred, and the site is to be maintained and secured, to be undertaken by Lancet.

Two derelict houses on its northwestern border should be demolished and the rubble removed. The two remaining buildings on the site must be restored. The pavement along Napier Road should be upgraded and planted with oak trees, right up to the Johannesburg Country Club.

“These trees [are] to be properly maintained and protected as saplings and replaced if necessary. Oak trees are part of the heritage of Richmond and the road leading to the country club,” she says.

Bird is also very specific about how the work is to be done. “Drawings by a specialist conservation architect of the heritage buildings along Napier Road which are to reconstructed must be submitted to PWHT and Phrag before the consent can be considered for renewal,” she has indicated to Imperial.

“We don’t want restoration to be a Mickey Mouse affair.”

She says that the style of the buildings is “not complicated”. She is not insisting that Imperial replace the original Oregon pine, which would be difficult and expensive to obtain. Instead, it can use local materials but must re-create the original feel of the buildings.

In addition, no advertising is to be allowed on the site.

Conservation architect Herbert Prins of Phrag says the heritage body supports Bird’s proposals. Ideally, the site should be declared a heritage site, he adds.