The Maboneng Precinct in Joburg CBD.
Photo: Simone Kley

JOHANNESBURG - Young professionals are decompressing over a post-work glass of wine, and students are sinking into what might be their fourth beer. Among the diverse crowd, the only common denominator is a carefree vibe - everyone seems to be having a good time.

Once an abandoned area fraught with crime, Maboneng Precinct has become a thriving inner-city hub - and the most dynamic part of town. The area has evolved over the past decade, but the January ribbon cutting of Hallmark House, a slick hotel and residential complex, marks a pivotal moment, making this once-downtrodden part of town a prime spot for locals and travellers.

The area’s revitalisation is courtesy of young entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann, a developer and the founder of Propertuity Development Company.

He started off small, purchasing a section of abandoned warehouses (now called Arts on Main) and leasing spaces to established artists and design studios. He invited local and global brands to use the warehouses as event spaces, lured acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge and art entrepreneur David Krut to occupy studio spaces, and suddenly Maboneng was on the map. The project grew steadily, and eventually, in 2011, he christened Market on Main, a weekly bazaar with food and product stalls, to help make the neighborhood a magnet for suburbanites and out-of-towners.

Until now, Maboneng has been seen as a vibrant day-trip option - supported by rapid growth of local shops and restaurants - but by nightfall, locals retreat to their own areas, and travellers return to the comforts of Johanesburg’s leafier, ritzier areas like Westcliff, Sandton and Saxonwold.

Although Maboneng had some lodging offerings, such as Curiocity Backpackers and the affordable but artsy 12 Decades Hotel, the area was still missing something: a hotel worthy of the international jet set and of the neighborhood’s own clout.

Enter Propertuity’s most ambitious project yet: Hallmark House, whose exterior, communal spaces, restaurants and bars all bear the design signature of the renowned Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye. A modular building with a jet-black facade, Hallmark House is Adjaye’s first residential building in Africa - and, at 16 stories, it’s the new beacon of Maboneng.

But what looks daunting from the outside is very welcoming on the inside, with flats that cater to all budgets, from sprawling penthouses to studio apartments.

“It’s a mixed-income community in one building,” said Liebmann. Beyond the apartments, the hotel has 46 sleek and simple rooms; their walls are done up with enormous panels of African-patterned textiles - each different than the next - with beds, benches, and throw pillows upholstered in complementary colours.

Hallmark House’s ground floor is dedicated to communal spaces, of which the most exciting are the two just-opened restaurants, Eug’s Place and Potluck Club; the latter a spinoff of one of Cape Town’s best restaurants. The chef, Luke Dale Roberts, has for years been sitting on the cusp of global household status: His flagship, the Test Kitchen, is the rare African restaurant to rank among the world’s top tables.

Then there’s Loof Coffee bar, a branch of a Joburg fixture, peddling macchiatos and cortados brewed from custom-roasted beans. Underground is a jazz bar, speakeasy, and barber - the latest de rigueur amenity for any hip hotel.

This October, in time for Johannesburg’s summer season, the building will unveil a spa and bar on the rooftop, with 360-degree views of the city. And for those keen to explore beyond the hotel, there’s a complimentary shuttle, which rotates every 30 minutes, making stops at Maboneng’s pioneering destinations such as Arts on Main and MoAD (the Museum of African Design).

“For me, it’s a facilities-led, mixed-income building where there’s lots of diversity,” he said. “But one of the cool things about it is that David (Adjaye) has an apartment there,” said Liebmann.

For those who’ve spent time in LA’s downtown or London’s Shoreditch, Maboneng might seem like just another rejuvenated district. But the scale of Maboneng’s success, considering Joburg gets only 2.5 million international visitors a year, compared to Los Angeles’s 45.5 million, is staggering. Since 2009, the number of Propertuity commercial tenants has increased from 38 to 609, and the commercial square meterage has expanded from 4.417 to 112.537.

The number of foreigners coming into the neighborhood is also increasing.

“We are looking at an annual growth of 25 to 30 percent of international visitors. We’re getting lots of people from the UK, Germany, and the US,” said Liebmann.

For many locals, it’s a real lifeline. “I’m from this community, and when Maboneng began, I finally saw an opportunity to make my mark,” said Bheki Dube, the founder of the Maboneng hostel Curiocity Backpackers. Now travellers can see the neighbourhood through Dube’s eyes. In 2011, Dube started Main Street Walks, a company aimed at getting people to rediscover and engage with the surrounding area on foot.

Liebmann is nowhere near finished.

“The vision is to create a large, sustainable, integrated urban community,” he said. 

 - BLOOMBERG