Uncovered: Jozi’s underground marvel

Published Sep 21, 2016


Anna Cox

Johannesburg - Three kilometres of flooded, dingy and forgotten tunnels, hidden in the bowels of the earth in the centre of the Joburg CBD, could soon become trendy, well-lit pedestrian walkways - complete with coffee shops and real parks.

The Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) plans to commission a feasibility study in the 2016/17 financial year into whether the old postal tunnels - which were closed in 1956 - could be used to connect various transport hubs and buildings.

So far, about 3km of tunnels have been found, but it is suspected there could be more.

Rumour has it that the tunnels extend to Constitution Hill and that in the old days, prisoners were transported through them.

Ray Harli and Yonah Odendal, from Urbansoup Architects and Urban Designers, have great plans for the tunnels. They specialise in transport-related architecture and focus on inner-city regeneration.

They rediscovered the entrance to one of the tunnels while constructing the new Kazerne transit-oriented transport hub near Queen Elizabeth Bridge.

“We were digging away into an old embankment when we found the entrance. We had no idea what was inside. We immediately got the heritage authorities and the JDA, for whom we are working on the Kazerne node, involved. We also started looking at the history of the tunnels,” Harli said.

The pair of architects believe the tunnels could contribute to the urban regeneration and “stitching” together of city buildings and transport nodes of the new Kazerne and Park stations, as well as people who use the nearby Noord Street taxi facility. The tunnels would also become a new public space, said Harli.

They are working on a concept whereby the tunnels will act as an urban regenerative spine which will catalyse the regeneration of both existing and new building stock in the Joburg inner city.

They are identifying strategic areas where new ramps and staircases will be positioned at street level to increase accessibility to the tunnels.

The overall intention is to make the tunnels a destination and not only act as a connector.

The feasibility study could take about 18 months. The project has been called “Subcity”.

The design of the new facility has purposely incorporated the tunnels’ entrance in the overall layout and space planning.

The tunnels were used to transport mail in the 1930s.

Joburg, at the time, had one of the fastest mail systems in the country, but delivery was hampered by heavy traffic.

The tunnels were built at a cost of R800 000 between the the Jeppe Street post office and the former Harrison Street post office to Kazerne, which was a postal distribution hub and continued to Park Station where the mail was despatched to various destinations. They run under the railway tracks to the different platforms.

Letters and parcels were moved on a conveyor belt between various points and ejected through a chute system onto the trains, with 33 000 bags of letters handled weekly between 3am and 11pm.

The tunnels were closed in 1956 when Park Station had to be expanded.

Later, a sorting depot was built underground at Kazerne with a thee-storey building above it, but over the years it became derelict and was taken over as a parking area by taxis.

A lot of work has to be done to the tunnels to make them usable and safe, including the removal of stormwater which is currently flooding them. In the interim, the entrance to the tunnel will be temporarily closed off for security reasons, Harli said.

In addition to increasing pedestrian mobility between the two sites, more ambitious proposals for the tunnels include creating an underground museum or an underground park similar to the Low Line in New York City.

This underground space was a large trolley terminal that had been unused and derelict for the past 60 years.

“Natural light will be direct-ed below ground using fibre optics, described in the proposed plan as “remote skylights”, to provide an area in which trees and grass could be grown beneath the city streets.

“”the tunnels could provide Joburg with a unique and iconic public space,” Harli added.


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