Why can’t they build somewhere else?

5 min readApr 22, 2021

I was asked this question on response to my Amazonification piece, by a person concerned about the “flooding risk”.

Gaining some perspective, from Khayelitsha Wetland Park.

I’m not an expert on the flooding risk. What I do know is, most of Cape Town has been built, since the earliest colonisers, by managing water. This is not to say this is “right” (I too, dream of “Reclaiming Camissa”). It is, however, our reality — out city is built on a flood plain — the “flats” we call it. This includes the suburbs neighbouring the site who benefit from the existing canalisation of water.

There are ways that this is done that totally sterilizes the space — a pure engineering of water — and there are ways that bring ecology back — we have a mixture of both in Cape Town, sometimes along the same river.

Century City was enabled by a series of interventions related to water — including “the canal” and a detention pond famously made into an environmental attraction — Intaka Island.

Intaka Island at Century City — an ecological approach to managing flood risks

Less beautiful and more recent examples include the detention ponds built to enable Forest Village — a Human Settlements Project (why couldn’t they get something beautiful and multi-functional?) and the developer-funded retention ponds that can be seen as you exit the N1 onto the R300 (pictured below) — these enable the warehousing developments on either side — also built in what would other wise be a flood zone.

Detention ponds enabling warehousing and industrial development at Brackenfell

These detention ponds do nothing more than they “need” to — catch and hold the water when it rains and slowly release it into the storm water and river system to prevent flooding; thereby enabling development of adjacent properties, on land previously thought to be un-developable.

This is on the Kuils River system. “Kuils River” not really being a river — directly translated, it is “Ponds river” — it is, a system of ponds. These detention ponds, formalise that.

At the bottom end of the system, the City has built the Khayelitsha Wetland Park. A beautiful social and ecological amenity. We really do have examples of everything in one city.

Ok, so what would the alternatives be? Why can’t they build somewhere else?

The alternatives are:

1. No development

We have so many unemployed and unhoused people, on face value the instinct is to say: this can’t possibly be an option — “we have to keep up with growth”.

Cape Town CBD, according to the CCID, has approximately 1 062 023m2 of office space. The River Club development is around 140 000m2; of which Amazon will take up around 70 000m2.

So Amazon is looking for about 7% of the CBD’s current office stock.

In the context of COVID this could be a win-win.

But looking at the hockey-stick-shaped indicators of our economic recovery, it probably won’t be very long before, if not Amazon, someone is looking for office space.

2. Develop on another infill site

The developer owns this site though. They bought it from Transnet without rights, that was their risk.

If the City really wanted to protect this site, they could do a “land swap” — with another golf course, for example — it also doesn’t have rights at the moment. Give them Mowbray Golf Course — it’s just around the corner. Or even another part of TRUP? But are we sure we wouldn’t have any groups protesting the development of that site? And then we would lose the opportunity that that site presents to do an affordable housing development.

I’m pretty sure if the River Club were in City ownership, with its proximity to Salt River train station, some groups would insist it be used for spatial transformation — would people be less concerned about flooding if we were proposing to do a zero-rated development on the River Club to enable affordable housing? Would the City be able to afford the engineering works for such a development? (No)

I think on balance it’s better left with Mowbray for housing and the River Club to the developers.

(Most other infill sites of this scale are owned by the state and face institutional and/or environmental complexities).

3. Regenerate and densify areas where there are existing buildings

This option definitely seems the most appealing (also to me from an outcomes perspective). We talk all the time about Voortrekker Road corridor, Bellville, the Foreshore etc…

Damn; imagine if the Foreshore Freeway project had gone ahead — maybe Amazon would be campusing there…

In terms of regenerating existing buildings, from a developer perspective this is harder — these buildings are all owned by people or Trusts who might not want to sell, and many of them are sectional title — even harder to negotiate a sale.

To get anything of “campus scale” (I.e being able to convince multiple buildings all next to each other to sell) would be once-in-life time. There may be a few family Trusts about owning entire blocks. The only one of significant scale that I am aware of is the Mintzer family who own most of Lady Grey street in Paarl….

From a City perspective, the benefit of River Club over this option relates to the infrastructure — in regeneration projects developers pay “development contributions” towards upgrading existing infrastructure. At the River Club, the developers are putting in a whole host of new enabling infrastructure.

4. Develop north

This has been a part of Cape Town’s trend for many years — expansion up the West Coast, towards and into the Boland, and of Somerset West.

Our approved Spatial Development Framework allows for some of this, but discourages it due to:

  • These areas also being environmentally sensitive (flora and fauna)
  • Inefficiencies from a City resources perspective (it’s costly to service a sprawling city — that waste collection truck must drive more Km, the MyCiTi bus must reach further, there must be more clinics instead of bigger or better staffed clinics etc)
  • Inefficiencies for residents and businesses who have to travel long distances to reach places of work, leisure, services etc and increased carbon emissions, etc that go with that.

This is how fast we are growing….do we want all the pressure to be on the edges and farmlands?

I am not attempting to say the River Club is “right” or “wrong” but hoping to shed some context on the complexity of the “develop somewhere else” idea.




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