Waterfall aims to be a town in itself

This article first appeared in BDLive on 20/05/2014 - Waterfall aims to be a town in itself. View the original article.
Will Vos - Waterfall Estate

SELF-CONTAINED: The CEO of Waterfall Management Company, Willie Vos. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

WATERFALL Country Estate, located within the larger Waterfall Estate development, may be the most pristine-looking part of Midrand, standing out among highways and industry, and it is not even finished yet.

The developers are trying to offer a high standard of living for middle-income to wealthy people. The idea is that residents are able to enjoy country living, enjoying recreational activities such as bird-watching and horse riding.

Beyond offering luxurious living, the developers, headed by newly listed capital growth property firm Attacq, are opening services such as malls to nonresidents. It is a challenging double play to serve both groups. Attacq listed on the JSE in October last year. It has a track record of establishing large, profitable developments.

Located midway between Johannesburg and Pretoria on a 2,200ha tract of land bordered by Midrand, Kyalami and Woodmead, and valued at more than R20bn by its developers, Waterfall Estate has been under construction since 2011.

It is the biggest development under construction in South Africa and is envisaged as including two retirement villages, the Waterfall Business Estate business park, a Netcare private hospital, a light industrial park, two schools and the Mall of Africa.

The idea is that people can be born in the estate, go to school there, work at one of various companies’ offices in the business centre, and then retire there.

“It is a huge project. In today’s terms, our estimate is that the total construction value of this development is R71.2bn, including everything that will happen here by 2022-23,” says the CEO of the Waterfall Management and Operating Company, Willie Vos.

“But there is a 1.5 multiplier effect because of what is happening here, and investments around here in other industries, which means the economic impact of this development amounts to R106bn in today’s terms,” he says.

Mr Vos, whose background is in affordable housing, says Waterfall aspires to be an example of how the private sector can redevelop a large metropolitan area like Midrand.

But this goal presents problems.

The country estate has been marketed as an example of green living. It is built on a highly sensitive environmental area. Its ecosystem includes wetlands and grasslands, home to some rare animal and plant species.

There is also the criticism that the estate effectively turns Midrand into a luxury area, disregarding the needs of the less affluent there.

Attacq began planning the overall development in 1997. It used its property development company, Atterbury Developments, to develop the nonresidential aspects, and signed an agreement with Century Property, which took care of the residential development. Century is the 51% partner with the Waterfall Management and Operating Company, the main manager of the living area properties.

For many of the residents, the outdoors lifestyle that Waterfall offers is a major part of its appeal, and in keeping with that, they expect careful management of the environment.

Some allege Waterfall has destroyed wetland and grassland areas, causing a loss of wildlife. They have approached Kristin Kallesen, who chairs nongovernmental organisation Just Environmental Action, to study the environment at the development and the plans to manage it. She is also a member of the Greater Kyalami Conservancy Organisation.

Ms Kallesen says the Waterfall Management and Operating Company and Century have been slack with the environmental impact assessments (EIAs), noting that the companies commissioned three EIAs at the development, but that these were done poorly.

One EIA was for the Netcare Hospital, one for the business estate, and one for the living areas including the retirement villages.

Waterfall hired environmental consultant Gwen Theron to conduct the EIA on the business estate. Strategic Environmental Focus was hired to do the other EIAs.

Ms Theron then assessed its EIA work. At the time, she was a full-time employee of Golder Associates, a multinational company that helps other companies implement green strategies, which has signed a lease to open its first South African office at Waterfall Estate. It is one of the firms that has said it wants its office to be situated in a Green Star-rated building.

Ms Kallesen says Ms Theron was under pressure to sign off on the EIAs as being of a high standard.

“Golder would want to be part of a green development. This is why Ms Theron’s work was slack and why we have seen so much environmental degradation here, including the destruction of the wetlands,” she says.

But Ms Theron stands by her findings that the development has done no environmental damage.

“We have drawn up a plan which we have given to the home owners association and I am confident that we can manage the estate well. No wetlands have been destroyed and no rare animal species have been lost,” Ms Theron says.

She says her opinions were made independently of Golder’s interest in the estate.

Ms Kallesen says the environmental management plan is too brief and needs to be reworked.

Mr Vos says the environmental allegations must be viewed in the context of a shifting regulatory landscape.

“It is important to remember that the development concept was started 17 years ago, when environmental legislation looked very different from today. Some aspects were sprung on developers at a very late stage and other issues have recently been done away with. This made, and still makes, development extremely difficult,” he says.

Mr Vos says the estate’s other challenge is to manage people dynamics. “We want this to be aspirational living, so people want to look up to living here and work to do so, but the idea of building housing for lower-income customers is not out of the question.”

He says the estate was designed to be a town within itself, but it is open to nonresident visitors.

Johann Jordaan, of Optical Town Planners, one of the companies involved in the development, says Waterfall offers a high level of security and that may be why it is seen as a gated community.

“An essential consideration in our modern lives is security…. The development has provided a home to each family where children will be able to walk or cycle to school and take safe evening strolls in the streets,” Mr Jordaan says.

There are 15,000 people working on the various construction sites across the estate and by the time it is fully operational, about 95,000 construction-related jobs will have been created.

He estimates that 60,000 permanent jobs will have been created once the estate is completed, involved in the daily management of the estate or operating businesses within it.

Some of these businesses will fall within the Mall of Africa, which is under construction.

The 116,000m² ² mall will account for R3.6bn of the R6bn to be spent in total on retail and commercial business development in the estate.

About 7,500 residential units are to be built, housing between 35,000 and 40,000 people, in six residential areas within the estate.

Houses already built are valued at about R4bn.