The Full Ponte

Luxury apartments in the roughest neighborhood in town? One small development group with big plans thinks it’s an easy sell. All you have to do is believe. BY TANYA PAMPALONE

The ride up is bumpy. At every floor, the cramped elevator stops and bounces, as if it were hanging from a delicate bungee at the end of its rope. It’s enough to make you queasy – at least on your first ride. We’re headed for the 51st floor at One Lily Avenue in Berea. We’re going to the top, where the penthouses form a full circle in this 173-metre tower crowned with the blue Vodacom sign. The building’s protective silhouette hovers over Gauteng with an almost motherly hold, the way she proudly dominates this land, though most will tell you – her phallic form clearly supporting their claims – that Ponte is definitely a man. I’m not so sure.

I am meeting the PR chick for Ponte in number 5102. I’m dizzy from the sheer excitement of being here – the kind of anxiety that sits in the pit of your stomach because you are meeting, for the first time, an icon, a legend; albeit one with a dirty, nasty reputation.

The corridors smell of urine and stale cigarettes, constricting the air in the stairwells which are littered with broken bottles and grey pigeon feathers. But from up here, where helicopters fly beneath you and matchbox cars fill highway rivers, all that falls away.

In 5102, I find a white mosquito net stirring in the breeze, a queen size bed with an old white duvet thrown over it – no sheet – and the naked torso of a young man splayed, his blue jeans low on his waist, wine glasses and a bowl of strawberries looking used and abandoned. It looks a bit like a porn shoot, a sparse, low grade set with made-up actors milling about, cameramen toting oversized equipment and the bed, there, alone, in the middle of the room.

But this is no porn shoot. This is a marketing exercise for Ponte. The New Ponte, that is. The one of legends and grime and dirt, which is now – thanks to two developers with cojones the size of soccer balls or shit for brains, depending on who you ask – about to get an extreme makeover of the sort that just may have the potential to transform the whole neighborhood.

The New Ponte will contain 467 upper and middle market, fully furnished residential units, including six penthouses which boast 265 square meters and three floors. There will be a promenade-style retail floor with an upmarket restaurant and grocery store, a state-of-the-art gym (Virgin Active recently signed up to take that spot), a crèche, dry cleaning facility, pharmacy, stationary store and cell phone shop. In the middle of it all, the developers tell me, will be a climbing wall and a three-story children’s adventure playground the likes of which Gautengers have yet to lay their eyes upon. The plans include light boxes of coloured glass, half a metre wide, which will bring radiance to the inner core of the building. The outer windows will be covered with a silver reflective film, making the building shimmer with light day and night.

With an investment of R200 million, the small property development company called Investagain plan to flog the first units in a sectional title offering, for floors 11 through 34. Prices will open at R340 000 for a bachelor pad and top out at R900 000 for a three-bedroom flat. All of this for a place in Berea, around the corner from Yeoville and a stone’s through from the seething heart of Hillbrow.

***

Today, though, Ponte is a construction zone, one with tenants roaming around, teeming with kids toting school bags who patiently wait in the lobby for one of the eight achingly slow, constricted elevators to arrive to take them, bouncing, to their homes in the sky. An old couch, its insides torn out, waits to be moved to one of the oversized bins which are taking out the rubbish – all that was the old Ponte and no longer useful – to the dump. A mini tractor jack-hammers the pavement and a crew of workmen in blue overalls paint an exterior wall. On the ground floor, where shops stood quietly abandoned for years, stuck in a surreal seventies time warp, it’s all raw concrete and bent steel, gutted in an urban industrial symphony with promises of what’s next.

Steel gates – painted bright blue – like the sort you might see at a sports stadium, restrict access into the building and a security guard waves through some visitors, and others wait, while tenants carefully key their numbers in to make the imposing gates twist the right way for entry. Ponte, despite its bad reputation, its less-than-salubrious history and its naughty neighbours, is pretty safe these days.

Ngaire Blankenberg greets me, all smiles and tight brown curls, in a bright yellow T-shirt and jeans and orange takkies. Raised in Winnipeg, with a South African father and a New Zealander for a mother, Blankenberg came back to South Africa 11 years ago. She’s a film-maker by training and experience. She produced and directed quite a few educational TV programmes before she got into museum development, helping to create Constitution Hill and the Kliptown Open Air Museum. Now she’s doing PR for Ponte, selling upmarket residential developments to the media and gearing up to sell them to the rest of South Africa.

This shoot – a pimp daddy of a set up, all upmarket seventies modernism – is key marketing material. And when you are trying to sell something with perceptions as off mark from luxury living as Ponte, this is no minor issue. The proper market must be engaged, the message communicated and the image of this endeavour must be spelled out for the weary, or even the mildly concerned. Psychographics, Blankenberg tells me later, not demographics are what they are after.

The New Ponte marketing photos tell the story of who will live there: the startled young Indian woman with her bare-chested lover whose confused parents are standing at the door waiting to come in; the party-goers in glamourous dress lying dramatically on a luminescent green lawn in the middle of the core on a makeshift balcony; the gay couple – one black, one white – staring into one another’s eyes with Ponte towering just behind them; and the older white woman dancing with her boy toy, rose petals and candles at their feet, the city lit up as their backdrop.

***

Blankenberg is immersed in her shoot today, so she doesn’t have much time to talk. I head back down to reception to talk to Elma and Danie Celliers, the husband and wife management team who relocated to Johannesburg from the North Coast in 2001 to take over what was, safe to say, one of the most dangerous places to live in Southern Africa. But Danie was a cop in his younger days – for 27 years to be exact, the last part of which was spent in the Special Investigations Unit – so it would take more than a few drug dealing pimps to scare him.

“Jeez, it was bad,” Danie says, shaking his head, remembering the first time he saw the building. “Nothing was working. In one flat I found a tomato plant growing out of the sink. It filled up the whole kitchen. It was a tree, that thing. Big tomatoes on it, too.”

In his office, funky seventies curtains still hang on the window and the air is weighed down with cigarette smoke. Danie recalls the four stories of rubbish in the core, the parking lot full of condoms – Ponte’s parking area once brazenly operated as a brothel and drug den – and about how 260 of the 467 flats were so badly damaged that they were unlivable (and empty) even at the price of a few hundred rand a month.

The first thing Celliers did when he arrived was to take the shotguns away from the security guards and remove the bulletproof windows from the reception area. People, he said, needed to feel like this was their home, not a prison. He walked the building every day, making meticulous notes on every unit, fixing them one at a time. There hasn’t been a break-in or a theft, the couple claim, in more than two years.

In August last year, every one of Ponte’s 467 working units was occupied, with tenants paying R1300 for a bachelor pad all the way up to R4500 for the penthouses. Now there are 87 units standing empty. People are starting to move out, and Danie and Elma, in preparation for the remodeling, have not been replacing them. People occupying the lower floors were given notice as soon as their leases expired – all above bar and legal, according to Danie and the independent legal expert I asked. They are directing the former tenants to alternative housing in the area, housing of a similar quality and price range. These old tenants will not, by and large, be able to afford to live in the New Ponte. But because they are paying a substantial amount to live there now and there is adequate and affordable housing nearby, the New Ponte owners seem to have abided by their legal obligations.

By the end of October, the Celliers assure me, those bottom floors will be emptied out. By then, the new developers plan to have sold every one of those units.

On my way back up to meet Blankenburg, I ride with a few of the tenants. The school kids grin and ask why I’m here – all white and reporterly with my notebook – and I say because Ponte is pretty famous and they nod politely. They exit at one of the lower floors and I’m left with a young man in a black leather jacket with half-open eyes and a sly grin who’s accompanied by a round young girl in a black T-shirt and jeans. He asks which floor I’m going to and I tell him 51, and he says he lives in one of the penthouses – the old sauna still in place, orange shag carpet still clinging to the walls in a retro spectacle. He’s got a bit of an accent. I ask where he’s from. “Nigeria,” he says in a low voice. He decides, for some reason, to get out on the 49th floor. “I’ll walk,” he says, the round girl in tow.

By the time I arrive back at 5102, the bed is gone. But the main characters in this New Ponte story, developer Nour Addine Ayyoub and his partner David Selvan, have arrived. Like Blankenburg, they offer up smiles and energy, pumping hands excitedly and pointing out the window over all of Gauteng.

“The best time here is at night,” Selvan tells me. “You can see everything. Tell me one place on earth you’d be able to do a project like this. Only in South Africa. Anywhere else and you’d have to be Richard Branson.”

You might have to be a South African Branson – blindly ballsy and extremely loaded – to buy and revamp this place. But to live in Ponte you would have to be Robert Downey Jr. Or Drew Barrymore.

***

“Yeah, well, Ponte’s a guy, right?” Blankenberg explains when I meet her the next day at the Investagain offices in Braamfontein. “But I think it’s also Drew Barrymore, you know, gone through a rough period but still looks good. Or Brad Pitt in his dirty days. Dirty in the way women like it,” she clarifies, “not like actual dirt.”

On her desk are copies of Wallpaper, Elle Decoration, Visi and her homework, a text called Community Design and the Culture of Cities. The offices are housed in The Liberty – Investagain’s most recent revamp, with offices at the top and residential on the lower floors – in a slick, open plan industrial design reminiscent of the dotcom heydays.

Turns out these offices also house Ayyoub’s software company, Xiriuz, as well as the South African Mortgage Lending Corporation (his mortgage origination group), his property marketing agency Space Marketing, and Constructagain, Ayyoub’s project management and construction company.

Blankenberg is going over the target market. Psychographics, remember, not demographics, is the emphasis here, hence the movie star images pinned to the walls. They are trying to get a sense of who would live in Ponte. Of who, exactly, would brave the streets of Yeoville, Hillbrow and Berea to get into the building – no matter how good it looks on the inside. They have coaxed out the story of Ponte and its future inhabitants. “A Ponte person is individualistic, bold, charming, entitled, self-assured, defies boxes, sees no barriers, lives life fully,” reads one of the PowerPoint pages. The presentation goes on about people who enjoy seared ahi tuna and hang out in cigar bars and sip expensive whiskey.

Blankenberg explains she’s got to work it – the drug and crime perception is a problem – and that determining exactly who will buy in is important. She’s clearly not your typical PR chick. “You will not find me selling townhouses in Dainfern,” she says. Which is a good thing, because this is no typical project. Blankenberg was pulled into the Ponte whirlwind and started her job within a week of meeting Ayyoub and Selvan.

“No-one on this project is really a property developer with a capital P and a capital D,” she says. “We like to do cool things.”

Like the developers, Blankenberg was sold on the story of Ponte and the potential of what could be. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say her friends are artist-types and NGO workers. She believes in inner city regeneration. She believes – like her developer bosses – that if you change Ponte, you change the neighborhood.

“We think this is a no-brainer,” she says without blinking.

***

Nour Addine Ayyoub, the managing director of Investagain, arrived in South Africa in 1994 when he was 26. It was a week before the elections. This computer consultant who grew up in Belgium, the eldest son of two Moroccan immigrants, had spent his holidays leading tour groups in different places around the globe. He was looking for something different. South Africa seemed as good a place as any to start up a new life, or at least have a pretty interesting adventure.

So Ayyoub and his rucksack pitched up at the YMCA in Braamfontein. One of his first nights out, after jolling in Yeoville, he hitched a ride at four in the morning to get back to the Y and got picked up by four white guys. He ended up mugged and stabbed, and woke up in an abandoned field full of blood. It would have been a sign for most to head home; most would have surmised that there are some things, some places, that are incomprehensible to outsiders, and that it’s best to just steer clear. But Ayyoub isn’t the sort of guy to give in that easy.

Within a few months he got a job as a computer consultant, and in a short time he was heading up the department. After a few years working for someone else he started his own company – Zara Financial Systems (named after his eldest daughter) – and developed a banking application for local institutions that, it turned out, they all needed. After that, he started another soft ware company, Xiriuz. From then he forayed into property and formed a nice little development empire.

Ayyoub, with grey speckles in his dark hair and close shaven olive skin, tells me his story as he sits on the floor of his office, learning against the red leather couch next to the glass table. He stares out the window of the Liberty and smiles.

“See that building over there,” he says, pointing from his 10th floor office, “they picked that up for R1.2 million back in 2001. They could sell it for R30 million, at least.” In fact, he bought the Liberty in 2004 for R4 million. He says it’s worth more than R60 million today. He refurbished it with quality fittings – kitchens with granite countertops, stylish raw brick walls, silver Defy appliances and walnut cupboards – and sold 93 percent of the units in the first two show days. Then he did the same thing with the Manhattan – also marketed as luxury New York-style apartments, also in Braamfontein. At R300 000 per unit, the Manhattan sold out in a day.

“There is a demand and there is no supply, except for dungeons in this part of town,” he says. “People want to live in style. There are certain perceptions that if a building has gone down, you can only rent it to gone-downers. I think, build it up and it will attract upmarket people.”

This is the philosophy that Ayyoub is taking with him to Ponte. He’s upbeat, confident, wide-eyed and ambitious, so when I bring up the huge risk he’s undertaking – the risk that made the banks turn him down flat when he went to them for financing – the sparkle in his normally bright eyes dim, just a bit.

“Of course there is a risk factor,” he says. “You have to go into projects like these with your eyes wide open. There are crime issues, there are security issues and there are a lot of perceptions. I know all of that. But you can’t tell me that I can’t find 450 people who want to buy into this building.”

And the man has a point. It’s a big country.

***

Ponte is a bit of a slut.

You know all her dirty secrets, everyone does by now. She started out as a tart, tantalising the city with her sheer size and possibilities. Then came the beginning of the end of apartheid, and the false graces that protected Ponte fell away. She fell hard. But Ponte was strong enough never to be destroyed. Not completely. She aged the tough way, the way that solid buildings do. And Ponte managed to build herself back up. Now she’s a bit worse for wear but respectable, safe even. And in this part of town, that’s something to brag about. The old girl has been through a lot and still stands proud. You can say what you want about her – and it’s all been said – since Ponte came into being, she took the Jo’burg skyline as her own, transforming it forever.

And she could never be ignored. Not least by property developer types. Not those suited-up corporate guys, mind you, they dismiss her outright. But the dreamers, those guys, they love her. Always have.

Maybe Ponte just needed the kind of guy who loves a story, the one that’s willing to spend it all, to shoot the load, and take for himself the sexiest icon the city has to offer.

***

“It’s like a film script,” David Selvan tells me. “When you read a script you have to envisage a lot of things that aren’t there. When people first go to the area around Ponte they see broken bottles and derelict buildings and that puts them off. I see how quickly you can sweep away these things. Where they see it as ugly, I see it as simple to fix.”

Selvan is a lawyer by training who turned into an executive producer after he sold his first movie – an $8.5 million one called The Fourth Reich – back in 1988. He spent a good chunk of his life wandering the Venice and Santa Monica beachfronts hanging out with Hollywood types. He’s taken some of that aura back with him. He maintains a sort of boyish enthusiasm, the kind that comes with hanging around with Westside Angelenos who spend their days dreaming of scripts never made while sipping fat free decaffeinated lattes from recycled paper cups. The 56-year old, whose last film is currently on the art circuit – Ask the Dust, staring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek – talks about story and history and literature and great writing. He discusses the ANC and the liberation and the IRA.

In 1995, after 16 years overseas, Selvan came back to South Africa. He took back to his legal training, working for a couple of the big black-empowered investment groups, then starting Kaya FM with Pat Dambe. In 2005, he entered the property market, taking on Schreiner Chambers, buying the 17-story building opposite the High Court in the CBD with a consortium of friends for R13.5 million. At the time it had 20 percent occupation. It’s refurbished now and worth, he says, R45 million with 90 percent occupation.

But when Selvan put in the offer of R100 million or so for Ponte to buy it from Vincumus, which run by an East London family – they won’t confirm the exact amounts, though it hovers in this region, according to several published reports – he didn’t have much to back him up other than the previous deal which was made on the same sort of pretenses.

“I don’t really have money,” says Selvan, who tells me he never even owned a house until he finally got married to the love of his life at 50 and decided to upend what had been his lifelong mantra – no kids (he’s now got the wife and two kids and a house in Parktown). “My deal is to go out and find the money.”

Ayyoub was the third property developer that Selvan approached in those few short weeks. The other two turned him down. Too much money, they said. But Ayyoub came up with a hefty portion of what was needed. Another major investor – who declines to be named – shored up the remainder.

The banks wouldn’t bite. Their interests lay in affordable housing. They’d finance the project only to satisfy their government quotas, but take a risk on upmarket flats in Berea? Not a chance. For Ayyoub and Selvan, going down-market was not an option. “If I take Ponte’s 500 apartments and turn them into 800, I make a shitload of money and the whole thing will collapse,” says Ayyoub.

And both developers are convinced they have bought the great South African dream. Both are in deep – Selvan will lose everything if this deal goes sour – and they are encouraging their families, and all their friends, to buy without an ounce of hesitation. “You know what you have to do if you are wrong about that?” he tells me incredulously, as if I have breached some sacred code by even bringing it up. “Maybe you can tell strangers to invest but you can’t tell your friends and family unless you have no doubts whatsoever.”

So what about those other developers who wouldn’t buy in? No vision, says Selvan. What if someone tells you that you can’t clean up Hillbrow? No vision. Why wouldn’t the banks loan the money to finance the deal? Those grey suits? No vision. What about people who say they would never buy there or live anywhere near that place? No vision, none at all. But Selvan, Blankenberg, Ayyoub, his secret investor and their team? Vision. Twenty-twenty if you ask them. A no-brainer.

***

Zunaid Khan buys into my estimation of Ponte. The slutty part, that is. The 30-year-old town planner has his diatribe all worked out about unscrupulous developers – he refers to one major group who’re developing in the inner city as pimps that are whoring out every building they can get their hands on. But he saves most of his vehemence for the city government, which he believes have “missed the beat in Hillbrow”, allowing developers to move in and remove people from their homes, totally ignoring their social responsibility role and neglecting the dire need for affordable housing.

Khan runs Urban Walkabout, a walking tour of Johannesburg, which starts in Newtown, stopping in to visit Ponte, and ending up in Melrose Arch. His tour is a favourite on the NGO circuit. When I tell him the plans for the New Ponte and the price that was paid for the building – way too much in his estimation – and their pricing options, he balks.

“Luxury apartments?” he says. “Come on. I drive around this city and I see these signs for New York-style living. But this isn’t New York! You can’t dump New York in Los Angeles, so why would you dump it here?”

He would love to see the mix of poor, working class and upper income groups living together. He’s just not sure that Berea is ready for what Selvan and Ayyoub have in mind. Khan would love to see the squalor that surrounds Ponte transformed. He admires the developers’ plans for sprucing up the area, beginning with taking over the park that lies at the foot of Ponte, but he maintains that it’s not going to happen quickly, and definitely not by April 2008, the proposed first phase occupation date.

“Three blocks away from Ponte you can get everything from guns to little Chinese ladies,” he says. “That’s not going to change overnight.”

***

“If I could take Ponte on wheels and put it in Braamfontein, I’d have a different view about it,” says Francois Viruly, Wits professor and property market guru who runs Viruly Consulting. ”But I think this requires a lot more energy than a big investment. You are sitting there with a bigger urban problem than Braamfontein.”

Viruly is having a hard time swallowing the price range that I’ve briefed him on, and although we are talking on the phone, I can almost hear him scratch his head in disbelief. Not about the price the developers paid – R100 million, he says, doesn’t surprise him one bit – but with the figures on those New Ponte apartments. At R340 000 and shooting into the R900 000 mark in the first phase, and a second phase that includes the penthouses at R3.4 million – two of which Selvan and Ayyoub plan to keep for themselves – it doesn’t seem like a simple no brainer to Viruly.

In fact, those maths don’t make much sense to him at all. To make your investment work on a R900 000, three-bedroom flat, you’d have to charge a monthly rental of R9000 per month. For that price, you can rent a nicely refurbished Parkhurst home, or make payments on a townhouse in Fourways or a top-end flat in Killarney.

“Who is this person who would live there?” he asks me. “What are their characteristics? Maybe I frequent the wrong circles, but I’ve yet to meet someone who has paid that kind of money to live in the CBD. If you find that person, please let me know. I’d like to talk to them.”

Viruly’s request was tougher to rein in than I expected.

I called Urban Ocean, a big inner city property developer, to see if I could talk to one of their tenants. Someone paying more than R6500 per month to rent, or an owner-occupied apartment was what I was looking for. After being sent through four different people, I landed up talking with Kerry Ho, their sales and client relations manager. After four messages requesting just one person to talk with, she finally came back with a man who bought a unit with two friends as an investment. His friends, he said, live in the apartment which they all chipped in for – after doing their own fittings, for a whopping R1.3 million. He said he would live there himself but there were just two bedrooms so he drew the short straw and lives somewhere else. He gave me a number to reach his friends who live in the flat. The number did not go through.

The one guy I did manage to reach was a black American who recently bought his inner city apartment and planned to move in that week. He took the place, which cost in excess of R700 000, because it reminds him of New York City – he likes to wake up and walk to the corner Nino’s and get his coffee instead of jumping into his car and heading for the Hyde Park Seattle. He works downtown, loves to look out over the Nelson Mandela Bridge and he often walks the streets of the city. But after we chat for a while, he tells me he’s still got his place in Sandton. That’s because his wife doesn’t like the city one bit; she prefers her tea at the Michelangelo.

Still, maybe it’s all too soon to tell. Maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, Ho tells me, of the 28 buildings Urban Ocean owns in town, four have been completely sold out to investors – at least one of those buildings sold out more than two years ago – even though only one is nearing construction completion.

***

At the design meeting at The Liberty building, the final marketing material is up on the big screen; the lobby is the point of discussion.

Schalk van Rooyen, the head of the 3D design team, is at the helm behind his 19-inch Toshiba laptop screen. His space age walk-throughs helped to sell The Liberty and the Manhattan; these things aren’t done through simple brochures and printed plans, not to people who cannot touch developments that they are paying upwards of R300 000 for, many times in a telephonic transaction. Media Contact creates virtual worlds where furnishings and lifestyles are sold with 360 degree views and room layouts that look so real it’s hard to tell fantasy from reality.

Suggestions are coming from around the boardroom table. The French-born architect, Odile Kgaswe, who relocated to South Africa in 2001, needs van Rooyen to darken the walls; they are too stark. Blankenberg would like “better people”. “Don’t bother with the kid,” she says. “We need a black guy in a suit. We need more stylish people. What do you think, Setshwano?”

Setshwano Rametse, a stylish young black South African businesswoman, is their target market, demographically speaking. Rametse is the interior designer. “It’s too antiseptic, too minimalist,” she says. “Can we get a chandelier or something? Some art? We need that sense of glamour.”

Either we have a group of creative geniuses or delusional marketers, albeit an earnest and excitable group. I guess it’s too soon to know this, too. But something about this team gives me the sense that if anyone can pull off the impossible dream, it’s them. That if Jo’burg really is going to be a world-class African city – like the government’s marketing machine boasts – then this could be the ticket that helps it reach those heights. Because the people that are remaking Ponte are, actually, their very own target market. Psychographically speaking, that is. The young black executive, the French architect émigré, the next generation Afrikaans digital designer, the mixed race Canadian-born woman returning to South Africa, the cash flush Belgian software developer, and the South African-born Hollywood filmmaker who wants to change the world.

“We are going to make sure that these are not working class ghettos,” says Selvan. “We want to make this a place where all sorts of people live. We want to make it more like the cities of London, of New York, a city that caters to everyone’s needs.”

And Selvan is serious about the building’s success. It’s his children’s inheritance he’s banking on – he wants to give them a penthouse of their own in Ponte. He cannot, will not, allow any room for failure in any form.

There are so many things one can choose to do with their life, this philosopher/filmmaker/developer tells me. “Why not change the world?”

If they can change Berea, if neighbouring Hillbrow can be transformed with all its complexities and all of its social ills and government malfunctions and property concerns, then the whole city stands a chance. Ponte sums it all up nicely for us, all our hopes and dreams and visions for a grander future. And if anyone can write that script, it’s these property developers with a big P and a big D and their cosmopolitan band of big dreamers. If they falter, a lot of people will say I told you so. But if they succeed, Ponte, that beautiful slut, will love them for it.

Tanya Pampalone is Maverick’s managing editor and the founder of xpat.co.za, a website for foreigners living in South Africa. She once lived in a loft in San Francisco’s slum neighborhood and paid handsomely for the privilege.

Sidebar

Ponte Factoids

  • At 173 metres high, Ponte is said to be the tallest residential building in Southern Hempishere.
  • The Vodacom sign sits atop Ponte for 2010 and beyond. The company holds the crowing contract through 2015, which brings the owners in an easy R500,000 per month. While the sign contains 11 kilometers of neon tubing, surprisingly, the light doesn’t glare into tenant units even if it does light up the rest of Johannesburg.
  • The original building went up in 1975 at a cost of 11 million and was voted second ugliest building in country by Fair Lady a few years later; first prize went to Jo’burg General.
  • In 1998, there were plans on the table to turn Ponte into a prison. It never got further than talk.
  • Architect Rodney Grosskopff was 29 when he built Ponte. Since then, he’s built the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, the Randburg Waterfront, Sandton’s Emperor Apartments, and is preparing to build the new ABSA tower in town. He can’t wait to see Ponte brought back to its former glory.
  • Ponte City, the novel by German writer Norman Ohler, tells the story of a young girl from the townships who falls for a Nigerian drug lord she meets in the building. Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting recently told Hollywood’s Variety that he planned to shoot Ohler’s story in the building.
  • Released in 1998, the movie Dangerous Ground, with Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley, was partially filmed in Ponte.
  • In 1999, local artist Steven Hobbs attached his video camera to a parachute, and let it fall down the centre of Ponte, producing a short movie. He was inspired by the numerous rumours about suicides at Ponte.
  • But the rumours that this is the favourite suicide location may be just that. While there have been a few over the years there are no official numbers. The City’s website says there have been just two on record since 2000.
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