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Maboneng Precinct: Jonathan Liebmann

An entrepreneurial spirit revitalises downtown Joburg.

Juliet Pitman




Young urban entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann is dispelling myths left, right and centre: Property entrepreneurs need to be older, more established. Wrong. Johannesburg as a hip urban centre is a thing of the past. Wrong. Businesses can’t thrive in the centre of town. Wrong. Welcome to Maboneng Precinct, which is breathing life back into Joburg’s CBD.

In downtown Johannesburg on the far east side of the city, a group of twenty-something-year-olds are running a neighbourhood that they’ve transformed from a no-go area into a hip, vibrant urban community. Take a walk down the street here and you’ll pass trendy restaurants and coffee bars.

Look up and you’ll see modern urban apartments and rooftop hangouts where young professionals, creatives and entrepreneurs take in the sunset over the city skyline. There are art galleries, collaborative work spaces, cinemas, and there is an eclectic mix of people on the street – international tourists and homecoming-revolution expats, business people, students and artists.

The pavements are clean and tree-lined and the area is well-maintained. It’s an equally far cry from the seedier areas of town and the high-walled, electric-fenced suburbs of the North.

This is the Maboneng Precinct and ten years ago its very existence would have been unimaginable. The east side of Johannesburg was seedy, crime-ridden and dilapidated. Much of central Johannesburg still is:

The Stock Exchange and big business had long-since moved out, making Sandton the new CBD. Respectable people didn’t want to drive through there; the suggestion that they live there would have been at once horrifying and laughable.

And then a youngster came home from a gap year overseas, and felt an aching longing for the urban lifestyle he’d experienced and come to love in cities around the world. Why, he asked, wasn’t the same thing possible in Joburg.

His name is Jonathan Liebmann and what’s remarkable about his story is that he has almost single-handedly breathed life into Maboneng. There are of course countless examples of urban renewal in cities around the world, but most of them required the intervention of a forward-thinking mayor or no-nonsense police chief to clean up the crime, and the strategic input and collective effort of a dedicated municipality – not to mention some kind of incentive scheme to entice business and people back to the city.

Maboneng has had none of that and yet it’s achieved what most people would have thought impossible. Not only has it attracted individuals, businesses, tourists and retailers, but it’s become sought-after, trendy, the place to see and be seen.

Visit Market on Main – the market in the Arts on Main block – on a Sunday morning and you’ll struggle to find parking. The hotels and apartments are all 100% occupied or sold. This is not a lone street that’s being doggedly occupied by some brave coffee vendors and a couple of urbanites wistfully trying to make-believe they’re in London/New York/Paris. This is a full-fledged neighbourhood.

People live, eat, work, shop, socialise and run businesses here. It has a beating heart and an energy all of its own.

And it exists because Liebmann and his team at Propertuity managed to sell a master vision of what the district could be – if people overcame their negative perceptions of the city, if the crime issue could be addressed, if a critical mass could be achieved to create a sense of a community. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’.

Collective communities

But Liebmann doesn’t like the suggestion that he is Maboneng. “The neighbourhood is the people who live, work and love it here: Its energy and personality comes from them. A place can never be about a single individual,” he says. He’s right, of course.

Maboneng’s success lies in the fact that it has taken on a life of its own, one that exists outside of Liebmann’s head.

But it was there that the precinct had its birth. Desperate to live some kind of urban lifestyle when he returned from overseas, Liebmann started looking for a place in the city he could convert into a work and live-in space. He had some experience in property, having purchased, renovated and sold a few flats, the first of which was in Waverely when he was just 18 years old.

“I found and converted a small factory space near 44 Stanley in Milpark and in doing so realised two things: Firstly, that these  old factory spaces had development potential to become new live-and-work spaces, and secondly that I didn’t want to just do my own apartment. It was then that I knew I wanted to become a property developer,” he says.

It was an important moment in his journey. Liebmann had run a number of entrepreneurial businesses, including a cleaning business and a mobile coffee enterprise, with varying degrees of success.

“I’ve been running businesses since I was 15 but it wasn’t until I realised that I was passionate about property development that I really came into my own. Up until that point I’d been a bit scattered, looking and pursuing a range of opportunities. They were more or less successful but I think of that period as my school fees phase. I was learning important stuff about business and about myself. It all came together when I realised what I really wanted to do with my life. The passion I felt helped me hone my focus,” he says.

Start with a dream

Backed by his silent partner and financier, Liebmann turned his attention to finding a place where he could start to implement his vision. He purchased the buildings that would become the now-famous Arts on Main – a unique blend of studio, commercial and retail space that acts as a hub for creatives and artists.

While he was creating Arts on Main he started thinking more broadly. “That’s when the idea for Maboneng was born really.

I started thinking about the whole neighbourhood, the transformation of the whole east side,” says Liebmann.

Having the vision is one thing. Single-handedly creating a neighbourhood is another. So how did he do it? “I think there are a number of things that came together to bring about the success of Maboneng. In the early days I became completely and utterly immersed in the project. This was absolutely critical. I lived and worked in the space. I was construction, marketing, sales and financial manager.

I did everything. It became who I was and I think that level of passion must deliver results eventually,” he says.

He’d also identified the right initial target market: Arts on Main focused on creative people. “While travelling and in my time living near 44 Stanley I’d learnt that artists and creatives are often the best catalysts for change. They are the perfect first adopters. It’s not in any way unique to Arts on Main. It’s been proven in many cities throughout the world. It was important to get them in as they would become the foundation of the community,” he explains.

Turns out he was right. The influx of creative people helped to generate interest and curiosity in the media and general public.

“Maboneng was only going to be successful if we could reach a critical mass. You can’t have a vibrant neighbourhood of ten people – that’s a vibrant apartment block. We also needed to buy up stock in the neighbourhood so that the area would be sufficiently owned by us to justify the cost of upgrading all the infrastructure, the lights, the trees, the pavements, the security and the like,” he adds. The fact that Propertuity, not the City, has done all these things is remarkable in itself.

Another key success factor was brilliant design. “I think the most important thing about our company is that we are very good at design. That’s our differentiator and it’s my particular talent. If you asked what differentiated us from other property developers that would be it. We know how to design spaces. I have an excellent architect and together we’re a good team,” Liebmann explains.

The company also knows what it’s about when it comes to marketing. The design, marketing and sales teams work together very closely to sell the vision. “And because we keep executing on the vision, it strengthens people’s belief in it, and that in turn drives the growth of the whole venture,” he says.

Maboneng’s evolution included the development of Main Street Life, the first residential building in the portfolio with 194 apartments, a 12-room hotel and a cinema and retail on the ground floor. It was followed by the Main Change (45 office spaces), Revolution House (32 apartments and film and recording studios), and Fox Street Studios (a live-and-work concept where each floor is sold or rented to a different person).

It helps that the area is also extremely well-located in the middle of Johannesburg, which means it makes a lot of sense for a lot of different people and businesses to make it their base.

Integrated spaces

In every property the ground floor is always retail and restaurants, driving the neighbourhood’s unique engagement with the street. “Our portfolio is 60% residential, 20% industrial, 10% commercial, 10% retail. The idea is to have a complete and sustainable community that offers everything.

People want an integrated space where they can go downstairs, watch a movie, eat in a restaurant, walk everywhere and ride on a bicycle,” says Liebmann.

It’s no small irony that this is the stated wish-list of almost every person who buys into one of Johannesburg’s gated communities. Of course there is the unhappy issue of crime to discuss, and Liebmann is not a denialist when it comes to this most notorious aspect of Jozi.

“There’s no question – the crime in South Africa is out of control. However, the perceived crime in the city is not as bad as people think. Statistically, you have a higher chance of falling victim to crime in Sandton than you do in the city. So it’s been partly a matter of changing people’s perceptions,” he says.

That said, however, he recognises that the divide between the rich and the poor will always lead to crime. “We have implemented a number of unobtrusive security measures such as private security guards, and we’ve worked hard to foster community interaction. It’s important in any neighbourhood for people to know each other. But this is also a micro-economy – we offer both affordable and high-end products, and in between our properties are people who are poor. Hopefully in time the upliftment of the area will bring greater opportunities to these people and, with our ethos of fostering and encouraging entrepreneurship, they will stand to benefit. This is a long-term solution to the issue of crime,” he adds.

With such a successful blueprint for urban renewal, Liebmann is unsurprisingly not short of offers to work the same magic in other South African cities, as well as those abroad. He’s a typical young entrepreneur in every other aspect except in his response to such interest:

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I don’t want to become one of those developers who talks about crazy expansion plans. For the next couple of years, I’m not doing anything that’s not Maboneng. Absolute focus is what has made this project successful to date and it’s a formula I intend sticking to. Sure the offers are tempting but I need to become a specialist in this area. There will be time in the future to explore opportunities to replicate the model elsewhere, but that time is not now,” he says.

From dream to reality

His business partner and financier has reinforced this position. “He’s been an inspiration to me,” says Liebmann. There are those who are quick to put all of Liebmann’s success down to the fact that he occupies the rare and enviable position of having someone bankroll his dream.

To such detractors his response is simple: “It’s true that getting finance means overcoming one of the big obstacles in business. But it’s worth remembering a number of things: Firstly, you don’t get finance because you were lucky. Winning the lottery is lucky.

Given how difficult everyone knows it is to get finance, you have to work incredibly hard to prove you’re worthy of finance. The individual who financed me has a philosophy of backing the entrepreneur, not the business. He backed me in previous ventures. What he’s looking for (and he’s not unique in this respect) is an entrepreneur with vision and the ability to implement and make things happen. I had to prove I had those attributes.

“The second thing is that getting finance does not represent the end-goal. You never have enough finance, even when you get private equity funding. At the moment I am looking for bank finance, so I’m in the same boat as other entrepreneurs.

“Lastly,” he concludes, “I believe that if you show a properly successful business model backed by your proven ability to implement, there is plenty of finance on the table.”

Liebmann might be called visionary by many, but those who give him this epithet miss his true gift. It lies in his ability to implement. Maboneng exists not just because someone believed it could, but rather because that person had the ongoing, relentless, indefatigable energy, determination, courage, fearlessness and business sense to make the vision a reality.

Liebmann’s advice to aspirant entrepreneurs

  • Persevere. Have patience and keep on trying until your vision is well received by the market.
  • Choose something you are genuinely passionate about. I’ve worked in other industries where I wasn’t as successful because I wasn’t as passionate about what I was doing.
  • Become the project. Immerse yourself in it. Live, breathe and dream it. And be aware that this means you’ll have to make many personal sacrifices.
  • Choose an industry that has the right kind of scale to suit your ambitions. I could never have been happy in a small or medium business. There are different types of entrepreneurs and it’s important that you know what type you are and what scale of venture you will be comfortable with.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.