Apartment block to improve property values?

A view of some of the palm trees at Palm House.

The owner and developer of the stately Palm House guest house in Wynberg have moved to explain their intentions for the property, saying the proposed upmarket apartment block will improve property values in the area and has been undertaken in a manner sensitive to heritage and planning.

This follows last week’s article (“Residents in the dark about building proposal”, Tatler, August 11) in which a group of 50 residents expressed numerous concerns about the development. Many said they had only become aware of the proposal recently and had not been adequately informed, while they also feared the development, which proposes 150 parking bays for tenants, would lead to heavy traffic congestion and put more vehicles on Oxford Street, where Wynberg Boys’ Junior School is situated.

However, while owner Paul Scarlett and developer Matthew Quinton have sought to address the concerns, the residents have also pointed out “a number of culturally significant and stately palm trees” would be transplanted in the event of the development going ahead. To this end, they enlisted the services of professional botanist Rod Tritton to undertake an arborist’s assessment of the area.

According to the residents’ spokesperson, Barnett Herdien, “the arborist’s report has changed things quite significantly”.

In an email to the Tatler, Mr Scarlett said the idea was to look at the feasibility of building on part of the unused portion of the land, “but only in terms of the zoning allowance”.

“The new development generates the funds required to renovate the existing guest house, thereby retaining the original character of this building as demanded by Western Cape Heritage,” Mr Scarlett said by email.

“The developer engaged to do the feasibility has employed a traffic engineer to advise on the layout, for the proposed development, which will have the least negative impact on traffic. This is the only scale of development which will preserve these large old Cape Town mansions for posterity. These large houses are very difficult to maintain from an affordability point of view and developing the remaining land protects and preserves this magnificent building for future generations.”

Mr Scarlett said the group understood that the complaints had been from residents who had recently purchased their properties and who possibly did not take into consideration that its GR4 (“General Residential R4) parcel of land that could be developed at any time and as per the town planning scheme.

“Our project in no way removes their rights or reduces their property value; if anything the proposed development would set a new price level for the area and would serve to bolster property prices. We believe that the proposed project would have a positive impact on the neighbourhood.”

The Tatler was also invited to undertake a site visit by Mr Quinton on Tuesday August 16.

“If you look at town planning over time, properties of this size (Palm House) are eventually sub-divided as population increases. The fabric of society changes as the needs change; these types of properties eventually become guest houses or are developed into some denser residential use,” Mr Quinton said.

He said it should be remembered that the owner and developers were well within their rights to build an apartment block, as the City council had rezoned the property as R4 over 25 years ago.

“In 2012, R4 became GR4 (general residential) but the rights were exactly the same as when it was zoned R4. Town planning allows a city to grow in a positive manner, and this site (between Tennant Road and Oxford Street) was earmarked to eventually become higher density.”

Mr Quinton emphasised that the new development was not a block of flats, but rather luxury apartments aimed at wealthy, semi-retired people.”There will be 50 units, and underground parking for 150 vehicles. We have heard the residents’ concerns about traffic congestion, but most of these owners will not be leaving their homes at 8am and coming home at 5pm. As developers, we have to go by the book in everything we do and in this project we have not applied for departures from the existing rights and have focused on restoring the former glory of the manor.”

In botanist Mr Tritton’s report, dated August 2 2016 and which is in the Tatler’s possession, he says the palm trees in question are all Canary Island Palms (Phoenix canariensis), and although they are all of differing heights, they all look to have been planted in a line at the same time as part of a design.

“The palm tree closest to the road was measured to be about 13 metres tall, to the middle of the crown, not to the highest leaves. Other trees are substantially taller than this so I estimate these palm trees to be anywhere between 10 and 20 metres tall. These palms look ancient, as ancient as the palm of Palm Tree Mosque (in Long Street, Cape Town CBD) looks, and that is said to have been planted by someone who died in 1847, so it could even be 200 years old.”

He said given it was impossible to give a definitive date for these trees unless a historical record was found, “my best guess would be that they could easily be 120 years old, and that would put them around at the turn of the 20th century when Herbert Baker was building in Cape Town.

“As for the advisability of transplanting, there is always a risk that a transplanted tree will not survive. Having said that, palm trees generally survive transplanting very well (but) the older the tree the more it is likely not to survive the transplant. Also, the older a tree is, the more likely it is to die of old age as well, making it less viable to transplant.”

Mr Tritton concluded that the trees had been around for many decades and were therefore a part of the cultural heritage of the area.

“They are definitely over 60 years old. They are in good health and are likely to survive for a number of decades still. They more than likely will survive, but there is a chance that they do not survive transplanting.”

The developers aim to transplant several palm trees on the property to make way for the apartment block. Three outbuildings will also be demolished.

Responding to the report, Mr Herdien said the concept of heritage involved the building, the flora (trees) and the people’s activities of the time.

“The remnants of the historical context would then be the building(s) and the flora, in other words the trees. The trees at Palm House have been estimated to be over 120 years old and the shape of the trees on the property appears to be purposeful.

“This information combined with the age of the house puts this place into a different category, namely, historical grading level II,” he said. “In this context with the trees being so old and historically linked to a significant building, there is a concept called champion status of flora. This is where a tree or trees 120 years and older and within a significant context attain(s) the champion status and cannot be moved. This is where the consultant appeared to have provided insufficient information about the heritage value, and where he possibly erred when suggesting that these trees could be moved to accommodate development. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt.”

Mr Herdien is now in the process of nominating the Canary Island Palm trees on the Palm House property for champion tree status.

In response to objections regarding the removal of the palm trees, Mr Quinton replied that “several would be moved and relocated on the site and their new positions would create an avenue to the stately home, unlike their present position. We have taken pains to improve the site layout in our design and return the original view to the home from Oxford Street, currently blocked by a wall.

“If you choose to live in a city, you must accept that some development is inevitable. Rather than taking an obstructive stance, we ask that you engage with us developers to protect your rights and the character of your neighbourhood. We are passionate Capetonians; our intention is to add to the vibrancy and character of this city, not to detract from your neighbourhood.”