Proposed plans for Observatory raises eyebrows

A R4 billion redevelopment of the River Club has been proposed.

There are concerns that two proposed developments in Observatory’s Two Rivers Urban Park are not paying enough attention to the need for public urban space and sustainability of the area’s heritage.

While members of the Observatory Civic Association and Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP) Association say they are not against development, they believe it should be done in a way that protects existing green spaces within the park.

They also believe the principles derived from a five-year public participation process for the area that resulted in the existing spatial development framework should be upheld.

Recently it emerged that the operator of the River Club, the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, was proposing a R4 billion redevelopment of the site for residential and commercial use (“R4 billion redevelopment plan for River Club,” Tatler, August 4) while Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa is also investigating the feasibility of building an international operations centre next to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), which falls within the park.

It is envisaged that the centre will be used to scientifically analyse the data feed from the international SKA radio telescope project, among other purposes.

According to Marc Turok, deputy chairman of the Observatory Civic Association (OCA), while the land on which the observatory occurs belongs to the National Research Foundation, it is not zoned for development.

“We want Observatory to be a special place, with the urban park upgraded, but the developments that are being proposed should not be permitted to impact negatively on public open space that is designated as an urban park. Any proposal to build the huge SKA centre on the low-lying land at the entrance to the River Club would be a mistake,” said Mr Turok, who is also an environmental designer.

“It does, however, make total sense to be next to the Astronomical Observatory.

“There seems to be a perception that because people own land, they can develop it any way they wish. What we are saying is that development can occur, but the park should be preserved in the process. We want to have good facilities to enhance and preserve the park and investment in development around the park is part of that.”

In June this year Mr Turok, in collaboration with the TRUP Association, compiled a new proposal for the central city areas around the park, and presented this as “Scenario C: Preserved Park” within the “TRU-Park” public participation process undertaken by Sun Development on behalf of the Western Cape government and the City.

This is as an alternative to the other proposed “urban wetland” or “extended park” scenarios, which had arisen out of a contextual analysis that had been conducted at the metropolitan, district and provincial level, by the appointed design team under planners Nisa Mammon & Associates.

Scenario C proposes substantial development around the park, not in the green open space that is designated as part of the park, and not inside the floodplain. It also proposes that the river be extended to the north-west, bringing life and greenery along the banks, into the bleak underutilised land and also enabling vast additional areas of high-density mixed use development supporting affordable well located living and working spaces in the central areas and including social housing.

Among the 74 proposals outlined in the manifesto are:

BLOB: SAAO is a preserved heritage asset;

BLOB: The level of the Liesbeek River to be raised slightly and banks made safe against erosion;

BLOB: Valkenberg Hospital fence to be moved to make more space for open use of communal facilities as part of the park;

BLOB: The River Club flood plain kept as open green space with community facilities enhanced and no new major road cutting across it or development destroying its heritage quality. The urban park should not be “cut up or destroyed”;

BLOB: New Valkenberg hospital entrance is proposed to take an angular line off the Liesbeek access road.

However, this scenario was workshopped prior to the release of a draft scoping report on the proposed redevelopment of the River Club – a move that has raised several red flags for the TRUP Association, established by the City to safeguard the nature of development within the TRUP landscape.

Chief among their concerns are a number of points made in the motivation for the project, among which was that the developers had indicated in the scoping report that various invasive species had been discovered in the area.

“We are concerned at the level of underreporting of fauna and invasive flora in the area especially considering that we were not consulted being major roleplayers in the area, “ said TRUP and Friends of the Liesbeek member Kyran Wright.

“Environmental issues are being used as motivations for the project, but why do we need a development in order for us to look after the environment?” Mr Wright said.

Fellow member Lynette Munro said: “”There is a need for integrated development that takes public participation seriously, and demonstrates good governance throughout. This is an opportunity to showcase world class best practice through collective engagement to identify workable solutions that meet the needs of all parties. Imagine a park that demonstrates that Cape Town truly is “a City that works for all”.

Mr Turok said it appeared that short-term economic needs seemed to be the main driver behind the projects but “we need to take long-term sustainability of the city as a whole into account”.

“What we need here is a fresh, enlightened and broad planning look at this central area of the city ,so that we can create more efficient systems and achieve an overall good quality environment based on best practice, with increased jobs and appropriate upgraded accommodation for all.”

Matthew Law, of SRK Consulting, appointed to undertake the scoping and environmental impact assessment (EIA), said stakeholders had an important role to play in the process and he encouraged them to comment on the plans and raise any issues they felt had been overlooked.

SKA South Africa’s Tracy Cheetham had not responded to queries at the time of going to press.