Knock-down: the end of Bellona Street

A digger-loader knocks down the outbuildings at 6 Bellona Street, Bridgewater, Somerset West.

The site safety officer raises his hand, windmilling it in the air, and the massive Hitachi digger-loader bellows, as it advances on the building, bucket raised, to commence the demolition of 6 Bellona Street, the once proud heritage manor house that has deteriorated over the past seven years, into a blackened ruin.

The bucket strikes the wall of the building and after a momentary hesitation, the masonry tumbles to the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust.

Pirouetting like a ballerina on the proverbial tickey, the digger-loader lines up for the next assault, and more walls tumble, as the skilled driver reduces the capacious out-building into a neat pile of rubble in a matter of minutes, then moves on to the rest of the sad, derelict building.

It is mid-morning, Thursday March 30, and by nightfall, all that is left, is an enormous pile of rubble, waiting to be carted away.

Standing off to one side, Neil Matthews raises his arms into the air, like a prize-fighter proclaiming his victory, and with good cause.

Mr Matthews has been the leading force among local residents in Bridgewater, Somerset West, who have fought bitterly for the past seven years, for the building to finally be torn down.

Bolander asked Mr Matthews what it felt like to finally witness the building that has been such a source of unhappiness for him and fellow residents of Bellona Street and surrounds, being demolished.

“It is something I can only explain by showing you my goosebumps,” he said with a grin, holding up his arms. “I’m just grateful that I was able assist in getting this done. This is proof that we can get our neighbourhood back again.”

Esther de Klerk, who also lives in Bellona Street, was there as well, to witness the demolition. “It’s taken seven years to get this done, and I am the happiest person in the world.

“I have felt very unsafe living here. I’ve been threatened (by squatters living on the property) that I would be killed, and that my house would be set alight. This is like the biggest present that anybody could ever give me.”

A haven for prostitutes, drug-dealers and criminals, according to local residents, 6 Bellona Street was declared a problem building in terms of the City of Cape Town’s Problem Building By-Law.

Promulgated in July 2010, the by-law affords the City sweeping powers in dealing with problem buildings, of which there are over 1 200 in the metro, but as mayoral committee member for social
services, safety and security, JP Smith, points out, many steps taken in dealing with 6 Bellona Street, were precedent setting.

“For example, this is the first time the City has applied to demolish the asset of a third party,” Mr Smith explained, when he visited the property two weeks ago to officially hand over the site to Barbara Govender, CEO of Fegro Enterprises (Pty) Ltd, the company that won the tender to demolish the building, at a cost of R509 000 to the City.

“Having obtained a demolition order, my department has learned a few new tricks, and we will be embedding these provisions in the latest iteration of the by-law.

“Not all problem buildings require demolition, but we must accept that demolition may be part of the game, and we have to put funds aside for it, and we will then have to wrestle as best as we can, with these negligent owners to force them to repay the money,” said Mr Smith.

“I do not intend spending good and decent ratepayers money, on fixing a mess created by an errant and irresponsible property owner. In effect, one is incentivising this kind of behaviour, by solving a private property owner’s problem.

“It is a crying shame that this building, which was a beautiful, stately manor house when I first came here, has been allowed to deteriorate into this ruin, this semblance of a house, with walls barely standing.

“The property owner should be disgraced, named and shamed publicly,” Mr Smith said. “We will be recovering our full cost from the property owner, including outstanding rates arrears (in excess of R745 000), the tariffs added because it has been declared a problem building, as well as the cost of demolition, R509 000, by attaching the property legally and effecting sale in execution.

“We see with many problem buildings, that owners of heritage buildings who want them demolished, but can’t get permission to do so, allow them to become derelict, so they can achieve demolition by default, and I think that is a failure of our heritage legislation. It means that our heritage agencies, nationally and provincially, and our heritage legislation is dysfunctional.

“The fact that the City is doing this today, means those processes that are meant to protect heritage assets have failed,” Mr Smith said.

“This is a 100-year old building that will bite the dust.It is a cultural and heritage asset that is lost.”