Knysna’s residents are alarmed by proposed developments in Knysna, the unwillingness by the Knysna Municipality to answer questions and the largest property developer been a member of the Knysna Creative Heads Consortium which was appointed as the service provider for the Integrated Strategic Development Framework (ISDF). Essentially, the latter’s job is to determine the future for human settlement planning, environmental planning and economic development for Knysna.
At the heart of the dispute is the familiar figure of Chris Mulder who is not only the director of CMAI Property Development and CMAI Architecture but has it named after him (Chris Mulder and Associates Incorporated). It has been tasked with the Human Settlement portion of the ISDF. He was the driving force behind Thesen Islands, arguably one of the best marina projects in Africa. However, as much as making a dream of that magnitude has to be respected, there are those who believe that it has damaged Knysna, whether it be for environmental issues such as the extinction of due thicket or as a contributor to the glut of empty properties Knysna is currently dealing with.
The Knysna property market has tail-spun for various reasons:
- The credit boom, fueled by irresponsible lending, found too many homeowners unable to afford their payments once the stock market took a dive. In Knysna, this was amplified as it’s predominantly a tourist-based economy which could ill-afford both a property crash and insufficient tourist flow.
- Overbuilding meant temporary job creation which attracted job-seekers from across the country (especially the Eastern Cape) to be attracted to Knysna like moths to a flame. Once the boom was over, they were stuck which equated to higher unemployment than before the fake boom. The property developers scored but the town lost.
The stock market may be back up but that’s another false high as Knysna stagnates. At the root of the problem has been short-term greed. It’s easy to blame the developers but a broader mind could say that part of their role is to push boundaries and keep construction evolving whilst check and balance falls to the Knysna Municipality, and Municipal Managers such as Lauren Waring, as part of their duty to protect the interests of the greater public. Unfortunately, the Knysna Municipality got greedy too. Whether the unproven belief in municipal corruption is true or if it was shortsightedness caused by a desire for rates, the fact is that the development of Knysna has been a disaster (this despite the fact that citizens could see it coming but were simply ignored).
Instead of the Knysna Municipality preserving and supporting what existed, or what later floundered, it chose to follow the demands of developers except in January 2005 when Mayor Joy Cole banned all large-scale development until sufficient infrastructure was in place to handle the ever-increasing demand on government services.
An early example of this was Pezula which removed an enormous chunk of Knysna so that residents on one side were having to travel an extra 4-5km to get to Noetzie on the other side. This, of course, is after taking into consideration that the original deal was that Lagoon Drive, which would halve the distance, would be a public road. From a different direction, in the mostly coloured community of Hornlee, its possible to buy a house for as little as R80 000 yet you can find a 4-bedroomed home in Pezula Private Estate for R16 million. Whilst Hornlee battles with an alcohol and tik (meth) epidemic and marches against the breakdown in the relationship between them and the Knysna SAPS, Pezula’s private security films a leopard alongside their electric fence with their security cameras. The disparity between, and separation of, neighbours and services is acute.
Chris Mulder’s own Thesen Islands development has approximately 600 houses and 3 beaches. Although it’s only 1km from their front gate to the centre of town, the fact that it’s a gated community means that Knysna is essentially dislocated from it.
The more recent extension of Knysna Mall never had to subscribe to the quaint decor of Knysna. It offered an abundance of new retail space at double the price, probably with the realization that malls win, eventually relocating CBDs. Every city will have an example but Knysna isn’t a city (it’s a town) so the impact was enormously detrimental on small businesses who were already suffering from the economic downturn. In a short space of time, many have closed, replaced by chain stores such as Edgars and Game who get rental at a fraction of the price. Urban decay is represented by empty premises on Main Street (N2) whilst 2nd hand and cheap, Chinese goods shops spread up Long Street and Grey Street. Shop staff are generally coloured women working for smaller wages whilst white males are almost extinct, forced to leave for Cape Town and JHB, enforcing a skills drain in Knysna.
Please note that this article is not an attack against the examples of Thesen Island and Knysna Mall. In their own way, they are all marvels and credit should be given to the visionaries who made such big projects happen. Although complaints may abound in coffee shop conversation, the fact is that it’s more productive to embrace what’s been done that harp over hypothetical what-could-have-beens. Support them and make them stronger!
BUT pay attention to future development plans and be active in guiding them to the best possible result for all. Pay heed to visitors to Knysna who’ve been complaining for a long time (find over 100 comments by them from 2009 at www.gotravel24.com/theme/feature-focus/knysna-noetzie-magic-over?page=1). Too much of our tourist trade has become daytrippers or one-nighters, stopping on the East Head or at Knysna Waterfront for a meal. Instead of being a destination, Knysna has become more of a stop-over which is a tragedy considering that clean beaches and lush forests are so within reach…but driving through town doesn’t encourage exploration beyond.
One way to judge Knysna’s growth is via the number of residential, electrical connections. It’s rumoured that, at a high, Knysna was connecting 400 per month and that that has now dropped to 10. It is also rumoured that 80% of Thesen islands is for sale. On Property 24, you will find a whopping 254 Thesen Islands houses (40%) for sale and that those prices are radically below what they were 4 years ago.
With municipal infrastructure leading to empty houses and developer’s profits in the hands of a few that take it out of town, why keep on building? Why is Lauren Waring allowing it?
In Part 2, the plans for the Knysna Estuary shoreline, the plan for Rheenendal and the massive George Rex Place development.