The challenge in giving new life to old centres

The challenge in giving new life to old centres

TOTAL OVERHAUL: SVA International is completing the R420m mammoth overhaul of Port Elizabeth’s iconic Greenacres Shopping Centre. Renovations on the centre will wrap up in mid-2017.

As SVA International nears the completion of the mammoth two-year, R420 million upgrade of one of South Africa’s iconic retail nodes, Greenacres Shopping Centre in Port Elizabeth, the project team has outlined the immense architectural and logistical challenges they have managed to overcome.

The massive transformation of Port Elizabeth’s retail icon is set to wrap up in mid-2017, with the cherry on top being the opening of a state-of-the-art Virgin Active gym adjoining the centre in July.

The upgrade is one of the many transformations undertaken by the architectural firm, which has had a long relationship with Greenacres, having been at the helm since the design of the original building for OK Bazaars – now Shoprite/Checkers – which opened in October 1981.

Since the building of OK Bazaars on the grounds of the former Fairview Race Course, Greenacres has grown into a 46 500m² shopping centre, being joined over the years by Shoprite, Woolworths and The Bridge. Although the four entities are separately owned, they boast a combined gross lettable area (GLA) of about 90 000m².

According to Jannie Wagenaar, one of the SVA architects heading the project, the revamp has taken Greenacres from an eighties icon and transformed it into a contemporary attraction with floating cantilevered roofs at its various imposing entrances, an abundance of natural light and an airy atmosphere.

“When Greenacres opened its doors, the in-vogue shopping centre design was very much a heavy geometric-patterned style, with low ceilings and narrow passages,” said Wagenaar.

“Over the years, shopping centres have developed into very social spaces – the equivalent of the new main shopping streets for communities with wide, flowing walkways, high ceilings and lots of natural light. This is what the new Greenacres represents.”

A 35-year-old centre came with many logistical and architectural challenges, including raising the low ceiling – itself a maze of wires and disused equipment – as well as connecting various buildings, which were added on over the years, into one seamless, flowing design. Another aspect was incorporating the needs of modern retail, with increased equipment and machinery needs – all of which is stored on the roof or between the ceiling and the roof.

“We had to survey the ceiling and roof areas and decide which equipment was redundant. We also created concrete gutters on the roof which became service spaces for future use, because there is a constant need with major retail centres for renovation and upgrading of equipment,” Wagenaar said.

“There were several teams from contractor WBHO who were involved in the project, working 24/7 – all the while allowing for the centre to remain open for trade,” said Wagenaar. “We split the entire mall into 15 stages for the renovation. A stage represented a length of mall, which had to be completed in a certain timeframe – all at night, after stores had closed for trade.”

During the night shift, new ceilings, services and shopfronts were installed – among other major redesign aspects. Come early morning, teams of cleaners would move in to tidy, and working spaces would be boarded up and cordoned off, to ensure shopper safety during that day’s trade. This would be taken down again that night as renovation work resumed.

The removal or re-positioning of various supporting columns was also a logistical challenge, said SVA associate Greta Teltschik, who is also on the project team.

“We had to cut huge skylights out of the existing roof structure,” said Teltschik. “Also, columns needed to be removed wherever possible. When the building was designed in the 1980s, columns were widely used.

“In the middle of the centre there is the Greenacres office tower – and those columns need to come to ground somewhere for structural support. So when such columns are removed, it’s a type of structural gymnastics which is performed using major reinforcement beams to ensure the structure remains supported.”

Bringing an earthy and modern feel to the centre was also important, said SVA associate and lead architect on the project, Shadley Ravat. Details include natural timber strip ceilings celebrating the high entrances, with the timber theme carrying through into the centre’s furniture. Multi-glass panelling and green walls at the new entrances – elevated from 4m in the old centre to a striking 12m high with the new design – further enhance the earthy, real feel which is continued with spring-shaped bicycle stands.

Now stores spill onto walkways with much less of a divide between them and the general public areas, giving the effect of walking down a main shopping street, he said.

“The combination of the relocated food court as a social and commercial connector, the bold entrances, new branding, and creative freedom given to SVA based on a sound client relationship has resulted in a revitalised, contemporary renovation,” said Ravat.

Since establishing its presence in the Eastern Cape with the design of OK Bazaars, SVA has become the largest architectural firm in the province and has firmed up its retail grip. It is currently the go-to firm for most of the major shopping centres in the region, including Kenako Mall, Pier 14, Motherwell Shopping Centre, Cleary Park Shopping Centre and Equinox in Jeffrey’s Bay.

“There is a rise in the appeal of open spaces. Shopping centres are moving toward being airy, well-ventilated, with lots of natural lighting and greenery with plants and trees inside,” said Wagenaar. “There is a movement towards creating a greater user experience reminiscent of shopping on the old main street. In the past the emphasis was on pleasing the store. Now the emphasis is on pleasing the shopper, and in doing so enabling them to interact more with the store.”

Greenacres centre manager Brent Starr described the transformation as “night and day”.

“It is a total overhaul, bringing in a clean, classic look and taking out all the clutter,” said Starr, adding that the revamp had seen the return of many of the centre’s loyal customers. Many big brands are also now interested in setting up shop at the centre.

“Having the original architects involved has been an amazing experience, as they have understood our needs from day one and helped us change with the times.”