MACE 2010

Alumni Achievers

Redefining city living

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Loyiso Nongxa, congratulates Adam Levy on being named an exceptional young South African by the Mail & Guardian at a function held at Hofmeyr House, East Campus on 17 September 2010.

In a quest to create spaces that bring brilliant people together, lawyer-turned-property developer Adam Levy is transforming Braamfontein by refurbishing unique buildings.

By Deborah Minors

Levy’s goal is to create a lifestyle hub in Braamfontein, peppered with creative, innovative and progressive thinkers and comprised of unique locations where people want to hang out.

“A frustrated architect”

At age 33, Levy (BCom 1998, LLB 2001) is a quintessential Joburger bursting with ideas and energy. Born into a family of lawyers and architects and the third of four siblings, he reluctantly concedes that he grew up in the traditionally white, upper-class suburb of Melrose and matriculated at King David School. “People always have preconceptions about you if you tell them you went to school there,” he pulls a face and shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

His parents – “the most influential people in my life” – instilled in him the drive to pursue ideas with enthusiasm; something that has stood him in good stead since graduating from Wits. Fuelled by a “passion for great architecture”, and a self-professed “frustrated architect”, Levy’s life after law at Wits took him down a decidedly more creative and urban path – specifically to Smit, Juta and De Beer Streets in Braamfontein.

“A fun place to work, play and live”

Venturing into Braamfontein, which in the late 1990s felt the brunt of inner city decay, was a brave decision by Levy, but since 2003 he has immersed himself in renovating an apartment block, a theatre and a bar, in pursuit of his vision to create a Braamfontein that is “a fun place to work, play and live.”

Levy’s first project was the refurbishment of Stirling House, an eight-storey residential apartment block which he also called home when he moved into the penthouse. “A trip to New York and my passion for great architecture and creative spaces fuelled the idea to renovate buildings – starting with my own home,” he says, waving an arm expansively around his loft apartment with spectacular views of the Joburg skyline and the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

In a nod to its inspiration, The New York Times’ Great Homes and Destinations (9 March 2010) featured Levy’s apartment and hailed it as “bringing a taste of New York to Johannesburg.” One-five-five Smit Street is now home to creative, arty residents with cultural clout, including auctioneer Russell Kaplan (BA 1985, LLB 1988) and gallerist, Michael Obert.

Also benefitting from Levy’s inspired intervention was the 120-year-old Milner Park Hotel and Kitchener’s Carvery Bar at the corner of Juta and De Beer Streets. The bar, resplendent with original fittings and trimmings (but a significantly upgraded sound system) now attracts Joburg’s hip, bright young things with its ‘anything goes’ music policy. Ultimately, Levy envisages converting the hotel upstairs into creative commercial spaces.

Joburg’s West End theatre precinct

the Alexander Theatre

Next on his list was a revamp of the Alexander Theatre in Stiemens Street. ‘The Alex’ stood empty and derelict for a decade prior to Levy’s refurbishment. It reopened in 2006 with a production of the Broadway rock musical, Rent, which follows the lives of a group of Bohemians in New York’s East Village. “Braamfontein today is not dissimilar to where New York’s East Village was 10 years ago when Rent first opened,” observes Levy. “It’s like Joburg’s West End theatre precinct.”

Structurally ring-fenced by The Alex, the Civic Theatre and The Wits Theatre, Levy thinks Braamfontein is ideally positioned to stimulate and encapsulate a particular lifestyle – especially with a 28 000-strong student population on its doorstep!

Challenging the University, inspiring the Youth

Reflecting on his own student days, Levy remarks dryly that his years at Wits were “unremarkable.” He confesses to a “tumultuous relationship” with the University, with only his graduation liberating him from the bureaucratic restrictions he felt surrounded him. “Wits felt insular; like a slow bureaucracy that didn’t engage with the world,” he shrugs. “We were unsullied by the realities of the world. Wits needs to push students to engage.”

Recently, however, Levy and the University have experienced a rapprochement of sorts. He is encouraged by the development of the Wits Art Museum (WAM), currently under construction at University Corner on Jorissen Street and due for launch early in 2011. “It’s exciting stuff,” concedes Levy, who’s a patron of the National School of Arts, one of Wits’ leading feeder schools.

“Wits needs to have a regular ‘round-robin’ with young, aspirant South Africans,” says Levy resolutely. “The University should break down the walls and those turnstiles and act progressively for the sake of its students.”

There is no place for bureaucracy or restrictions – physical or otherwise – in Levy’s world: “Wits needs to open doors and engage, for the sake of its students and not for what the ‘old order’ deem appropriate,” he declares. “The future is not for them.”

Striving for a meritocracy: Adam Levy for Mayor?

There is no doubt that Levy is on a mission. “I work 20 hours a day – mostly writing letters to the City Council lobbying for service delivery,” he laughs, adding that his legal background has been useful in this regard. “We need to strive for a ‘meritocracy’ in running our city,” says Levy. He shifts forward excitedly in his chair, gesticulating expansively: “We need phenomenal management and great leadership in this city. We can be world-class,” he says emphatically, adding that a foray into politics isn’t out of the question for him. “Maybe I should run for office as the Mayor of Joburg…,” he muses, only half-joking, commenting aside that, “Helen Zille [BA, PDE 1974] has balls!”

“In South Africa we’re governed by fear, not hope,” he concludes. “We need to tear down the walls, electric fences, and walk the streets; really get to know our city.”

“All my properties have doors that open onto pavements,” he smiles. Clearly, this pleases Adam Levy.