Rosebank, Johannesburg is an interesting animal. The Rosebank Mall has been a shopping hub in some form or another since Swedish architect Max Kirchhoffer built a retail area in 1972. That has since morphed into the separate-yet-connected and constantly evolving Rosebank Mall, Firs, Mews, Mutual Square, and The Zone. The Sunday Rooftop Market is a decades-old institution and popular with tourists seeking Africana. There’s a happy, open atmosphere – with plenty of outdoor/indoor linkage, there’s nothing depressingly American strip mall about Rosebank’s high-end shopping experience.

Since the Gautrain station was built along Oxford Road in 2011, offering superfast access to Sandton and OR Tambo, development in the small suburb bordered by Melrose, Parktown North, Saxonwold and Dunkeld has been explosive – but in a good way, which is unusual for our city.

This is why: plots started being sold in Rosebank in 1896 so it’s one of Joburg’s oldest suburbs. Hence the World War 1-themed street names Tyrwhitt (a British commodore), Cradock (a rear admiral) and Jellicoe (the First Sea Lord during WW1). The residential nature of Rosebank is firmly entrenched, even though none of the original residents could have forecast just how central their “northern” suburb would one day become.

It is, of course, long since Rosebank was exclusively or even largely residential, but the collapse of the inner city as a business district helped establish the area as an alternative to Sandton, whose high rentals and traffic issues presented some disadvantages to businesses looking to move northward. The process of transforming Rosebank into possibly Joburg’s most quintessential mixed-use hub seems to have been more thought-through than in parts of Sandton.

Pedestrianisation, for one thing, is on the map. The Linear Park is a project that “wants to connect the dysfunctional parks up again,” says architect Pierre Swanepoel of StudioMAS, which is involved with several urban design projects in the area. The idea is to connect four parks via walkways from the Gautrain station in the east to Jan Smuts Avenue and the Keyes Art Mile in the west of the suburb. To do so, the city has plans to demolish and move the Rosebank Clinic and Library.

There’s nothing depressingly American strip mall about Rosebank’s high-end shopping experience.

A servitude, in town planning-speak, is a part of a property that is used for sewage, power cables or water lines that may not be built on. “In Rosebank, servitude areas were captured many years ago, so the many convenient walking arcades you see are not the decisions of generous property developers, they are protected parts of council-owned land,” says Pierre. “Rosebank has been set up with lots of public space but the challenge is to tie it all up together so they don’t remain ‘islands of happiness’. We all want pedestrian environments. We want to walk our city but we usually can’t – crime and other factors prevent us – so one needs to find a safe way to connect it all, and that will make Rosebank the most walkable part of the city (apart from inner city).”

Properly connected public walkways with WiFi hotspots and CCTV are of course the modern answer to keeping streets safer for pedestrians, so this can only be a good thing for Rosebank’s many thousands of office workers and residents.

But let’s take a look at some of the development that has hit Rosebank like an oncoming cruise liner in the past five years:

Standard Bank

When building is booming in any area, some new constructions make you go “wow” and some make you go “mmm”. The Standard Bank building was an exciting new development completed in 2013, with an “outside-looking-in” vibe. (You can see the bank employees riding up and down the escalators if you drive down Bolton Road.)  It occupies a block on the suburb’s highest point, GLH & Associates Architects say, and the piazza in front of it along with heavy use of glass (they’re transparent, see?) has brightened the area up. It houses 3 000 employees and cost R2.5 billion to build.

Diagonally across the road, Barrow Properties’ building called Oxford & Glenhove juts out like a ship (what is this trend of building ships in a city with no sea or river?) about to enter the traffic snarl-up below, fuelled on Coca-Cola (a tenant whose logo is prominently displayed on the building).

Rosebank Link

You can’t miss this building. “Rosebank’s skyline has a new icon,” proclaims owners Redefine’s website, and it’s true; those diagonal slices catch and reflect the sunlight on the burnished metal and glass surfaces of the angular planes of the 15-storey building most arrestingly. Rosebank Link is on the Mews site and is being constructed at a cost of R712 million. What sets it apart is its pedestrian walkway with ground floor retail space and direct access to the Gautrain station, Zone and Mall.

Oxford Parks

Oxford Parks is an exciting commercial and retail development of four buildings by Intaprop on the corner of Oxford and Jellicoe. The company is designing a “people-focused precinct”, says Parts & Labour design studio owner Brendan Copestake. “They are aiming for 9-12m sidewalks and want to design buildings from the street out, not from the street in, in other words, it’s pedestrian-focused with a decent retail, business and residential mix. They are planning cycle lanes, slow driving lanes, parks, piazzas, public art and so on.” The 300 000m² project has been in development since 2017 and is planned to be sustainably and consciously built. BPSA and Intaprop have already taken possession of their premises.

“Rosebank has been set up with lots of public space but the challenge is to tie it all up together so they don’t remain ‘islands of happiness’.” - Pierre Swanepoel, StudioMAS architect

Park Central

The development on everyone’s lips is Park Central, by Redefine Properties, not least because of a radio advertisement campaign currently on the airwaves. It’s being built for occupation later this year and at 20 storeys will be the tallest building in Rosebank, planned for 159 residential units in Manhattan style. It’ll be on 6 Keyes Avenue and you can view the units now already. Bring bucks. They won’t be cheap.

144 Oxford

Property group Growthpoint has broken ground on a R600 million, 35 000m² office building on a  prime spot next to the Gautrain station. Pipped for occupation on 1 September, its mockups show an unusual building with a central core and two “wings” jutting out on either side.

Rosebank Firestation

Yes, that’s “Firestation” with one word. The original 1930s Fire Station is still operational, and a thoughtful office building with the updated, grammar-free name has been built around and on top of it. It’s worth checking out the inside of the Workshop 17 shared workspace. It couldn’t contrast more with workplaces we imagine from 1930.

Shared workspaces are of course totally a thing and where else but forward-thinking Rosebank would they thrive? It’s worth mentioning a few, for the freelancers and entrepreneurs who pass through this vibrant suburb. Check out the amazeballs views at Impact Hub (9 Walters Street); it also boasts an internal courtyard a la Arabic architecture. There’s Perch on 37 Bath Ave or WeWork at the Rosebank Link.

Just about everywhere between the Gautrain on Oxford Street to the galleries and bars on the Keyes Art Mile is now safely walkable. And because good development has a knock-on effect, the happiness is radiating out to the remotest parts of the suburb. Take for instance the previously rather derelict corner of Jan Smuts and Bolton, opposite the Goodman Gallery. It now boasts an uberhip set of bars and restaurants, the “shebeen-canteen” (obvs) mashup Social Parkwood and Coalition, which offers authentic Neapolitan pizza. One could expire from the millennialness of it all. But whatever your age or taste, what’s undeniable is that for those of us driving, walking or working through Rosebank, it’s a pleasant experience these days. And that’s power.