For the last three decades Harare city centre has been undergoing a fundamental change that continues to accelerate and is now been driven in part by the city council’s parking policies and a budget plan to use the parking fund to subsidise the rate fund.
The major change has been the movement of corporate offices from the high-rise office blocks to the suburbs — especially the northern suburbs — the closing of the large department stores, and the movement of many specialist shops to the ever-growing shopping complexes, again in the northern suburbs.
This does not mean the city centre is dying. So far as commerce is concerned, and so far as the rise in private commercial colleges is concerned, there is now more activity in the city centre, but it is very different and can and has been described as more downmarket.
At the same time there is still a ring of modern office blocks, with plenty of on-site parking for tenants although not for customers, along the eastern edges of the city centre and along Samora Machel Avenue, bankers’ land.
But there are also older tower blocks with little or no on-site parking with whole floors lying empty and no one really desperate to fill these floors with major tenants.
Indeed for 20 or more years what could be called light manufacturing, tailors and the like, have been moving into what were once office suits.
So severe is the movement of professionals, embassies, corporate headquarters and commercial enterprises that rely on having workers sitting in an office, that the largest private property owner in the city centre,, Old Mutual, has even toyed in public discussion with converting some of these complexes to residential accommodation, although keeping the shops on the ground floor and mezzanine floor.
This may not work that well. In the kopje area a lot of two and three story buildings used to have owner accommodation on the upper floors, largely driven by the peculiar racial reservations of the colonial era where this part of town was one of the few areas were Zimbabweans of Asian descent or mixed descent could easily live in comfort, with residents of the surrounding suburbs fighting hard to keep their streets pure white and the indigenous Zimbabweans restricted at night to what were then called the townships.
Now those old flats are small offices or doctor’s surgeries, but relying on passing pedestrian traffic, not visitors using cars and driving in from the suburbs to consult or do business.
In fact, the vast bulk of the city centre business environment is more and more reliant on serving people who use public transport, not their own cars, and even those who own these smaller businesses, and who might well have driven to work at one stage, are now more and more turning to public transport, simply because there is nowhere to park freely or cheaply.
That trend is likely to continue as Harare City Council, which has brought control to city centre parking, continues to push up its charges and openly admits that this daily cash flow is now critical for supporting its administration, with so many in arrears for rates. But it is in danger of killing the golden goose.
Already its Samora Machel Parkade has very little space for casual parking. Almost all bays are rented by the month by contract parkers with banks predominating, Zimra taking a couple of floors, one large commercial customer and a sprinkling of small businesses renting two or three bays each.
And while banks still keep much of their business units in the city centre, there has been a steady if slow movement of had offices to the office parks that have spread in a ring from Eastlea North to western Mount Pleasant, and in time, with more and more banking being done online there is a possibility that just the odd branch will be kept in the city centre.
The courts continue to expand on the north-eastern edge of the city centre, but the lawyers who serve those who use these courts have been moving out of the city centre with very few now remaining.
Lawyers used to be compelled to have professional offices close to the High Court. Rules were changed to allow a greater distance.
They still like to be fairly close together for convenience, but a stroll around Eastlea North will find a lot of house conversions to professional offices and a growing trend to extending the old railway houses or simply demolishing them and building a modern two-story office complex with onsite parking for staff and clients.
Even the flat conversions in the lower Avenues manage to attract some professionals and businesses by retaining on-site parking for clients and customers, although this space is not large and the expansion of the pay-parking area is likely to in the end drive many of these businesses to suburban development and see them replaced by concerns that cater for the huge mass of people that rely on public transport and their feet.
The definite policy by the Government, with enthusiastic backing from the city council, to see public transport return to Zupco control may well free a large block of streets and parking space in the western half of the city centre that had become a giant bus terminus for kombis parking half the day between the morning and evening rush hours.
But that space is unlikely to be grabbed by up-market businesses seeking clients and customers driving in from the suburbs.
Those customers have probably gone for good. Indeed, there is a large and growing block of people who openly boast that they no longer drive into the city centre, even sending an employee or someone else “into town” to see Zimra or a Government office or municipal department that issues permits.
The city council has been careful to keep onsite free parking at its own treasury complex in the civic centre so that those physically paying bills do not get clamped.
The lockdown will have one permanent effect. Many have discovered that they can do business online, can meet on screen rather than in person, and do not need to actually shake hands and drink tea around the table to close a deal.
This will allow all those who have moved into the inner suburbs and the office parks to do ever more without switching on a car engine.
The result of all these changes is likely to see the city centre becoming more and more a giant market place, rather than the home of office workers with a fringe of shops.
Even the move of specialist shops, professional offices and corporates to the suburbs will help keep the numbers on the streets, since so many who work in those new suburban complexes do not live in those suburbs.
They usually need to take two buses to work, one to get into the city centre which is the main transit point, although Mbare Musika does have a lot of transit traffic for industrial workers, and then a second bus, sometimes laid on by a major corporate employer, to take them north and east to their place of employment.
All those cars that clog city centre streets and avenues are not a sign of motorists coming into town to shop.
Many are in transit to the industrial areas or moving from home on one side of town to business on the other side.
Harare does not have a lot of ring roads or suitable bypass routes. Many have to transit the city centre because of the inherited arterial road network.
There is not much that can reverse these trends. Getting pavement vendors into markets and kombis off the kerbside is not going to see an exodus from the office parks and corporate suburban buildings. It is too late for that.
The change has already been made.
What can happen is, as the economy grows, more congenial market type business but without a lot of extra vehicle traffic.
Old Mutual, which has a tendency to take the lead in property development and thus is worth watching as a barometer of future trends, has taken a large bet on this with the opening of its Eastgate Market, a complex that started with a mixture of well-designed small shops on the street borders but with a huge hall for booth business and even special tables for small traders. Others have converted old premises, but this is the first purpose-built upmarket flea market in Zimbabwe.
But that location relies heavily on passing foot traffic from the western bus stops to the Simon Muzenda bus terminus. It is an interesting property bet and a sign of the times.
Even the city centre supermarkets, with their high turnover, are not exactly over-reliant on car owners filling their boots. Most shoppers use baskets, in the hand or on wheels, rather than large trolleys.
Again they are those in the small businesses or in transit and stopping for a handful of groceries, not a month’s supply for a large family.
And now that the council wants $20 an hour for street parking, $160 a day for all day parking, even in the kopje area, we are never likely to see a return of the all day highly paid office workers.
People looking for car spares or other goods from conglomerations of small businesses will spend the $20, but otherwise the city centre will become ever more the huge market for the transit public transport crowds.