Berea’s ‘crime haven’

2014-01-28 00:00

DURBAN’s former public health lab has become a public health threat to Berea residents, with its massively overgrown and littered site now home to vagrants — and linked to a spate of recent crimes.

However — after a dozen failed plans to rehabilitate the huge, historic plot on Currie Road — The Witness has learned that a formal recommendation has been made by the SAPS to turn the old Public Health Laboratory into Berea’s major police station.

Founded as the Durban Observatory in 1883 — charged with monitoring the transit of Venus, as well as the city’s tides — the Victorian building is now owned by the Department of Public Works, and was used by the Health Department to test food and biological samples until 2004.

However, in a letter to eThekwini Municipality — and echoing concerns of other nearby residents — neighbour Penny Dempster described the “chaos” that befell the site after the technicians moved out: “It became a den of thieves, robbers and squatters”, in which “copper pipes, tiles, plumbing, etc were systematically stripped from the building … [and] on numerous occasions the police found looted property from robberies in the neighbourhood stashed inside the building.”

Neighbours have reported break-ins on up to 20 private garages on surrounding streets in recent months, while one man fleeing police was seen jumping into the property last week.

Yesterday, local police confirmed the “spate” of break-ins, but would not confirm their link to the abandoned site.

The Witness found the site so overgrown — with perimeter bushes up to nine metres high, and a dense jungle of trees choking the interior — that at least one homeless family have set up a tented camp between the fence and overhanging foliage that is invisible to pedestrians on the street, just two metres away.

Living opposite multi-million apartments with spectacular views of Greyville Racecourse and the ocean, a man who gave his name as “Eric” insisted: “There are no thieves living here. We don’t cause any trouble.”

A home owner living directly opposite, S.M. Naidoo, said she had filed a complaint with the city last week, adding: “this cannot be left this way”.

Local ward councillor Jethro Lefevre called the property a “crime haven” used by criminals to hide from the police.

“I have had the police raid the house and bust a drug syndicate, and it is a place criminals can easily hide as the bush is so overgrown. I have made requests to the council to cut the verges, but they state there is no budget. No government department is prepared to take ownership of the property.”

Having led an unsuccessful campaign to force the government to maintain or sell the site since 2004, Dempster said failed plans for the site had included a sale to a boutique hotel group, a “withdrawn” public tender for R7 million, and a rescue bid by the Inner City Thekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Programme (iTrump).

“That property is a disgrace,” she said. “Aside from its effect on property values, the crime and everything else, the building itself should actually be protected as a heritage site.”

Spokesperson for the Berea SAPS Lieutenant Poobalan Naidoo confirmed the station had made a recommendation which had gone to the national office to move the Berea station to the historic, derelict building.

Naidoo said that — if accepted — it would bring both the uniformed and detective units “under one roof”.

“Currently the detective branch is on Lambert Road and the uniformed officers on Botanic Gardens Road. We would like to have them under one roof,” said Naidoo.

Berea CPF chairperson Paul Antao supported the move, saying the police had outgrown their current station.

“We need more space to house more officers and detectives,” said Antao. “We also need constitutional access that will allow for the elderly and disabled better access to the service. The current station on Botanic Gardens Road won’t be abandoned but will be used by another police unit.”

Lefevre said: “It is an eyesore and could be put to far better use. Either it could be developed into a new station for the Berea SAPS, otherwise there are countless investors who have approached me who are eager to build residential apartments.”

• jonathan.erasmus@witness.co.za

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