200 Acres of Open Space for Mumbai

In Redevelopment on October 18, 2005 by Patrix

It has to be more than simple coincidence when a post that I wrote yesterday regarding mill land redevelopment had pertinent news in the media today. I had emphasized for a greater allocation of public space and a fresh look at the way land was allotted to Matoshree Realty. In a stunning reversal of fortunes for the mill land owners and developers, the Mumbai High Court decreed that almost one-third of the mill land will be reserved for open space, thus granting the city the provision of a breathing space. As the DNA article aptly puts it, Mumbai’s lungs have expanded by almost 200 acres and in land-crunched Mumbai that indeed is a largesse.

Additionally, the court also stipulated that another one-third of the land would be reserved for public housing or affordable housing, which also according to me, is a welcome step. Affordable housing has never been dealt with seriously in Mumbai. Mumbai’s burgeoning slum population is almost begging for an urban planning solution. Moving the slum dwellers “elsewhere” is not only unjust but also infeasible. Rajiv Gandhi’s grandiose scheme Prime Minister’s Grant Project (PMGP) failed miserably because slum dwellers sold the houses alloted to them and moved back to the slums. Hopefully, the public housing projects will be approached with a sound sense of socio-economic realities of Mumbai.

Opponents to the decision are citing reasons of higher prices due to constriction of supply (an economist’s argument) and although they may be technically right, the long-term benefits for an improved standard of living will only help the city’s health but also make Mumbai more livable for its 13 million-plus residents. Environmental and health costs aren’t factored into the opposition’s arguments, which I am sure are significant in this case. Building shopping malls and high-rises and then selling them off to the highest bidder without laying down the supporting infrastructure is planning suicide. Let us hope that the court’s decision prevails and the mill lands are developed after accounting for the city’s health and its citizens’ opinion.


Revitalizing Mumbai – The Mill Land issue

In Redevelopment on October 17, 2005 by Patrix

You can certainly expect me to write more on urban renewal and city planning topics due to a certain academic change in my recent past. It definitely might help and interest you if you are aware of planning issues or are familiar with the vocabulary. Of course, I’ll try my level best to elaborate in a layperson’s language. I have always been interested in revitalization of central city neighborhoods; I have deliberately avoided the term “inner city” because of negative connotations in planning literature. Admit it or not, you are likely to have lived in or traveled through a central city district that seriously demands renewal either physically or economically; more so if you live in India’s organic cities. Mumbai being a classic example has plenty such districts and provides ample scope for improvement. It has always been cited as a vibrant city constantly evolving to adapt to the times. The city’s economic base has moved from a textile-based focus to a more service and finance-oriented economy. This has led to large chunks of land previously owned by cotton mills to lie vacant. Although the reuse of this land has been endlessly debated, no significant progress has been made and opportunity cost of these vacant lots continue to rise.

Couple of months ago, Matoshree Realty, a development firm supposedly owned by Shiv Sena leaders, Raj Thackeray and Manohar Joshi scored a bonanza when they managed to acquire a five-acre plot more commonly known as Kohinoor Mills in the heart of Bombay. I am quite aware of this land’s potential because one of my classmates had worked on its proposed developmental reuse for his architecture dissertation. The deal was finalized for an astronomical sum of Rs. 421 crores, or almost to the tune of Rs. 14,813 per square foot of undeveloped land. For anyone who is remotely involved in land development, that is an extremely high price because most resources go into developing the land for construction. Also, the choice for the winning bid is subject to suspicion because the Shiv Sena had vehemently opposed the sale of mill lands not very long ago.

But what troubles me most is the proposed reuse that these developers have planned for the vacant mill lands. Without doubt, the land in city limits is precious and public opinion should be paramount in developing these lands. So the words of the managing director of Matroshee Realty, Rajan Shirodkar disturb me: ‘‘We will build an exclusive shopping complex, residences or perhaps hotel apartments.” Spoken like a pure capitalist with his eye solely on one thing – profit and no regard for social consequences. Don’t get me wrong, I support free market initiatives but 600 acres of erstwhile mill land open for redevelopment in the heart of Mumbai is not open for speculation and pure commercial interests that may benefit only the elite.

An earlier attempt led by noted Indian architect, Charles Correa to delineate areas for much-needed transport arteries and public amenities lies somewhere in the dust in the Mantralaya. I believe that the public should have a significant say in developing the property although they may not be direct land owners. Public opinion and charettes should run their due course at least to gauge the immediate needs of Mumbaikars. After all, if the reuse of a recently-vacated 16-acre plot in downtown Manhattan (doesn’t say prime property than that) can be debated so actively, then I don’t understand why Mumbai should be any exception? Public spaces are at a premium in Mumbai and building more malls is definitely not a sign of economic development. The proposal for building a shopping mall smacks of lack of creative thinking and a sure shot eye on profits only. The developers haven’t mentioned anything regards public space allocation. Sadly, urban space activism doesn’t exist in Mumbai and few protests that conservationists and urban planners raise will be dismissed as “rants of crackhead environmentalists”.

Is there hope for revitalizing Mumbai the right way?

: I was just done writing this post and I happened to read that Bombay Port Trust (BPT) is planning to liquidate its holdings in Mumbai; a whopping 21 kms of coastal land on the eastern side. I had always felt that Mumbai was a uni-directional city, facing the sea only on the west side whereas it had an equally beautiful undeveloped waterfront on the other side too. Now, this news is going to get the developer sharks out rubbing their hands with glee and the government along with BPT should not fall for the short-term profits, although they can be quite sizeable. Public amenities, provision for affordable housing (for slum dwellers), infrastructural framework including transportation upgrades should be given top priority. I hope the Urban Research Group headed by Rahul Mehrotra has begun lobbying hard.


No More than Two

In Housing Market on October 4, 2005 by Patrix

As I am continuously finding out, the wonderful thing about studying urban planning is to see the issues we study about simultaneously playing around in our community. We have been studying effect of zoning ordinances in our Housing and Community class and were handed a live case study to analyze. The fact that I could be affected by it (I almost was) is an added incentive to devote careful attention to the issue at hand. Bryan (College Station’s twin city) City Council is debating a change on its renter policies. The council is currently examining a proposal that would reduce the number of unrelated resident that can share a home from four to two. The proponents of the move cite cases of loud parties, increased traffic and trash that result from college students sharing rented houses. Now, just to give a little background, College Station is a student community; 45,000 students among the city’s 67,000-odd residents. Bryan, being almost next door also houses many students. If this proposal passes, students could face great inconveniences as they would have to rethink their housing options.

Normally, in order to reduce expenses, several students shack up in a house or an apartment; especially so if they happen to be Desi. Desis are known to live like sardines – 4 students in a two-bedroom house doesn’t raise any eyebrows (I have even seen and stayed more than 4 in an apartment). Americans prefer their own space and generally do not share a bedroom, which is often akin to your own personal space. After living in a typical Desi apartment for the past five years, I have begun to understand the conveniences of your own bedroom albeit at a higher cost.

Although the proposal under question is expected to impact only duplexes and single-family homes (apartments and fourplexes are exempted), the number of units that would be affected is still high at almost 8000 units. The student body, which by the way has a strong voice in these parts, is vehemently opposed to this move although the landlords have good reason to complain. Personally, I have been (rather my apartment) cited for causing loud noises and I can understand the inconvenience that this can cause. But on the other hand, loud noises and increased traffic during the weekend is expected in a student community. The proposal also would create a false illusion of housing shortages since a four-bedroom house cannot be leased to more than two unrelated people and two bedrooms would permanently remain vacant. This would skew the market and prices would rise, making it extremely unaffordable for students to rent housing in Bryan. Of course, College Station would benefit by providing more housing without the encumbrances of such a zoning ordinance.

Also, as one councilman who opposes the proposal says, “it is not fair to the kids that are good and maintain their yards and don’t have loud parties”. The City Council is thus generalizing student behavior and attempting to create a zoning ordinance that would affect even those that have generally been well-behaved. I propose that the decision should be left to individual landlords who if need be, can incorporate certain restrictions in their leases. For e.g. two police citations and they would have to evict. The hand of the law is pretty strong here and fines are stiff too. After our citation of almost $370 per resident, parties have literally come to a standstill and our house wears a deserted look even on weekends. Generalizing a regulation for all almost never works and people tend to find legal loopholes; instead financial disincentives in terms of fines and citations work better.


Mixed Development

In Planning Trends on June 17, 2005 by Patrix

Ever wonder why organic cities like Bombay, Delhi, and Pune often make for fond memories and monotonously planned cityscapes like Chandigarh and Brasilia often conjure up images of dry, boring, and monotonous life? In part, America also suffers from the impersonal touch of its suburban life after the notable white flight from the inner cities in the 60s and 70s. The answer is simple: separation of living areas from social areas that are often connected to commercial businesses. Your local bania is probably located on the street level of the area you live in or maybe is just a walk away. Most of your daily needs like grocery shopping, hair salon, tea/coffee shop, eating joints, parks and playgrounds are merely within walking distance and you often tend to bump into your neighbors everyday. Atrios also ponders on this simple truth of city planning:

“What puzzles me is the fact that there are relatively minor changes to how we construct our suburbs which would both allow some people (not everyone probably) to reduce their degree of auto dependency while simultaneously adding a bit of nearby “small townness” for the rest of the nearby residents. One can transform an absolutely tiny piece of land into something more resembling a town — build a few blocks of mixed residential/commercial development with street level shops — without fundamentally transforming the way most people live….Many of the early suburbs already have this (and many such earlier suburbs tend to be incredibly pricey, and not just because of their proximity to the urban core) pattern of development, but it’s rarely replicated these days.”

Kevin Drum however blames the residents themselves who wish to isolate themselves in their areas of protective solitude (Crash, starring Sandra Bullock addresses this issue), away from the ills of the society. But I fail to see this problem in India where social ties are stronger although stratification by income and caste/religion aren’t uncommon. But in more cosmopolitan towns where often land is at a premium, convenience wins over social barriers.

For e.g. the housing society I used to live in Panvel, India was ironically called Middle Class Co-op Housing Society. Initially envisioned as a haven for middle-income (politically correct term now) people, it was hardly middle-class by the time a full-scale housing boom hit after the suburban train from Bombay arrived only a ten-minute walk away. Mostly planned on a plot allocation basis, the bigger thousand square meter plots were now valued at almost a crore. Subverting the society’s regulations, smart builders built apartment buildings which not only recovered their cost but also dramatically changed the social fabric of the microcosm. Although I haven’t been home in almost 3 years, I have heard of easily accessible retail stores and more families moving in (each plot now has eight families at least instead of only one few years back). The four-acre central open space now has a jogging track and an playing field with budding cricketers.

People would welcome a mixed development where possible because it not only makes daily services more accessible but also makes your living area more vibrant. More people in India in fact mean more security instead of the other way round in America. Senior citizens also don’t have to take pains to travel far for their minimal needs and in return are more comfortable in seeing people around. Help is only a shout away.

Things however are different in America. No wonder city planning is as contextual as it can get.


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