Revitalizing Mumbai – The Mill Land issue

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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?

Update
: 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.

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