How even with crumbling infra, Lower Parel remains the nub of Mumbai’s economic activities – Economic Times

January 11, 2018 By Lodha Web

By Lijee Philip, Kailash Babar, Krishna Kumar, ET Bureau| Updated: Jan 11, 2018, 01.42 PM IST

It had taken just 10 minutes for Kishore Biyani to seal a deal with Phoenix MillsBSE 0.15 %’ Atul Ruia. He went alone, shook hands and took even less time to seal commercial agreements for setting up a flagship 50,000-sq ft Big Bazaar store — his first that combined food and fashion — at Ruia’s mill in Mumbai’s midtown Lower Parel. The broad agreements had already been agreed upon 20,000 feet above sea level, on a flight.

If Gurgaon helped Delhi to grow at night and became a global growth engine, then Lower Parel did it for the financial capital.

And it was these two gents — a textile mill owner and a fledgling retailer — to visualise, even in 2002, the transformation of 600 acres of prime island city mill land into a bustling entertainment and business district.

Both gauged its long-term potential and were the first to move in betting on a simple fact: the megapolis desperately lacked a destination for people to combine work, shopping with a leisurely evening out.

So the Phoenix Mill became a mall in a perfect testament to the city’s spontaneity. And Biyani one of its two earliest anchor tenants.

Today, despite the negative news f lows, crumbling infrastructure, bent regulations and lax supervision, it remains the nub of the city’s famed entrepreneurship, consumerism and economic activities — much like MG Road in NCR or Whitefield in Bengaluru.

“Economic activity and growth in Lower Parel is one of the highest in India,” says Biyani. “We set up shop in Phoenix Mills as Lower Parel was becoming an integral part of Mumbai’s redevelopment. One could spend an entire day in Phoenix Mills compound because of its restaurants, entertainment and shopping activity.”

It has grown in spite of the government and purely out of private enterprise, quips a leading Mumbai industrialist, who has his corporate headquarters in the vicinity, on condition of anonymity. “It offers a lifeline for many blue, white and service sector jobs. Organised retail and the services industries have led to rejuvenation of the area and its economic rub-off has been substantial.”

Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) up north is the city’s premier business district today, followed closely by Lower Parel. Traditional hot spots — Nariman Point, Andheri — too are trying to make a comeback while Powai has managed to emerge as a back office special economic zone with a splash of commercial and premier residential stock.

“BKC is the number one office district, but when we also consider retail, F&B and residential activity, Lower Parel would be a clear winner,” feels Anuj Puri, Chairman, Anarock Property Consultants.

Available retail space is 2 million square feet and organised commercial space is another 11 million sq ft, employing 1.5 lakh white collar workers, estimates Shishir Baijal, CMD of consultants Knight Frank India. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest another 1 lakh support service staff, within just a 1 km radius. Grade A office supply alone is a whopping 8.1 million sq ft, with an additional 6.3 million sq ft getting ready to come into the market.

To put it in context, that’s more than the entire 6 million sq ft of Nariman Point, the original CBD of the city.

The food and beverages (F&B) industry has adopted this large catchment area — of office-goers during the day and families at night. According to consultants JLL India, 42 restaurants, pubs and nightclubs, with several office complexes, operate out of Victoria-Kamala Mills compound alone, which saw a massive fire just before New Year.

Another 12 are based within the nearby Todi Mills compound. Twenty more operators are located along the high street stretch of Senapati Bapat Marg, with High Street Phoenix as its epicentre.

As an obvious binary, rentals too have shot through the roof. “Since the late 1990s, office rentals in Lower Parel have risen over three times to Rs 175-200 per as ft, from Rs 55-60 per as ft, while retail properties’ rents have shot up 8 times. The appreciation in rentals certainly indicates the economic growth here,” adds Puri who has witnessed the midtown’s evolution over the last two decades not just as a property consultant but as a resident/occupant too.

The concrete jungle though has come at a heavy price. The very reason why traffic moved from down south has made it an urban planning nightmare forcing many a rethink on its long term viability.

For instance, Anurag Katriar, who runs restaurants such as Indigo Delicatessen, Neel, D:OH! in Phoenix Mills, was offered space in Todi Mills. “I did not take it,” says Katriar, “as the approach road here is narrow and no fire tender can reach there.”

Some haven’t had the luxury of choice. Two incidents — a rush hour stampede that killed 22 and the recent Kamala Mills fire that claimed 14 lives — in three months have once again highlighted the lack of safety and space regulations.

“Two years ago, several housing societies, mill owners and realtors, corporates with offices in the Lower Parel area joined hands to form Mumbai Mile Federation (MMF) and submitted a detailed proposal to upgrade it as a CBD to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC, now known as Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai). Due to limited funds, it hasn’t progressed meaningfully,” says Abhishek Lodha, managing director, Lodha Developers and one of the founders of MMF. “The twin problems of traffic management and lack of quality public spaces that cripple the area are both solveable. This is not a gridlock.”

“Infrastructure development is always a challenge in any bustling city and that hasn’t kept pace here, adds Biyani.

Academics, urban planners and NGOs place the blame squarely on tweaking of the rule book — from the mid 90s — to benefit mill owners and a handful of real estate sharks.

“Land owners have conveniently not broken mill structure and instead have housed all restaurants and malls within them, so you have no fire exits, no emergency evacuation,” says Datta Iswalkar, who heads Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, the mill workers’ union that has been fighting for their dues for years.

For several decades until the 1990s, this space was home to around 54 textile mills and their workers. In 1991, when mill owners went belly up, the Maharashtra government introduced the Development Control Rules permitting them to sell the land if they used proceeds to restart operations.

Units that availed the rehabilitation programme had to surrender one-third of their plots to Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority (MHADA) for public housing and another third for open space and civic amenities to the BMC. The original idea was that some mills could preserve heritage structures but redesign spaces for the public; thereby, they were exempted from the one-third rule.

Noted urban planner Charles Correa was also roped in to design an integrated plan combining individual plots of mill land, most of which were larger than 10 acres, by creating new thoroughfares and widening existing roads.

But in 2001, in the tenure of chief minister M Vilasrao Deshmukh, the rule relating to mill land sales was changed without any public dialogue. Amendments clarified that the two-thirds rule did not apply to the entire plot on which their factories stood, but only to open spaces between structures. While the original formulation had given the city 400 acres, this revised formula freed only about 50 acres and punctured hopes of any holistic development. In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the decision after citizen groups challenged it in court.

Activists claim that even before the final court decision, rapid alterations and a frenzied land grab had already begun, leading to the current bottlenecks.

Change in use of these structures to commercial purposes has increased flow of cars and people into the mill areas, which essentially used to be a walk-to-work fabric, feels Ratoola Kundu, assistant professor, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “This congestion hinders movement of fire engines or ambulances. The socio-spatial transformation of mill land has been profit-oriented, and the state and market have been complicit.”

Some like historian and anthropologist Shekhar Krishnan allege mill owners have been twisting rules to their benefit. “Not a single paisa received from the builder has been used for the mill’s revival or to rehabilitate workers. These constructions foreshadow further closure of the mill’s various sections. Money from these new commercial and residential structures has conveniently found its way into the pockets of mill owners, builders, bureaucrats and politicians, who turned a blind eye to these constructions that violate zoning regulations.”

Other blatant violations include restaurants being run in the name of a canteen to circumvent close to 72 permits and licences. Owners of mills that house malls have also applied for more floor space index (FSI), claiming that their building is engaged in the IT sector.

“The one-third rule was done away with because the government wanted orderly development. However, no owner gives the land; consequently, violations happen,” laments activist Santosh Gupta, who feels recent tragedies could have been easily averted.

A crackdown was imminent and today, even bona fide operators are feeling the heat, says restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, the man behind Saltwater Grill, Smoke House Deli and Social. “The archaic laws of 1952 are being enforced. There is an urgent need to re-evaluate… Progressive regulations need to come in.”

The need of the hour is adherence to existing regulations and not more regulations. “A great city has a great economy and great value for its citizens. We need both and have to ensure we get both,” adds Lodha. “Mumbaikars should start a mass movement — that there will be no compromise on safety and space regulations anywhere, our homes, offices or leisure zones.”

The government too needs to step up. “The monorail project getting operational this year will help in easing pressure on infrastructure. The under-construction metro line 3 (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ) provides support as it touches Lower Parel at two crucial points of Mahalaxmi and Worli Naka,” says Mayur Shah, managing director, Marathon Group. The group has built a commercial tower in Mafatlal Mills compound.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has restored the one-third rule and hope floats now for an inclusive mill land rejuvenation. Veteran ad man Alyque Padamsee feels the area he rebranded as Upper Worli to woo clients has not lost lustre. “It’s time the owners of all F&B outlets get together and do fire safety inspections every quarter to reaffirm that it is a safe place,” he says. Padamsee was among the first to move his agency Lintas (now MullenLowe Lintas Group) to Lower Parel, followed by many peers.

A quarter of a century later, no one can afford to be glib about the huge challenge facing Lower Parel.