Tuesday, February 12, 2008

To the glory of Aakulam

A few months ago, or maybe it's been a year, I had written about the awesome potential of the Aakulam area to become a superb lake-district, the likes of which are yet to be seen in India. One possible comparison could be the Powai Lake in Mumbai which also has a similar combination of lake, greenery, hills and highrises. But I am sure that even those of my friends who have spent time at Powai would agree when I see Aakulam is far more beautiful, surrounded as it is by idyllic, emerald-green cover. (Actually, Aakulam and Powai share another commonality, the first Raheja-Marriott convention centre is at Powai, the second is coming up at Aakulam).

Long a tourist destination, known for its laid-back style and carpets of water hyacinths, Aakulam today is transforming into one of the hubs of development in Trivandrum! After all, when you have a dozen new apartment complexes, four townships, four luxury five-star hotels, three malls, two IT parks , two world-class convention centres and an international tertiary care hospital coming up within a two kilometer radius and in the space of the next three years, it would be natural to refer to this area as a key growth centre.

There are too many residential projects to enumerate easily, but the commercial projects are as follows:
  • Plaza Centres mixed-use development (2.1 million sq.ft. - IT park+mall+hotel)
  • Infosys campus (1.5 million sq.ft.)
  • Unitech Mall
  • SFS Mall
  • Raheja - Marriott International Convention Centre and luxury hotel with marina
  • DLF-Hilton luxury hotel
  • Columbia Asia hospital
  • Tamara Group's international convention centre and hotel complex.
Add to this atleast a dozen or more major apartment and villa projects, and we are talking about over 10 million sq.ft. under development. Another 10-15 million sq.ft of various kinds of space is being developed within 3-4 Kms of the lake.

I was blown away by the sheer scale of what is happening, when I sat down and tallied up the score. I am sure many of you will also be, not many of us would have thought such momentous changes would be visited upon this little lake of ours! And while development always improves things overall, more often than not there is also a downside to it.

In the case of Aakulam, we will see a permanent and floating population of around 1-1.5 lakhs descending on its environs which were sparsely populated till now. And people bring a lot of trouble most of the time. They need power and water, create garbage and sewage and clamour for more space all the time. And dozen of new construction sites will do no favours for the lake and its environment. And when land is at a premium, there is always the temptation to grab some more...where else but from the lake!

I am not painting a picture of doom here and we don't want the so-called "concerned citizens" trying to throw a spanner in the works. The problems posed by rapid development are not insurmountable. In fact, they can be effectively managed, to create sustainable development.
In the case of Aakulam, by taking a few simple but effective steps, the authorities can preserve the lake without slowing down the pace of development.

1. Create an effective Area Master Plan - As far as I know, the town planners are still using a city plan drawn up in the 80s. To put that in perspective, that dates from when I was riding a tricycle! I have certainly moved up in life in terms of transport since then and Trivandrum has similarly moved up on the urban ladder to become a metropolitan centre. I think it will be well worth the time and effort, if the authorities can quickly (read, in less than a year) draw up a broad land use plan. Keeping in mind the upcoming developments, it can segregate commercial and residential zones, as well as areas for common utilities, drainage and road access. Most importantly, this plan has to look ahead to atleast 15 years in the future and prepare for the impending surge in demand not just for space, but for services as well.

The planning exercise should be preceded by a detailed mapping exercise of the region, resulting in a comprehensive GIS map which can then form the basis for all further planning.

2. Provide Utilities and Services - Making plans is one thing, implementing them is something else altogether. And sadly, we see that in India, the plot is often disastrously lost somewhere in between.

For Aakulam, which is about 12 Kms from the city centre, the provision of utilities is a key challenge. Whereas power and water are available from the current networks, sewerage is yet to reach this area. With the new Sewage Treatment Plant coming up at Muttathara on the NH Bypass, it will be logical to lay a trunk main line along the Bypass from Kazhakkoottam to Kovalam to collect all the waste for processing at the plant. Alternatively, a smaller STP can be set up at Kazhakkoottam to handle the sewage from the Chackai - Kazhakkoottam region which will see a population influx to the tune of atleast 3 lakhs in the next 8-10 years. Additionally, since the city's water supply lies on the other side of the urban area and taking into account upcoming mega-projects like Technocity (estimated population of 1-1.5 lakhs), it may be prudent to identify and utilise a new source of water, potentially Kadinamkulam Lake.

3. Creating a Lake Drive - The prevalent building rules call for varying extents of setbacks for developments from the edges of various water bodies. Around Aakulam, builders will have to atleast set their developments back by 100 m from the water-line. While this is fine on paper, the best way to ensure that no one gets their feet wet is to put the line on the ground. What I mean is to construct a road around the lake. It can be a 4-lane road with median and tiled sidewalks. The sidewalk on the lake side can be developed into a boulevard with trees, lamps and benches. On the otherside, parking spaces and food courts can be created at intervals. The entire idea would be to convert the road into an attraction while at the same time using it to protect the lake. After all, it would be impossible to clandestinely empty sewage into the lake without cutting across four lanes of road. Ducts along the road can provide power, water, sewerage and connectivity to the area. Finally, this road can take the pressure of the narrow, winding roads which now service the shores of the lake. These side-roads will be ill-equipped to take on the demands placed by rapid development and may prove to be choke-points very soon. After all, what is the fun in having a world-class convention centre but a narrow, winding, pot-holed road to get to it?

If well planned and developed, Lake Drive will beat the pants off any other stretch in Kerala and could well become one of the hottest addresses in the State, if not in the country.

At first glance, it may look like a lot of work and a lot of expenditure for a under-staffed, cash-strapped Government to do, and that too in double-quick time. The best way out of it is to involve the other stake-holders in the process. The most important private stake-holders are the major developers who will be pumping close to Rs 4,000 Crores into the area in the next 5 years. If the proposed steps clearly improve the attractiveness of their projects, there is no reason to doubt that all of them will pitch. It is simple economics, if better roads, water supply and cleaner surroundings push up the value of each square foot of an apartment by Rs 100, a developer will be willing to part with Rs 10 to pocket the remainder.

The simplest way to garner the support of developers would be to levy a special fee for constructing in the Aakulam area. However, this may not be very effective in the end, because the amount collected is put into the general civic system which may end up deploying only 5-10% for the actual work at Aakulam. The best and most effective way is to create a Special Purpose Vehicle to collect the levy and carry out the work. It may not need to be an Aakulam Development Authority, if that is the case Trivandrum would be swamped in such bodies, but a special task force of the Trivandrum Development Authority (TRIDA) or of the Kerala State Urban Development Project (KSUDP). Perhaps called the Project Aakulam Task Force, it would be empowered and equipped to make plans, garner resources and execute work in the Aakulam Lake area.

It may be asked why Aakulam should be shown such preference when explosive growth is happening across the city. The answer is simple, Aakulam and the surrounding areas are where we could end up paying the highest cost for uncontrolled development. So it is imperative that the right steps be taken to protect the area while encouraging development at the same time.

Hmmmm....I look forward to regular evening walks on the lakeside boulevard in a few years from now. Hope to meet many of you there!

6 comments:

  1. I like the idea of a Lake Drive, although I must say I'm not terribly familiar with the area (My parents are from Trivandrum, but not me). A Lake Drive would be interesting, but it has to be done right. The worst thing that would happen is if this road, however wide it is, proves to be a barrier to to the lake, cutting off people's views and pedestrian access to the water. The best bet, as you say, would be to ensure a 100m (at the very least) interval between the lake line and construction. I encourage you to look into Chicago (my home town)'s Lake Shore Drive, and Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. The former is a 10 lane road that does separate the city from its beaches, but decent pedestrian access has been provided so this is usually seen as nothing more than a minor nuisance. The Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, however, is viewed my most as an elevated atrocity that cuts off the city from the lake and should be destroyed as soon as something suitable comes up to replace it. The point is that a lake road can be done nicely, providing panoramic views with lovely landscaping, or just be another piece of pavement. You just have to be willing and able to pay for what is wanted.

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  2. Excellent thinking.. Lets pray that someone responsible and powerful to 'implement' these things will read it.. Or better will be to make them read it.

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  3. Thanks for the comments, Jason and Neo!

    I have got a lot of positive feedback on this article and I will try and ensure that a copy reaches some of the receptive powers-that-be. Then let's all keep our fingers crossed.

    Jason, as you mentioned, the idea of the Lake Drive is to both provide access to as well as protect the lake at the same time. It has to be designed not to impede the breathtaking view as well as to blend in with the locale.

    There is already a road which encircles part of the lake with a buffer zone in between. This is slated for development as part of the upcoming International Convention Centre. The existing stretch presents a golden opportunity to test the concept out. I just hope that the developers don't miss the boat! Cheers!

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  4. Jason,

    The Toronto scenario you described is a far off prospect when compared to Akkulam. Ajay has envisaged the development of the existing road to Ulloor as a commercial-residential and entertainment area without obliterating the shoreline.
    So hinderance to public access is out of question.

    The Akkulam Driveway is a necessity for the commercial surge Trivandrum is experiencing as we have examples of how a waterfront district would elevate the business prospects and asthetics of a city. Even without proper infrastructure the lakefront is witnessing unprecedented projects inflow. So the Govt is just expected to streamline this natural growth by providing the basic amnities for this budding new town.

    Along with the Akkulam lakefront, the TS Canal could also metamorphise into an entertainment and residential zone if the Canal Walk project is recussitated. We would have a major Railhead(kochuveli), Bus Terminals(Enchakkal), Int'l Airport and Transhipment Terminal(Vizhinjam) all along this canal! Just imagine the prospects...

    First things first, its the Akkulam lakefront that needs expedite attention; the last thing we want to see is a planning disaster. Let the blog lead the way...

    Scorpio/-

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  5. Perhaps the govt. should look into creating a special planning authority for the Akkulam Zone (if there is such a thing. This would help prevent haphazard planning and building that is totally disconnected from the rest. And please, if at all possible, make the entire lake shoreline public land. I know it may seem like throwing away perfectly good land, but having that area free--plus some much needed parkland sprinkled throughout the area--would do wonders for the image and property value of the area. Central Park in New York, for example, undoubtedly pushes up the value of all the properties in Manhattan and perhaps throughout New York City. The 843 acre tract, if developed, might be worth $529 billion. (see here: http://ask.yahoo.com/20070202.html )But the value it brings, e.g. rising property values, 25 million visitors a year, concerts, festivals, art exhibits, etc, all mean the economic value of the park is countless times that amount, much more than putting up some condominiums (flats) would entail. It would be nice for Trivandrum to have a nice, beautiful park that would be the envy of cities across India, something that all people of all strata of society could enjoy. The quality of life aspect should not be sacrificed in the long term for a short term econmic gain.

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  6. Good point Jason!

    Trivandrum is already done proud by the presence of nearly 100 acres of gardens right in the heart of the city in the form of Museum & Palace grounds, Kanakakkunnu and Observatory hills. This not only serves as a green lung for the city but also creates a public space, tourist destination and unique landmark for the city. Trivandrum also has the 100 acre Kowdiar Palace and also numerous parks and palace grounds, which make the place stand out among contemporary city structures.

    What you have said is extremely important if you consider the similar needs of the rapidly evolving new city. Akkulam shoreline has got a fantastic chance to create a leisure zone as in other major cities. The image of the city would have a tremendous boost if planned in an imaginative and methodical way.

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Thanks for your comment, I will take a look at it and put it up at the earliest.