Sunday, January 24, 2010

A FAR Battle

On December 16, 2009, the Government of Kerala issued an innocuous Government Order (or GO, as it is popularly known), few of us would have noticed it but it has the potential to redraw the future of urban development in the State and to ignite a bitter battle between the property development community and the authorities.

What is FAR?

 GO No. 249/2009/LSGD  reduced the maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) available for property development in Kerala by significant margin, especially for residential buildings where it was cut from 4 to 2.75. So what is FAR? Simply put, it determines how much floor area one can build on a piece of land. For example with an acre (43,560 square feet) of land and an FAR of 4, one can build a maximum of 4 X 43,560 = 174240 square feet of building in it (parking area is not considered). With an FAR of 2.75, this drops to about 120,000 square feet. Ostensibly, the FAR has been reduced to prevent the build-up of residential projects in areas with poor infrastructure as well as its ill effects like traffic congestion and stressed-out utilities. The Government was probably concerned that property development has out-stripped the development of infrastructure like roads, water supply and sewerage.

The Impact

Obviously, this is major loss of revenue for a developer. But the debate is far larger than this commercial question. This is because the FAR policy also determines the policy of urban planning to a great extent, by spelling out what density of development is possible in the area. Greater FARs mean that more built-up area is possible per unit land area, which allows for high-density development - high-rise towers being the most evident outcome. Low FAR makes this impossible unless there are some back door approaches such as Transferable Development Rights, used in cities like Mumbai but absent in Kerala. A low FAR cultivates the opposite of high-density urban development - the urban sprawl , a vast spread out area of low density development, criss-crossed by often-narrow roads and composed mostly of independent houses or low-rise housing. We are already familiar with this phenomenon in cities like Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata which have expanded out to thousands of square kilometers.

High Density Urban Development Vs Urban Sprawl

In an excellent and simple presentation, Amy Liu - an urban planning expert - has spelt out the benefits of high-density urban development. It is pointed out that:

- High-density development in the context of the knowledge economy promotes higher productivity by creating more integrated business ecosystems and by making commuting easier and more efficient.
- High-density development result in vibrant downtowns and high quality of life which attract talented workers.
- High-end industries and those which are manpower intensive (IT/ITES, R&D, services, banking and financial services) are most often found in the high-density environment
- The efficiency of high-density areas is seen to be higher in terms of public investment in infrastructure and services. These areas are able to develop economies of scale in terms of infrastructure.

- More efficient transportation systems in high-density areas are also said to reduce the environmental impact of commuting, for example, by encouraging use of public transport.


The best example of High-density urban development - Manhattan Courtesy: Nerve.com

However, dense urban development also has its critics who point out the high costs of land and built-up area, loss of green spaces, traffic congestion, stressed utilities and relatively high crime rates which are characteristic of dense cities, be it New York, Los Angeles, Rio or Mumbai.

Urban Sprawl has its proponents too who argue that many people, especially affluent couples, prefer the open spaces and independence of living in sprawling suburbs which allow them to build bigger houses at lower costs than the packed high-density downtown areas. It is also claimed that such suburbs are less crime prone than the city centers and that with well-planned transport infrastructure like express-ways and rail networks, commuting from the suburbs need not be long nor environmentally damaging.


And it sprawls and sprawls......

The detractors of urban sprawl argue that it uses too much land, requires too much public investment in infrastructure and are very inefficient in terms of energy usage and resources. Additionally, the geographical spread of these areas makes it difficult to reach either places of work - offices and IT parks or hubs of social amenities such as malls, hospitals, schools and stadia, all of which tend NOT to be widely dispersed.

The Trivandrum Perspective

Our city already stretches across nearly 300 square kilometers, in the midst of a State which has the least available land in India due to its population density. Till recently, it was a classic case of urban sprawl with few high-rises and a multitude of independent houses spreading outwards from the old city area centered around the Fort and Secretariat areas. However, in the last ten to fifteen years, Trivandrum has started to develop density with high-rises - both residential and commercial - appearing in vast numbers. Indeed, in the heights that have been attained  - 38 floors by one project - and the numbers relative to the population, Trivandrum is better placed than much bigger cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune or Bangalore - in some of which the 30 floor mark is yet to be breached. As I mentioned in a previous article, Trivandrum is developing multiple nuclei of growth, one being the traditional Central Business District along the M.G. Road and a new one evolving around Technopark and the IT Corridor.

With an economy based on services and knowledge industries, Trivandrum could do well to create a dense, dynamic business environment together with a surrounding high-density residential and amenity zone. As we had seen earlier, the knowledge economy needs high-density urban development not just to create a vibrant business ecosystem which also promotes innovation and informal interaction but also creates the metropolitan lifestyle that high-end professionals desire.

People-intensive sectors such as IT/ITES, R&D, finance, education and services demand a lot of commuting if the spatial arrangement of the business hubs and their respective residential catchments is not contiguous. If the places that people want to travel to are located closer to where they stay they are far more likely to use public transport or eco-friendly means such as cycling or walking, than if they live far away. In a very interesting example, the use of public transport in Trivandrum's new twin Barcelona, is far higher than in Atlanta, despite the fact that both cities have similar populations. The crucial difference is that Barcelona is far more compact, with an area about 1/20th that of Atlanta. In our case, if we can ensure that a major proportion of the 200,000 IT professionals we expect to be in Trivandrum in 2018 are located in a 5 km radius of the IT Corridor, we may have prevent the endless traffic jams that Bangalore is forced to endure. The problem there is that despite the fact most of the IT/ITES industry is concentrated in a few areas like Electronics City, Whitefield and the Outer Ring Road, Bangalore's low density urban structure has forced employees to live far away from their places of work. Another crucial consequence of low-density residential development is that it results in a vast variety of point-to-point travel with few major transport axes, where public transport can be deployed profitably, developing. In cities with one or more developed CBDs, high density traffic routes also develop between these hubs and the major residential concentrations. These routes allow for the deployment of efficient MRTS solutions like mono-rails or metros. A diffused urban structure never allows the critical mass needed for MRTS implementation, and instead promotes point-to-point public transport on two or four wheelers. In short, what we need is to promote well-planned high-density urban development.

Better Urban Planning

The prime reason given for reducing the FAR is to prevent existing infrastructure from becoming over-taxed by new developments. But, as is evident, it is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a far-sighted re-think of the prevailing urban planning paradigm. This is sort of like saying that because there are more passengers than buses, we will put a restriction on the number to tickets rather than buy more buses and expand the service. The solution to the urban growth conundrum is not to restrict development but to expand infrastructure to match and anticipate that growth. This is a win-win strategy which results in more economic development and more jobs. The funding for infrastructure development is always a problem in a developing economy like ours, but here again the answer may lie in public private partnership. The developers of new properties may be asked to share in the cost of developing the accompanying infrastructure, either through having to pay for extra FAR or through a cess on a per-square-feet basis.

TDF's projections have estimated that about 20 million sq.ft. of IT space will come up along the IT Corridor in the next eight to ten years. Assume a cess of Rs 100/sq.ft on this space, that alone will net Rs 200 Crores for infrastructure development in this region. Upto 100,000 residential space would be needed to support this development and a similar cess on apartments could yield more than Rs 1000 Crores. Again, the development of integrated townships like Technocity, which promote the "walk-to-work" concepts, will take a lot of pressure of the public exchequer since most of these projects also develop their own infrastructure and civic amenities.

Finally, the one-size-fits-all rule of one FAR policy for the entire State is not a very smart move. The FAR permissible for a city like Trivandrum with a relatively developed road network cannot be the same as that allotted to a small town. Again, the major cities like Trivandrum, Ernakulam and Calicut deserve to have much more flexible FAR policies to accommodate options like extra FAR and TDR. Even within a city, different areas may need different FARs in line with their predominant activity and their spatial location within the overall structure of the metropolitan area. For example, greenfield areas like Thonnakkal or Vizhinjam can be given higher FARs as the potential to create new infrastructure exists as well as the drivers of economic growth such as Technocity or the upcoming deep-water port respectively.

Of course, for such a well-thought out and visionary allocation of FAR, one first of all needs a city development master plan. And that of course does not exist yet, even on paper. Why? That is a long story better told elsewhere. The need of the hour is to have a structural plan for the Trivandrum Metropolitan area, often called the TCR, which plans not just to accommodate the trends of today but of the next 25 years, by when Trivandrum will be a city of over 2.5 million, as big as Barcelona is today.

To conclude, what we need urgently instead of a GO which axes FARs indiscriminately is:
  1.  A detailed, realistic and visionary city development master plan which clearly marks out present and future areas of development and transport axes.
  2. A FAR policy based on spatial location in the master plan as well as the potential type of development in the area
  3. A clear mechanism to maximise FAR while ensuring adequate investment for the development of infrastructure needed to support the consequent high-density development
All this may sound futuristic and a long way off from where we are, but the truth is that it is not. This is not rocket-science but the application of urban planning and public policy principles which are already clearly understood. All that is needed is to incorporate an understanding of the local development scenario and demographic details into the planning methodology to create a urban planning strategy which is win-win, which helps cities like Trivandrum realise their aspirations to be truely world-class. This cannot be achieved without a truely inclusive effort on the part of not just the Government but all the stakeholders, which include all of us. Organizations like TDF and EDIT are on the job, but it is the responsibility of each one of us to shape the city that we live in.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Barcelona reachs out to Trivandrum

One culturally and architecturally rich, seaside metropolis pairs up with another, on a different continent. Barcelona, Spain's second city, has cleared its twinning with Trivandrum, India's southern-most metro. On his visit to Barcelona, Dr Shashi Tharoor held discussions with the Catalan capital's mayor and his team, which resulted in the green flag being shown to the ambitious twinning agreement which is expected to facilitate cooperation in the fields of health and medical research, information technology, sports, solid waste management and urban development.

TDF played an active part in the interactions the Barcelona delegation had in Trivandrum during their visit in October 2009. On behalf of TDF, I had accompanied them to Technopark, which we hope will help to spark off cooperation not just in IT/ITES but in the development of infrastructure for the IT and high-technology industries.

Looks like 2010 is getting better as each day goes by, but the signing of the Twinning Accord will be an eagerly awaited part of this year's calendar. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 11, 2010

TrivandrumRising on Twitter

Twitter seems to have become an indispensable part of a lot of peoples' lives, and for some, like Dr Tharoor, the source of many a woe. As Huck Finn famously said, "if you can't lick 'em, join 'em." I have been on Twitter a while, more out of curiosity than anything else as first, but it seems to be  good way of getting impromptu messages and notifications across. Especially for a blog!

So TrivandrumRising is on Twitter. Do follow it for instant updates on the latest posts via Twitterfeed 

You can follow TvmRising using the floating "Follow Me" widget on the left margin of the blog.

Hope to see lots of you on Twitter. Thanks in advance, folks!

TDF in 2009

2009 was a bad year alright, pretty much no one disputes that, but that made it imperative for the Trivandrum Development Front to re-double its efforts. And indeed, this year was a busy one for us.

To start off the year came the Trivandrum Capital Region (TCR) master-plan seminar organised by TRIDA on January 28 and 29, in which TDF was a knowledge partner on the topic of the Knowledge Sector - IT, R&D, biotechnology and so on. TDF presented in detail to the audience on the impact that the growth of knowledge industries would have on the development of the TCR. The seminar saw presentations on almost all topics related to urban development and planning and the idea was to evolve a basic white paper which would act as the basis for the creation of the TCR. However, it took TRIDA nearly a year to get the document in shape and hand it over to the Local Self Government department. TDF diligently followed up both with TRIDA and the LSG Ministry to ensure that the valuable work done in January was not lost.

TDF was also part of bunch of organisations led by the Trivandrum Bar Council which have been waging a long, lonely battle for the restoration of the High Court Bench in Trivandrum. TDF members joined the relay hunger strike for the Bench in front of the Court Complex at Vanchiyoor on several occasions. Yours truely went on strike for TDF on the 409th day.

The General elections rolled in with the month of March and the excitement was about the candidature of Dr Shashi Tharoor in Trivandrum. TDF met with the various candidates to understand the extent of their focus on the development of the capital city. It was Dr Tharoor's development agenda which stood out in its detail and ambition. In its own humble way, TDF seconded his candidature. We are apolitical and for us, the focus on development matters more than ideology. Since his thumping victory, TDF has worked with Dr Tharoor and his team on a number of initiatives including exploring the twinning of Trivandrum with Barcelona.

June 2009 brought a major challenge to TDF and every other like-minded organisation when the development plan for the Vizhinjam project collapsed. TDF was at the fore-front of campaigning for swift conclusion to the chaos that gripped the project in the first half of 2009. We were disappointed at the callous disregard shown by much of the mainstream media to this all important issue with the only interest being to stir up controversy and confusion. In particular, protests were vocal about the attitude taken by the Manorama to the Vizhinjam project and to major projects in Trivandrum in general.

Throughout its seven or so years of existence, TDF has identified the IT/ITES industry as key to the development of Trivandrum because of the level of fit between the requirements of the industry and the strengths of our city such as human resource availability, R&D strength and world-class IT infrastructure. It also has the best employment generation-to-investment ratio possible which is critical to Kerala's service sector-oriented economy. 2009 year was a year where we had much to do in this regard.

Sadly, we seemed to be among the very small minority that saw the opportunity to become an IT powerhouse slipping from Kerala's grasp once more as infrastructure development crawled to a halt. KSITIL, formed in 2007 to develop Technocity and other projects, totaling over 1000 acres of prime land and an estimated Rs 10,000 Crores of investment, continues to remain as a two-man, one room operation. TDF pointed this out to the Government repeatedly while we also sought to bring some clarity to the Government's hydra-headed IT strategy by suggesting our own best-in-practice strategy for developing IT infrastructure, which calls for the development of a single IT hub capable of competing with the likes of Pune or Hyderabad.

Sensing the abject lack of any effort on the Government's part to market the Rs 6000 Crore Technocity project, despite the fact that it offers what is possibly the last chance for Kerala to become a Tier I State in the IT/ITES industry as well as of meeting the LDF Government's ambitious target of generating 200,000 jobs in the IT/ITES industry, TDF launched its own campaign to promote the project. We created a business case for the project based on discussions with the Government and e-mailed it out to about 35 of the leading commercial real estate developers in India and across the world. TDF also carried out a pro bono study for a leading international firm interested in the project as well as facilitated the visits of two teams of Asian investors with a focus on the project.

2009 ended with the biggest IT/ITES event ever hosted at Trivandrum, CII's India IT Summit, which was held at the Leela Kempinski, Kovalam. TDF partnered with Technopark to create a campaign entitled "Intelligent Trivandrum" to promote Trivandrum as a top IT/ITES destination. We created a 8-page brochure and video presentation in the small matter of a week and distributed both at the conference, which was attended by top management from Infosys, TCS, Wipro, IBM, Cisco, Oracle and Microsoft among others. The brochure and CD will also be mailed out to key developers who could potentially invest in Technocity and other IT projects in and around Trivandrum.

Our efforts seemed to have started to make an impact. The most encouraging part was the fact that TDF was invited by the High Power Committee to Expedite Projects (HPCEP) which includes former Chief Secretary, Mr V Ramachandran and Dr Jayathilak, Secretary - Water Resources, and aims to identify the causes of delays to major projects like Vizhinjam and Technocity and to suggest ways of expediting them. TDF made a detailed presentation to the Committee.

TDF had a busy year in 2009 and 2010 promises to be no less packed if we are to ensure that Trivandrum does not miss the opportunities of a resurgent economy. TDF was stretched to the limit both in terms of manpower and resources because, in addition to not accepting external funding, we have very few people on the ground in Trivandrum and even those few of us are working professionals. 2009 was dotted with a few successes and a few set-backs as well. Looking forward to 2010, we hope to increase our impact and garner more resources and people for this struggle, which is often against vested interests with infinitely greater capabilities.

But we will carry on, stay tuned folks!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Adieu 2009

The best way to describe the year 2009 is annus horribilis, the meaning of which is quite evident even without a latin lexicon. A bad year for everyone, you, me and Trivandrum. So the round-up of the year won't be pretty either, perhaps that's why I have been delaying it so far. Well, nothing to do but bite the bullet and look ahead to better times.

As usual, let me follow the same order as the curtain-raiser article that I had written in February 2009. 

1.  Terminal 3 of the Trivandrum International Airport should be open for passengers by the middle of the year. 

Terminal 3 of the Trivandrum International Airport did get completed in 2009 but the sprawling, world-class 330,000 sq.ft. Terminal could not be commissioned because its access road was not finished this year. Thanks to KITCO, which also played a part in derailing land acquisition for the Vizhinjam project. But for all means and purposes, T3 is ready to welcome passengers. 

2. Air India's Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul base, in association with Boeing, should also open its giant doors for the first aircraft at the same time 

Air India's MRO has achieved completion and awaits connection to the main runway. Air India had a turbulent year which included strikes and goof-ups galore but the airline has persevered, with the help of Government hand-outs, and now plans to set up an independent MRO business as well as make Trivandrum an operational hub.


3. A couple of months earlier, Infosys Technologies will unveil the first phase of its giant, architecturally-stunning campus at Technopark.

Software Development Block 1 of Infosys Technologies' Trivandrum campus is operational, albeit with a soft-launch and construction is well advanced on SDB 2.

4. Construction work on the first component of the 2.5 million sq.ft. Technopark Phase III should kick off in the latter half of the year

L&T have been appointed the contractors for the first 1 million sq.ft building in Phase III and work has commenced.

5.The current negotiations between Technopark and a number of major developers for the development of Technocity will result in at least one parcel being taken up for development in the latter half of the year.

This one drew a total blank with the real estate industry across India and the world having its worst year in a decade and even ongoing projects getting scrapped. However, there has been a rekindling of interest with discussions in progress with several leading Indian and international developers. About 190 acres of land is with the Government, of which 50-odd have already received SEZ clearance. In the last week of 2009, the Cabinet also cleared the compensation and rehabilitation package for the take-over of the remaining 250 acres of land.  

6. The judicial hurdle in front of the $ 2 billion Vizhinjam Deep-water Container Transshipment Terminal should have been overcome in the early part of the year.

How wrong could I have been on this one but then no one expected a rogue company, a bunch of politicians and a media circle with vested interests to overcome the aspirations of the people of Kerala? But, sadly, that is precisely what happened with a combination of protracted legal wrangles and media hysteria driving the selected developer off.

However, towards the end of the year, the project has risen from its ashes, with the appointment of IFC as its new project advisor and the launch of a new website and project office, as the first stages of a development initiative worth over Rs 450 Crore which will see the State and Central Govt.s create all the supporting infrastructure for the project in parallel with a new bid process.

7. Work on various JNNURM projects including water and sewerage systems and the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) will be in progress by the end of the year while TCRIP work should be well-advanced.

Work is in progress on some components of the JNNURM project. Most notably the first Volvo city buses hit the road in Trivandrum. The BRTS project received administrative sanction and is in development. TCRIP work has picked up with the appointment of the VHK consortium as primary sub-contractors. Work is in progress on half-a-dozen corridors and the Bakery Junction flyover is nearing completion. 

8. Despite the slowdown in the property-development sector, 2009 will see a flurry of residential developments and townships from major developers.

The story of real-estate in 2009 does not need to told again but Trivandrum was one of the few major cities in India where the industry did not grind to a halt or see major rate cuts when even metros like Delhi and Mumbai saw 20-30% rate corrections, not to mention the bursting of the bubble at our sister city - spurred by the evident collapse of a few, much-hyped projects.

Trivandrum's real estate industry kept on announcing new projects during 2009, although at a slower rate than 2008. These included landmark buildings like the towering 38-floor Heera Dreams at Aakulam which sent ripples through the industry in South India with its audacity. While mall projects generally experienced paralysis, the projects by Nikunjam and Trinity made progress. A few others are in the pipeline, including a couple of rejuvenated ones. Stay tuned for more updates on these.

9. As pointed out by my friend Scorpio, the temporary campuses of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IISST) and the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER) opened in 2009, at Thumba and CET respectively. Work on the IISST's campuses at Valiyamala and Ponmudi is well underway while development of the IISER's even more ambitious 250 acre campus at Vithura has started. 2009 also saw the continuing successes of India's top space science lab, the VSSC, as it took us to the Moon, further cementing Trivandrum's status as a knowledge hub.

Thus ended 2009, mostly with disappointments galore but with a few rays of hope peeking through the dark clouds which have finally started to dispel. The ultimate year of this decade may see the resurgence of development but that is another story, another post.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the recap of TDF's activities to promote Trivandrum across the stormy days of 2009.