My early childhood was spent in South Mumbai, so when I recently spent some time there for work, I was amazed at the dramatic change in the skyline. Over two decades ago, most of the tallest buildings were four storeys tall and people walked up the stairs. A walk on the terrace was accompanied by breathtaking, endless views of what was then Bombay. There was early morning fog and crisp sea air. This time around, I was atop a 25 storey building, still quite short in comparison to the 50 plus storey towers which dot the cityscape. My views included a forest of buildings and towers, some of which were surrounded by cranes and construction nets; smog and dust had replaced fog and sea-scented air. In the far distance I could see the iconic Bandra Worli Sealink – just barely.
Intrigued by these changes to the Mumbai real estate landscape which have slowly crept upon us and are here to stay, I did some Google search on the earliest towers in the city. I came upon this interesting article which recounts a conversation with a resident of the city’s first skyscraper – Usha Kiran on Carmichael Road in South Mumbai. Anant Patel, a third generation resident of Usha Kiran shares my description of the consequences of Mumbai’s skyscraper boom. He also bemoans the loss of his residence’s status as one of the iconic skyscrapers of Mumbai, now overshadowed and dwarfed by names like Shreepati Arcade, Imperial Towers, Planet Godrej and under-construction towers like World One and Palais Royale. He also feels the deep loss of endless city views – being able to literally see right across the city.
Mr. Patel is right, in that there is an exponential growth in the number of skyscrapers, towers and multi-storey buildings and housing as well as commercial complexes. These extend right across the length and breadth of the city, extending into the suburbs and beyond. Much of these of course come at a price. Mumbai looks like any other megapolis of the modern world – New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Chicago, London – a forest of concrete, views even from the tallest buildings obstructed by another equally tall tower, recycled air, smog, overpriced units, overhyped marketing and exaggerated demand. This results in a vicious cycle which includes cutting corners on quality as well as laws and regulations to meet certain standards. Let’s look at an example of this – the much awaited and now notorious Palais Royale.
Construction of Palais Royale at Worli was halted three years ago as the refuge area allotted to the builder, Shree Ram Urban Infrastructure Ltd. exceeded the limit of four percent of its total area. Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation brought the matter to the High Court where a division bench upheld the decision until further investigation. Here are the salient features of this particular case:
- Palais Royale, promoted by the famous Oswal family, is one of the most expensive properties in Mumbai, duplex flats are priced between Rs 70 to 80 crore.
- Apartment sizes vary from 4,000 to 14,000 sq ft.
- It consists of 56 storeys of which 13 are considered illegally built and may have to be demolished if the court rules as such.
- It’s 15 storey parking lot is also deemed illegal by the court as the developer has used it to construct illegal floors.
- The bone of contention in this case, the refuge area exempt from FSI, has been built up and included in carpet area.
- The developer challenged the order and asked that areas like refuge areas, passages, swimming pools which were exempted from the FSI, now be included as part of it.
- However, the Municipal commissioner has directed the developer to reduce the building’s refuge area FSI from the current 70% of the total construction to just 4%.
- The NGO Janhit Manch has filed a PIL concerning the many violations of the construction which include the refuge area where residents can take shelter in the event of a fire.
While the initial violations were brought to the court’s notice by ex-municipal commissioner Sitaram Kunte, the division bench has ordered Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta to inspect the refuge area and submit a report about the permissible area. Mr. Mehta has visited the property and carried out the necessary inspection. While everyone concerned waits for him to submit his report and for the bench to rule, a few outcomes are expected. These include the developer finally being able to commence construction after possibly demolishing the 13 illegal floors and applying for a fresh commencement certificate to regularise both wings of the property.
The curious case of Palais Royale brings into sharp focus the desire of developers to try and build as many amenities into the space they have so as to be able to demand premium prices. The fact that these come by skirting regulations and after blatant violations is largely ignored. Citizen awareness led by NGOs like Janhit Manch are essential to ensuring watchdogs like Municipal commissioners hold developers accountable when they flout rules. Home buyers themselves should be more vigilant about the updates they receive from developers during the various key stages of construction and raise questions when they notice irregularities. This vigilance will not only keep developers on their toes but avoid legal issues which result in court-mandated delays to fix irregularities and avoid loss of gigantic sums of money and time.
As we await the final outcome for Palais Royale and its many stakeholders, it is worth thinking about what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of owning a premium piece of property and what it’s true cost is.