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To Market Our Heritage

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The Soapbox is an opportunity for each of our Advisory Board members to express an opinion on an important industry issue. This month, Bijay Mohan makes a case for conservation of heritage through commercial redevelopment.

I am sure we wouldn’t need to poll our movers, shakers, literati and glitterati to see where they stand on conservation of heritage buildings and localities. Many would have keepsakes from ‘save the ___’ marches. And I’m also sure of their stand on urban development:

‘integrated planning’, ‘holistic’, ‘community-friendly’ are some terms that come to mind. These same people are weekend mallrats either in one of our own cities or during quick trips to Singapore or Dubai.

Obviously, conservation of heritage buildings and commercial redevelopment of localities are not mutually exclusive. Our cities have a task: to ensure that we do not lose an opportunity to hardwire a heritage programme on to our ongoing commercial urban development efforts.

We have New Delhi’s ruins, Tamil Nadu’s temple towns, Mumbai’s fort, all crying out for a solution that would redevelop them commercially without diluting their architectural and aesthetic charm.

After all, these areas were – and, in some cases, are – erstwhile city hubs. They still contain the DNA that can see them playing that role well into the next century. If only we could convert the debate from conservation or development, to conservation through development.

Is it not ridiculous for Jaipur to build ugly boxes of steel and aluminium to house its emerging malls, when you could have had one of the world’s most exciting shopping districts in the Pink City – cleaned up and redeveloped to enable a better shopping experience? There is no crass commercial instinct at work here. The Pink City was always meant to be a market.

A developer with a soul could convert the terraces that ring the main streets of the city into an elevated shopping street that could rival the new elevated parkways of New York.

Of course, you’d need to scrub dung off the walls first; but pitch the remaking of the Pink City as a commercial proposal rather than a fuzzy civic initiative, and Rajasthan’s smart businessmen will queue up to support it.

In NCR, India’s first real multi-discipline entertainment destination was recently launched, offering street performances, Bollywood shows, nautankis, musical performances and such – an idea whose time has come for one of the most under-entertained middle-class populations in the world.

Whether this particular venture turns out to be a multiplex in disguise remains to be seen, but imagine if the developer had the option of setting up this enterprise around the Mehrauli ruins or the Tughlaqabad fort.

They could mutually reinforce each other – the venue giving the venture class and forcing it to remain tethered to its claims of Indian-ness, the venture ensuring that the venue gets visited by more than just the occasional, dazed NRI family.

Opportunities abound in every city along the lines of the Artists’ Square in Paris.
Bengaluru’s Basavangudi and Chennai’s Mylapore Temple Tank areas could become permanent street markets and galleries of traditional arts, crafts and music, sprinkled with filter coffee houses.

The temple-based town centre would get a chance to remain a culturally-relevant part of daily life. Liberate at least the ground floors of the colonial buildings around Flora Fountain and CST in Mumbai from being choked under government office files and turn them over to high-end retail that would be mandated to build around the original architectural aesthetics.

Is that not a more sensible use for some of the most expensive real estate in the world than three empty chairs, three babus, five peons and a filing cabinet? Create a waterfront scene along the Hooghly with a specialised strip of seafood restaurants serving every market segment, which could preserve the history of its fishing communities while also providing them with an alternate night-time livelihood.

In neighbouring China, developments like Xintiandi in Shanghai have taken late 19th C shikumen group housing and converted it, through a public-private partnership, into the city’s premier entertainment district, while giving it a day job of being a living museum of the life of the turn-of-the-century middle class.

Even new faux-antique developments like the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai enable a dialogue around almost forgotten aspects of their architectural heritage.

We need legislation and processes that would enable such redevelopment. It can start if every stakeholder realises the full commercial potential of our public-space heritage. Enlightened self-interest is required to drive change. Our country’s entrepreneurial core will be able latch on to this commercial potential to transform our urban heritage.

Thankfully, profit ceased to be a dirty word a few years ago in our society. High economic growth environment will continue to feed the viability of commercial real estate ventures of this sort.

But while we wait for this dialogue to gain momentum, we have to live through the current evolutionary stage – where we need to create a few more of the tiffin box structures to house our commercial ventures before we finally get fed up, turn around and see the potential lying all around us. It’s evolution, but could we speed it up?

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