From the window of his tenth-floor home in Worli, Justice SS Parkar has a perfect view of the kind of buildings he authorises every month – and the landscape in which they’re coming up. Slums and auto workshops lie directly below his window, while the Bandra-Worli sealink is a speck in the distance. The vista is framed by the Marathon NextGen Era building on one side and the 74- storey Palais Royale on the other, still under construction. “Its lights are on all night so we have to close the curtains,” Parkar said.
The retired high court judge heads what is perhaps the most embattled government panel in the city – the committee in charge of scrutinising and clearing plans for buildings over 70 metres high. Not so tough for a group of technical experts and experienced municipal officials you might think – except this is Mumbai where nothing is as contested as space. The committee was formed in 2004 to ensure that the new tall buildings were structurally and environmentally sound. It has been reconstituted twice, the second time last September after one of its members, structural engineer Shailesh Mahimtura, was arrested for allegedly taking a bribe from a builder.
The shadow of another, larger scandal is ever-present: the allegations about legal violations and improper flat allotments in the 31- storey Adarsh Housing Society in Colaba. Adarsh was cleared by the high-rise committee, but developers later added extra floors. The revision was allegedly approved by the then municipal commissioner with- out being referred back to the committee. As a consequence, the panel no longer accepts proposals where development rights have not been finalised.
Similarly, because of Mahimtura, the committee undertakes all its site visits as a team, takes decisions only when all members are present and doesn’t include any practising architects or engineers. The purpose of the panel, Parkar noted, “was to create the impression that high-rise constructions are cleared by a committee of independent members uninfluenced by builders or the municipality.”
Apart from Parkar, the panel comprises the chief fire officer, the chief engineer of the municipality’s development plan department, the head of IIT’s civil engineering department, the head of Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute’s structural engineering department and the head of Mumbai’s National Environment Engineering Research Institute. In February, the panel finalised draft guidelines that, among many other things, required builders to produce studies on everything from indoor air pollution and traffic to sewage and energy use. They are also supposed to produce locality maps that mark out parks and heritage buildings, justify the use of energy-consuming glass facades and draft disaster man- agement plans for the hundreds of residents that occupy the enormous new towers.
The rigour of the new guidelines and the slow pace of clearance have not gone down well with developers. Though 179 proposals have been passed since 2004, 14 by the new committee, more than a hundred are pending. In May, the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry, a builders’ association, asked the chief minister to disband the committee change the definition of high- rises to exclude buildings below 150 metres (50 floors).
But the pressures on the panel started well before – through news reports on permissions being delayed by vacationing members (only one member was away for a week, Parkar said) and even an anonymous letter that alleged corruption, disparaged IIT professors and suggested adding professionals to the panel. “Won’t they have a vested interest in their own projects?” asked Parkar.
Some of the delay is because the environment and other impact studies are shoddy and often need to be redone, said Rakesh Kumar, NEERI’s mumbai head and panel member. “There are discrepancies between presentations and reports, even between the same facts in two chapters of a report,” he said.
Still, the committee has only rejected one proposal so far, a project in Bhendi Bazaar. But they have asked builders to change window designs to improve ventilation, expand parking for visitors and, in the case of a commercial building in Bandra-Kurla Complex, commit to lighting a cricket pitch cast into shadow by the structure. Shadow analysis is important, panel members said, because of the impact a very tall building has on light and air around it. “Everybody must have some sunlight for some hours of the day,” said Parkar.
At 117 storeys, the proposed World One tower in the former Shreeniwas Mills, Lower Parel, is intended to be the world’s tallest residential building. It is part of Lodha Place, a 16- acre layout of residences, offices, shops and gardens designed by New York based Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the company behind the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong. Excerpts from an interview:
How would you compare designing a building in Mumbai and in New York?
Are there particular constraints that shaped your approach?
What kind of cultural factors did you have to take into account?
Are the expectations of local clients and international architects different?
By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar on July 21 2011 6.30pm