Monday, November 7, 2011

Urban renewal on Railways Lands

FT has an article that describes the successful ongoing re-development of the King's Cross district of London, the largest urban re-development project in London in the past 150 years. It consists of the redevelopment of a particular area, King's Cross Central,

"Ten years ago, prostitutes and drug dealers loitered on the streets and many buildings were disused or derelict. Now King’s Cross has been cleaned up and is in the middle of a £2bn redevelopment programme, which is transforming the area and making it an appealing place to live...

Behind the station is a 67-acre former brownfield site, which is being turned into a new community, King’s Cross Central. Owned by London & Continental Railways, a UK government-owned property company, and DHL Supply Chain, it is the largest single-owned site to be redeveloped in central London for 50 years and even has its own new postcode, N1C...

The statistics for King’s Cross Central come thick and fast: there will be 20 new streets, 10 major public spaces and 50 new buildings. Meanwhile, 20 historic buildings and structures are being restored and refurbished. There will be 8m sq ft of mixed-use space and 22 per cent of King’s Cross Central has even now been "taken"... Two thousand new homes (44 per cent of them affordable) are also planned, with the first stage of 143 homes being completed by 2013...

In the past seven years, prices for homes in the King’s Cross district have doubled, from £400 per sq ft in 2004 to between £800-£1,000 per sq ft today. By comparison, homes in neighbouring Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia fetch about £1,200-£1,300 per sq ft."

The biggest challenge with urban re-development is the difficulty associated with negotiating with multiple property owners and convincing them about a single comprehensive plan. The much diminished credibility of governments in many developing countries adds to the difficulty of convincing them. They are likely to be wary of time over-runs and suspect governments to infringe on their contractual obligations.

In this context, like with the King's Cross Central, the large swathes of sub-optimally utilized lands around railway stations in many large Indian cities offers tremendous opportunities for commercial development and urban renewal. There are two big advantages in choosing such areas. One, the major chunk of land parcels around these stations are likely to be owned by Indian Railways. This would eliminate much of the practical difficulties associated with re-development.

In fact the King's Cross Central re-development project benefited from the fact that all the land was held by the same owners, thereby eliminating the need to manage multiple contract negotiations, and facilitating the process of comprehensive planning and delivering ‘joined-up’ infrastructure. Nevertheless it is an impressive project.

Second, they are generally located in the older part of the city, have crowded residential and commercial units, and could do with a big dose of urban renewal. Re-development projects in such areas would deliver the biggest bang for the buck. Such renewal projects can provide the stimulus to revitalize stagnating urban districts. It would form the anchor around which modern economic activities can emerge and flourish. Land values will invariably increase.

Areas where government departments have large tracts of land and where the renewal projects can potentially provide the platform for a much larger development agenda too can be prioritized for such projects. However, such projects require very careful and painstaking preparatory work before arriving at any re-development plan.

This assumes critical importance since there is a serious risk that such projects become viewed more as engineering and architectural projects than as area renewal projects. The former approach overlooks the social, economic and political dimensions of such re-development projects. How does the project promote livelihood opportunities, both for those within the project area and those outside? How does it mesh with the social and political realities of the area?

Further, urban planners and developers miss the big picture and tend to view these projects as self-contained developments. They need to realize that the value of these projects go beyond the specific project area and has to form a catalyst to usher in more broad-based development in its surroundings. In other words, such projects have to provide the economic, social, and cultural development opportunities that its neighbourhood can leverage to their benefit.

All the aforementioned means that such projects cannot be mere Railway Department Projects, if they are built on railway lands. It will have to be driven by the local municipal body, draw on professional expertise in design and implementation, and involve profit sharing with the railways. The local government will invariably lose money, atleast in the initial years. However, the net long-term social benefit from carefully structured urban renewal projects will always be a huge positive.

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