Kochi: Seeding a City

May 2013 – Architectural Digest India

Kochi’s ‘Bypass Road’ no longer bypasses much of anything. Designed in the 1970s to carry traffic around the city centre to the airport, the road now traverses and, to a large extent, decides the next big spots for development here in Kerala’s commercial capital. Billboards, rough and geometric, emerge along the roadside from stands of palms and tropical underbrush, rise on metal stilts over canals and creeks, and jut from the sides of new-ish aluminium-sided commercial buildings. Most advertise one of three things: gold, silk or real estate.

The real estate ads appear to be the most desperate for attention, often clustered in groups of five or six and advertising near-identical concrete high-rises in the new (again, -ish) IT district of Kakkanad, villa compounds in the suburb of Aluva and big luxury towers from national players along the city’s waterways.

Though Kochi’s major construction boom slowed down in 2008 after the onset of the global recession, the city still saw the launch of over 10,000 new residential units between 2009 and 2012—this for an urban agglomeration just topping two million. Of these units, about 1,000 were in the luxury segment. Nearby Coimbatore–a city twice as large as Kochi and, thanks to a thriving textile industry, significantly more robust economically–saw 8,000 unit launches, with about 650 in the luxury segment.

Kochi bears all the markings of boom times: The local market is cash rich (NB silk and gold), the city is building a metro, and India’s largest mall is coming up along the Bypass, not too far from a Toyota dealership large enough to be an airport terminal.

Madhav Raman, co-founder of Delhi’s Anagram Architects, says that in order to become major metros, emerging cities will “need to think of ways that they can become cities of global interest.” Unlike other emerging cities–pseudo-satellites like Mysore and single-industry towns like Indore come to mind–Kochi, with its glut of boutique hotels and the launch of India’s first Biennale this year, has begun promoting itself as an international destination for tourism and culture.

As the India growth story continues to shift from cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad to emerging urban centres, Kochi–with its cosmopolitan population, rich cultural heritage and thriving tourism industry–seems uniquely positioned to claim the title of India’s Next Metro.

Dr Amit Kapoor, honorary chairman of the Institute for Competitiveness, which ranked Kochi 15 among 50 Indian metros on its 2012 Competitiveness Index, says south Indian cities will be the subcontinent’s next urban stars. “They are going to get [development] right,” he says. “Next they need to focus on what they want to be.”

Kochi has placed its bets on an educated populace and a centuries-long tradition of internationalism – the tradition that filled its thriving heritage district with Dutch and English villas, synagogues and churches, open squares and those iconic fishing nets. It all seems great on paper. On the ground, though, there is an apparent paradox: Kochi’s assets may also be among the biggest obstacles to its rise.

The Global Paradox

Kochi has been a global city since long before that term held any currency—a point you’re unlikely to forget, what with the clever marketing of the Biennale and the city’s powerful tourism machine. Today, it has become a different kind of global city: exporting Kerala’s skilled population to lucrative markets within India and abroad.

“There are thousands of Keralites who work in the Gulf and pour money back into their home state,” says Ashutosh Limaye, head of research in Mumbai for real estate analysts Jones Lang Lasalle. Within India, too, Keralites tend to hold high-level jobs across the major metros. Many of those who live outside Kerala invest their income directly in real estate, most of it here in Kochi. Anuj Gopakumar, chief architect and vice president of Kumar Group, one of Kochi’s most prominent architecture firms, estimates that as many as three quarters of the city’s new flats have been sold outside Kerala.

“Unfortunately, NRIs are not investing in any kind of business or industry,” says S Gopakumar, Anuj’s father and senior architect at Kumar Group. “They only invest in housing or property.”

In the last few years Kochi has made a concerted effort to redirect that investment and retain its human capital with projects like the 100-acre InfoPark, which established Kakkanad as the city’s IT hub in 2004. The completion of the InfoPark was followed immediately by the announcement of SmartCity, a second tech centre that would expand the IT space in Kochi by another 6.2 million square feet. While the InfoPark reported adding over 4,000 new jobs in 2012, SmartCity, after years of disagreements and delays, only began its first phase of construction last year, eight years after it was first announced. These delays led to a general stall in Kakkanad’s real estate construction despite the fact that land prices have remained relatively low.

These sorts of delays are de rigueur in Kerala, where frequent political vacillation, notoriously finicky labour unions and a robust protest culture have for years scared off potential investors. Premium projects from major national and regional developers in prestige districts like Thevara and Marine Drive, or in water-facing neighbourhoods like Vytilla, have proceeded more smoothly, with scarcity of land keeping prices high. And while most builders I spoke to predicted that units in these buildings would likely sell, they also estimated that fewer than half would have permanent occupants.

The View Across the Bridge

Across the water from Thevara, the view is considerably different. In about six months, the Kochi-based Choice Group expects to complete its own entry into the city’s premium real estate market with Choice Marina, an 11-storey, 22-unit structure in the traditional residential area of Thoppumpady south of Kochi’s heritage districts. Thomas Jose, who heads the construction division for the company founded by his grandfather more than 50 years ago, is now working with his father and brother to hand-pick buyers for the building in order to hit a target of 80 per cent regular occupancy.

An American citizen educated at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Jose returned to work in the family business. “I see a huge opportunity here,” he says. “The US is really saturated. But here, with a start-up for instance, you have the opportunity to really be somebody in five years.”

Having participated in Kerala’s brain drain, Jose understands the importance of creating incentives for young Keralites to stay home.

He doesn’t put much stock in the future of Kerala’s IT sector–India’s most literate state has missed the proverbial boat–but the proposed Startup Village in Kakkanad, which aims to incubate 1,000 new businesses over the next decade, sets the right target. “If you’re able to retain those kids, keep them from leaving Kerala, it’s going to be great,” Jose says.

In the heritage districts of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry four kilometres to the north, art, design and heritage–rather than start-ups or tech–have emerged as a different kind of incentive, drawing a handful of accomplished young Keralites back home. Here among the spice go-downs that first made this city rich, they have begun to focus on what they want their city to be.

Up with the Go-Down

The back terrace of Pepper House looks across the Kochi Lagoon to the Vallarpadam Container Terminal where immense cranes stand poised over stacks of containers and a near-boatless dock. Completed two years ago, the terminal has yet to live up to its initial promise. As KJ Sohan, chairman of the town planning committee, had pointed out, the plans for the terminal were first drawn up some 20 years ago. It, perhaps not unlike the IT parks in Kakkanad, simply came up too late.

Pepper House, though, seems right on time. Until last year, the 18th-century go-down had been sitting in disuse and decay for decades. Issac Alexander’s family purchased the space 15 years ago, when land values in the heritage districts began what proved to be a meteoric rise. With the announcement of the Biennale, the family volunteered the space as a venue for the inaugural event, renovating it to accommodate several major installations and a café. After the event, Alexander hopes to transform Pepper House first into an artists’ residency and performance space, and eventually into a hotel, the dominant trend for heritage buildings in Kochi.

One such hotel is the Old Harbour, founded by Edgar Pinto in 2004. Born and raised in the city, Pinto had spent the last decade in Saudi Arabia. “Basically, I’m from Kochi and wanted to come back here. I saw the place growing,” he says. Since then, land prices in the heritage districts have increased as much as 500-600 per cent. “I think the positive thing the hotels have done is to change the outlook of the people who owned these old buildings. They’ve set an example where heritage can be preserved, but at the same time be revenue generating,” he says. “Practically, old is gold.”

“Only lately people have realized that preserving heritage is very important for us, not only for generations to come, but also for the economic survival of this place,” says Sohan. “That realization came only 5-10 years ago. Then thousands of people got jobs.”

“Back to your roots…”

Alexander’s goals with Pepper House represent a confluence of two essential strands in the  identity being forged for Kochi’s new heritage economy: restoration and art. “Many of the artists across India are from Kerala,” he says. “And now a lot of them are coming back.”

Many of those returning are heading for the old warehouse district of Mattancherry, which has housed a small artists’ community since the mid-1990s when the Dravidia and Kashi galleries first opened. Zakir Hussain, a native of Alleppey to the south, first moved here in 1999. “There were maybe two or three galleries but it was a kind of hub. It was a small area where people could sit and discuss their work and extend their ideas,” says Hussain, sitting beside a large, unfinished painting in his first-floor studio on Bazar Road. “That’s the kind of space provided by a small artists’ community.”

With the Biennale, Kochi went from a local artists’ community to a major destination for the Indian art scene. Through art, Kochi has once again become a ‘city of global interest’.

“People from here know the actual Mattancherry—that it’s full of artists,” says Dhanya Johnson, who returned to Kochi just over a year ago to start Springr, an artists’ residency and creative hub on Bazar Rd. In the past year, the news has spread.

Articulate and accomplished, Johnson spent the better part of a decade running the Rainmaker’s Shack outside Lonavala, while her partner at Springr, Abhinav Sree, worked out of Bengaluru to establish a tech start-up. The two met in Mumbai and immediately began thinking up ways to support the work of artists across mediums. “We had this idea about starting a virtual space for artists but we wanted to have a physical element,” says Sree. “We decided to do it in Kochi. It’s like coming back to your roots.”

Whatever hand-wringing there may be over Kerala’s economic future on the mainland, in Fort Kochi and increasingly in Mattancherry, optimism abounds. As Raman said, the essential question in identifying a major metro is “where do people want to stay.” For artists in Kerala, the answer is here. These young creatives cannot remake their city’s economy alone, but in attracting attention from across India and the world, they may just shape its future.

“I think some people can see the potential in this place and some people can’t,” says Sree. He and Johnson swing back and forth on a huge swing installed the day before by their first artist-in-residence. A few tourists wander down the street below, snapping photos of derelict spice shops, passing the entrance to OED Gallery and Springr and a pop-up exhibition currently underway beneath the high, humid eaves of what used to be Kashi. The bypass may have driven Kochi east, but the city’s future seems to be here, right where it began.

Sree smiles: “It’s a good time to be in Kochi.”

One comment

  1. I am interested in the nature of your posts but would appreciate if you included photographs to illustrate your points. Thanks.

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