Thursday, 25 February 2010

Commercial Property Development Not Allowed

Ever wonder why our cities in Pakistan do not have an abundance of commercial, retail, office and dense residential use (flats)? The answer as always lies in poor uninformed governance.

For too long now our planning paradigm has favored the kothis. Even now the planner thinks only of elite housing---single family stand alone construction—one floor plus one. While all over the world—even the old Lahore townhouses have 4 stories---in Pakistan the norm is one plus one. Elsewhere—even in old Lahore density is allowed for in the shape of adjoined row houses—here we continue to plan for stand alone houses with setbacks.

Should you wish to build any thing different from 1+1 kothi, you need to get your plot “commercialized”? Even if you want to build a block of flats, you still need to commercialize your plot. What is this commercialization?

The most important fact that I have been able to learn about commercialization is that it is totally arbitrary varying from locality to locality. It can be especially difficult in cantonment areas which now are a substantial proportion of our cities.

Commercialization happens on a plot by plot basis. Your neighborhood may be entirely commercial, yet your plot has to be commercialized for you to build on it. And there is no guarantee that your plot will be commercialized even though your neighbor’s plot is commercial.

The process can be lengthy. On the way there is a lot of room for extraction of rents and bribes. There is no one window operation here. In cantonments it can involve the GHQ, corps commanders etc.

Commercialization fees are heavy and arbitrary varying all over the country. I have found them to be as much as Rs 3-4 million per Marla. In some cases, they are higher than the value of the land. The reason that is given for such high fees is that the city will build infrastructure for the increased density that is proposed in the new commercialized project.

There are 2 flaws in that argument. First, the money is never used for developing infrastructure; instead it is used for the purposes of the existing bureaucracy. Second, the city does not understand the costs of slow growth; the punitive nature of the large fee slows down commercial development and hence the city’s future revenues.

The process of commercialization also gives your neighbor the right of veto thereby slowing the process further. Why should the neighbor have a right on your property is neither debated nor understood.

When one puts one’s mind to it, the implications of this anti commercialization policy are large.

The result of this strange unthinking policy is that our cities have remained stunted and feudal. There is no good commercial space available anywhere. There is a huge excess demand for space for nonresidential space such as office, education, community, school, leisure, entertainment and retail.

Most importantly mixed use space where office, flats, retail and community mix is not available at all. Even our old cities had large amounts of mixed use space. It is in this space that the middle and the poorer classes thrive. Without a change in this policy these classes will be excluded from our cities.

Without apartment blocks, we will never have manageable and modern cities. In the current Kothi paradigm, even if we could house everybody, urban sprawl would kill much of Punjab’s agriculture. We simply do not have the land or the management capacity to allow that to happen.

The look of our cities as well as the mindset they generate remains feudal and rural. We continue to conduct all our ceremonies –weddings, functions and entertainment-- in a very rural and feudal manner because our cities have not yet developed an urban culture. How can you have an urban culture without an urban mix and density?