Artist's impression of revamped Bhendi Bazaar
Jayant Sriram, 31 st October 2016
Spread out over three spacious floors, the Mufaddal Shopping Arcade in Noor Baugh, near the JJ flyover, was set up in 2013 as a temporary location for 200 business that have been displaced as a result of the 16.5 acre Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment project. The arcade is well-planned, with wide entryways, a lift, escalators, and on the upper floors, brightly-lit corridors lined with plants. It is, in microcosm, the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust's (SBUT) vision for the Bhendi Bazaar shopping experience of the future.
Though it's three years since it was set up, the arcade still feels like a tenuous experiment. It's pleasant interiors lack the market place vibe of Bhendi Bazaar's narrow, crowded streets. At mid-day on a weekday in fact, its quietness seems to reflect the divide between those commercial tenants who are willing to move to a better physical space and those who worried about whether their customers would go to an organised arcade in preference to familiar streetside shops.
In planning the high street shopping model for the 1,250 businesses and 3,200 homes in Bhendi Bazaar affected by the redevelopment plan, the major battle is winning over the existing shopkeepers and residents. That's because the key of project, according to SBUT spokesperson Murtaza Sadriwala, is community uplift rather than commerce-based redevelopment. The project, after all, is privately funded (by a faith-based trust) and spearheaded by community leaders.
The character of the bazaar
The evolution of the plan is an interesting experiment in how engagement with the community can affect and inform architectural plans. It also raised interesting questions about how to replicate the feel of a bustling marketplace that has an intrinsic relationship with the street. "When we started plans for the project," Mr Sadriwala says, "The sense that we got was that a lot of shopkeepers were saying that their businesses were declining because of a lack of parking space outside their shops and an unhealthy environment." But rather than move to a tower or mall, he says that the trust was always mindful of the idea of not creating a closed structure and ensuring that there was a proper integration of the roads within Bhendi Bazaar to the main connecting roads outside.
"When we started plans for redevelopment we put together a commercial tenants committee with one member from each trade," says Abbas Master, CEO of SBUT. "They were unanimous on the idea of creating a street shopping model rather than locating all the shops in a tower. But though the idea was to create a model in which the roads were widened in order to encompass some of the smaller streets, it was not possible to accommodate all the shops on the ground floor."
The eventual model — ground-plus-two structures across nine sub-clusters in the area — only gives some shopkeepers street-level spaces. The ones who have been allotted spaces on higher floors feared that their shops would get few footfalls. To address these concerns, the SBUT's model is to have walkways and skywalks connecting all the nine sub-clusters at the second floor level. "The idea is that these skywalks will ensure that people can escape traffic they do not have to go down and come up again to access any of the shops on the upper floors," Mr. Master says.
Once again, though, the challenge is to ensure that all shopkeepers are willing stakeholders in the process. Mr Master says, "There are several who have told us that when we move toward a more modern space they will look at a new way of marketing, perhaps even new ways of branding traditional products like the farsan that is made here." The key to ensuring that this works, according to Mr Sadriwala, is in choosing the right kind of establishments that can move to the second floor. One possible idea is to locate some of the market's famous eating establishments here, as a broad skywalk could allow them to seat customers outdoors in the evenings, as currently happens in the street market.
Not all shopkeepers are buying
Shop owners are torn between enthusiasm for a better physical space and the anxiety of moving away from the street as they know it.
For Mohammed Asif, second-generation owner of Indian Hotel, famous for its rolls and naan-chaap, moving to what he calls the 'mall' brings with it the promise that more people will come to Bhendi Bazaar and there will be a better crew. And he can plan physical changes to his shop, such as a new counter and a better seating area. But he is convinced that it's important that restaurants be located on the ground floor. "If we move to the first or second floor people will not like to come." But Hussain Abbas, who has a small shop that sells ridas, the colourful burkhas of the Bohri community, is less worried and lad that a mall-like building would mean more cleanliness and security. "In any case even though a lot of people are worried that their major clientele is people who walk by, in the modern age there are lots of options to expand marketing, like online or through Whatsapp."
Who eventually gets upper or lower units will involve more planning and more engagement with the community to explains the merits of each, but it's a process that the SBUT is willing to invest a lot of time in.
Anticipating future needs
The same deep community engagement has also gone into deciding on the eventual design of the housing units that will rise in towers above each shopping cluster.
"We showed the tenants several options for the kind of housing that we were looking to build," said Mr Master, "and the unanimous decision again was for a model in which the windows of each flat faced outward and the house was divided into two distinct units with two separate bathrooms. This would ensure that it would be suitable for multi-generational use, in case the family grows and the space needs to be utilised as two separate units."
While the trust has invested a lot in what they call socio-cultural studies of the area ahead of redevelopment, Mr Master emphasises that it's a process that needs to be ongoing so that appropriate changes can be made to keep the area commercially successful and viable as a living space.
Eventually, the SBUT wants to make Bhendi Bazaar the longest high street shopping space in the city, and the broad consensus, despite some misgivings, is that it's an idea whose time has come. As a unique experiment in taking into account the broader needs of the community the success of the shopping and architectural model that the Bhendi Bazaar project has evolved could be crucial in providing a blueprint for other cities in organising their main street shopping experience.