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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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CHARACTER ASSASSINATION

The two tall buildings of 1920s vintage stood side by side at one corner of Girish Park. The one at 209 Chittaranjan Avenue with its projecting balconies and triangular pediment crowned with an urn was the more showy of the two. Before the two were demolished a little more than a year ago, they had been vacant for quite some time. All the doors and windows were shuttered and in the evening they looked haunted.

Then one day about two years ago, both were swathed in polythene sheets. In a few days, all that was left of the two was their shells. The sky was visible through the top floor. Soon both buildings were erased from the Vivekananda Road crossing. Construction work began almost overnight. And with equal alacrity the developers were through with their work. Twin glass towers have come up there with enviable speed. One houses a bank now. The second is a health club.

Raze and rebuild

Such sudden disappearing acts followed by the rebirth of old buildings in totally new avatars are happening with alarming regularity all over north Calcutta, and right into the suburbia along BT Road. This had been happening in the south for quite some, but now such perfervid building activity has caught up with the north of the city and its dusty, gray neighbourhoods and chequerboard of roofs that was so quintessentially Calcutta.

Promoters, both big and medium, such as Safecom Construction, North Calcutta Builders, Saket Promoters, Krishna Abasan, SD Construction, Space Group, Rice Group, Orbit Group, Heritage Realty Group, Siddeswari Group and Merlin Group are engaged in cloning building blocks in Baguiati, Dum Dum, Bangur, Kestopur, Jatindra Mohan Avenue, Kankurgachhi and Cossipore.

Billboards galore

Hoardings and notice boards advertising these projects bloom all over and are quite as visible as the ones that promote new schools with weird names, some invoking Derozio, and nursing homes and diagnostic centres. Some of these housing projects have names such as Shrachi Lakewoods, Siddeswari Garden and Sisir Kunj evocative of Arcadia, sylvan greens, transparent waterbodies and dew drops.

Projects with names like Green View “with club facilities” near Rathtala and Dunlop Sheraton near Dunlop bridge try to hook middle-class customers with the lure of high life. Great Eastern Trading Company has opened a huge TV showroom near Sinthee, and Reebok has a brand-new factory outlet opposite the Rabindra Bharati University’s Emerald Bower campus on BT Road. Prasad Nagar in Agarpara is as busy as a beehive and the Peerless Group has its very own “nagar” or township in Sodepore.

Number crunching

Aditya Shroff of Diamond Group, which started two years ago, says it is developing Diamond City North, a 10 lakh sq ft residential project on Jessore Road. Flats were selling for Rs 1,100 per sq ft to begin with, but the rate has escalated to Rs 1,900 in two years.

The group is also developing a commercial project there. This 4 lakh sq ft property on a build-and-lease model is meant to house INOX and Pantaloons, for the first time in the north. Two other commercial projects on VIP Road are being negotiated, says Shroff.

He adds: “There are definitely more housing projects in the south but more smaller projects are coming up in the north. Land prices have shot up in the south. It is not viable.”

Gorachand Mondal, director general, buildings, Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), admits that although it began in the south, the building boom has moved to the north. And the CMC does not mind. “This board is trying to relax building rules in the case of old structures in the north,” he says.

Old and new

In the north the juxtaposition of the old and new is far more spectacular than in the south because for generations things had remained unchanged in this bastion of orthodoxy. But youthful clothes do not sit well on an ageing body. The new constructions — mostly jerry-buildings — stand out a mile.

For, save these constructions, most of the problems that north Calcutta has inherited over the years continue to dog it. The promoter-politician-police nexus is only interested in making a quick buck.Developers are cashing in on the perennial demand for living space. In many of the para building projects the people of the neighbourhood themselves move into the new flats, sometimes extended families occupying almost an entire property.

This onslaught of development is gradually changing the character of neighbourhoods. College Street market is going. Ganesh Garh, a Marwari bastion in Chitpur (Sikdarbagan) and earlier a part of the Cossimbazar rajwadi estate, has been obliterated. Then the tenants were ejected and now Lakhotia Transport will certainly start its activities soon.

Demolition squad

Paikpara Rajbati on BT Road opposite the new Chitpur flyover was taken apart brick by brick about two years ago. Now it waits for a promoter.

Facing the terrace of Prasad built by Jatindra Mohan Tagore in Pathuriaghata are the Disneyland turrets of Tagore Castle . Next to it is the house of the Mullick family topped by classical statuary. Three huge structures have already come up next to these, the newest one in a demolished section of the Burrabazar branch of Metropolitan school.

In Kailash Bose Street, a good part of Lahabari is gone. Pearl Apartments has come up in its place. Another structure is coming up behind an Amherst Street newspaper office. Bengali heartland is under attack.

Space tricks

One hears more horror stories as one moves deeper north in Bagbazar where the houses stick to one another. It is impossible to build an apartment block there. So either the owner or the buyer seeks permission to refurbish an old house from the CMC but actually rebuilds it within under cover of the polythene sheets, using which has become mandatory. Promoters have not spared sprawling garages in that area either. In Goabagan, khatals from which cattle have been driven out and abandoned oil mills have met the same fate.

Ranjan Bandopadhyay and Anup Motilal, both long-time residents of Baranagar, say zamindars used to build their pleasances here. Golakdham which had 100 rooms and belonged to Jaynarayan Banerjee had become derelict. About three years ago it became an apartment block.

Motilal Mallik of Chitpur’s “ghariwala Mallikbari” fame owned a garden house in Baranagar which had a pond next to it. Now it is gone. Quite predictably, it was developed. For a long time, promoters had been eyeing the house in Garpar in which Satyajit Ray grew up. The good news is that funds from private sources will soon be available to save it from the demolition squad.

VERTIGO

Imagine a 24-storey building designed by Hafeez Contractor of Mumbai in the heart of Sealdah “affording a view of the Eden Gardens Stadium, Howrah bridge, St Andrew’s church, Subhas Sarobar and other Calcutta landmarks”.

This, according to a flyer available on demand at the site where four towers are coming up, the tallest of which named Cirrus is 24 storeys high. Two others, Nimbus and Cumulus, are 23 storeys each, while the fourth, Stratus, is 19 storeys. The flyer mentions the other facilities (health spa, club, koi ponds, swimming pools, palm grove, cascading waterbodies) which will be available in the 800,000 sq ft residential space in the form of 500 plus flats.

“At Rs 2,650 a sq ft now, and this could go up to Rs 2,750 soon,” says the young man who oversees the smart new glass office amidst a wilderness of stone chips and sand barricaded by walls of tin sheets.

What the flyer neglects to mention is that Ideal Heights, whose landscape architect is from Singapore, is being built on 2.19 lakh sq ft at 302 APC Road, which also happens to be the premises of Cossimbazar Rajbati. The aristocratic home has survived but it will be dwarfed by the towers in three years.

“World-class lifestyle environment” and “historic architecture” within shouting distance of Sealdah station and its anarchic environs.

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