Mumbai's Heritage Mile all set to go underground

Oct 15, 2016, 08:34 IST | Shashank Rao

While Railways and civic body plan a subway to connect Flora Fountain to iconic CST, experts are up in arms over the rationale behind the move

Pic/Rane Ashish, Graphic/Uday Mohite
Pic/Rane Ashish, Graphic/Uday Mohite

In their zeal to restore the historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to its former glory, the authorities may end up shaking the very foundation of Mumbai's heritage. In a new proposal that has been vehemently opposed by experts we spoke to, the BMC and Railways plan to dig a subway under Dadabhai Naoroji Road, also known as the city's 'heritage mile' for the many historic buildings dotting this route.

Also read: CST to get huge makeover with mini museum and a leafy entrance

When the authorities recently announced their plans to revamp CST and restore it to its former glory, the decision was met with cheers all around. But now, experts are worried that in the process of giving this historic building a makeover, the BMC and Railways might end up damaging the other heritage structures in the area.

At 199 years old, the Eruchshaw Building is one of the oldest building in the area
At 199 years old, the Eruchshaw Building is one of the oldest building in the area

CST makeover
At first, the BMC and the railways kept the focus on getting rid of all the dirt and congestion, mainly by removing hawkers so that there can be more space for pedestrians. The plan also included a few cosmetic changes to beautify the railway terminus and make it tourist-friendly ('CST gets mini museum and leafy entrance', mid-day, September 29). In their eagerness, however, the officials seem to have forgotten the entire point of the project – to protect heritage and improve the pedestrian experience.

Sources in the railways revealed that during a recent meeting, the two agencies discussed a plan to remove even pedestrians from the footpaths and instead push them underground in two subways leading out of CST. "We have had couple of meetings and are looking at building a subway right below DN Road till Fort, and another one till Azad Maidan. There is no need for people to spill over onto the road, as this disrupts the road traffic and causes inconvenience to them as well," said a railway official.

The Vatcha fire temple is now 106 years old and continues to serve as a place of worship for Zoroastrians
The Vatcha fire temple is now 106 years old and continues to serve as a place of worship for Zoroastrians

Shaky proposal
The biggest problem with the plan is that one of the subways is to be built right under Dadabhai Naoroji Road or DN Road. Not only do thousands of people walk on this road, but it is also home to many of Mumbai's heritage buildings. Now, there is a chance that these historical buildings might themselves become history.

The authorities insist that they will build the subway 10 metres under the ground so that it doesn't impact the sewer, water pipelines and other cable networks. But experts are concerned that the vibrations from the construction activity might cause extensive damage to the foundation of heritage buildings in the area, some of which are well over 100 years old. In the worst-case scenario, the vibrations might even cause the old buildings to crack or crumble.

Officials say
"Engineering-wise, it is possible to dig deep and create a subway without hampering the structures above," said a railway official, adding that although a detailed study was yet to be carried out, the ground should be able to support the construction work, as it has also supported many of the heritage buildings for over a century.

"CST is among the 10 iconic locations chosen for beautification by the PM. We, along with BMC and state government, are working on a plan to improve the entire area around the station," said Narendra Patil, Chief PRO, Central Railway.

Age of the oldest building on the heritage mile — Eruchshaw Building, built in 1817

The depth at which the subway will be constructed

Proposed length of the subway under DN Road

Vikas Dilawari, Conservation architect

'Pedestrians are meant to walk on the roads of a city, and not underneath them. It is not a feasible idea. Even if it goes ahead, care needs to be taken to ensure that no construction or drilling is conducted near the heritage buildings. It will weaken these structures'

Heritage speak
A senior official from MHCC said, "We will have to see the detailed plan, and only then can we comment on whether it will affect heritage structures or not. We have not got any official word from the Railways on the issue."

Not just brick and mortar, but the city's history
Eruchshaw Building: Built in 1817, opposite Khadi Bhandar, it is one of the earliest establishments of the area

JN Petit Institute and Reading Room: Grade-II heritage structure built in 1898. In September 2015, received Award of Distinction from UNESCO for exceptional restoration

Vatcha Agiary: This Grade-III heritage structure and place of worship for Zoroastrians was completed on May 19, 1910

Sir JJ Parsi Benevolent Institute: A Grade II heritage building founded in 1875 and noted for its broad, laid-out street arcade and the Zoroastrian inscriptions on its exteriors

Navsari Building stands out among its neighbours. It houses arguably the oldest functioning lift in India, which is supposed to be over a hundred years old!

Macmillan Building: Built in 1877, it was once home to former British PM Harold MacMillan's publishing house

Note: A majority of these buildings were designed by British firm Gostling & Morris, in the Neoclassical style, with hints of Gothic and Classical influences

DN Road subway

> This will likely be an extension of the existing CST subway which was opened in September 1999

> It will continue for 1 km before ending at Flora Fountain in Fort  

> There will be three to four entry and exit points along this subway to allow people to easily access their office or residence

> Escalators and travelators will be installed inside to make it more pedestrian-friendly

Azad Maidan subway
> This subway will also begin at CST, most likely from the concourse between the suburban and long-distance train corridors

> The subway will start from right next to the UNESCO World Heritage building and will go all the way to Azad Maidan

> It will intersect with the DN Road subway and might also connect to the underground Metro Line 3 (Colaba-Bandra-Seepz), which will have a station at Azad Maidan

> Sources said there are talks of extending this subway all the way to Churchgate

'Leave the terminus alone'

Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari blasts the idea of a CST subway under DN Road

Vikas Dilawari
Vikas Dilawari

We are witnessing the slow death of the original city. Throughout the world, across its largest cities, the idea of busy roundabouts have always been defined its character, and here, we are staring at the possibility of the exact opposite.

Pedestrians must always been given first preference to walk on roads, not below it. Look at the state of our skywalks – they're hardly used by the public. The Metro cinema subway is shut for long hours, and is largely unsafe. We cannot guarantee safety of the public on our roads, how is this going to help? Art galleries and CCTVs are not going to solve problems of subways. In the name of grandiose plans to clean CST and the like, such projects do only harm. Leave the terminus and its premise alone.

I've closely studied the plan of DN Road. It is a 15 ft-wide closed arcade, plus there's a 7x7ft open-to-sky footpath. If you remove vendors and hawkers from the footpaths, all of these concerns of crowding will be solved. Pedestrians are meant to walk on roads of a city, and not underneath it. The subway is not a feasible idea. It should be up for public hearing and discussed before taking it any further. Even if it goes ahead, care needs to be taken to ensure that no construction or drilling touches or is conducted near these heritage buildings. It will weaken these structures. Also, why wasn't any of this was mentioned in the Development Plan? We call ourselves a world heritage city, but by tabling such bizarre ideas the intent and vision are being defeated.
- As told to Fiona Fernandez 

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