The uber luxe restyling of Jacob Circle

BySatish Nandgaonkar
Feb 26, 2023 12:03 AM IST

How 17 coveted residential projects are promising a shine in an area where textile mills and organised crime flourished

MUMBAI: A new chapter is being scripted in south central Mumbai, with 17 upscale housing projects within 1.2 kilometers of Mahalaxmi railway station being developed. The newest entrant on the landscape is leading developer, the Raheja group, which announced two luxury towers on a newly acquired three-acre land parcel in former Modern Mill compound, recently.

Skyscrapers and other buildings with luxury apartments are changing the skyline around Mahalaxmi station in Mumbai. (HT Photo)
Skyscrapers and other buildings with luxury apartments are changing the skyline around Mahalaxmi station in Mumbai. (HT Photo)

A neighbourhood once populated with Mumbai’s textile mill and Mazgaon dock workers, which eventually gave way to the emergence of a fearsome Mumbai underworld, is now changing into an uber luxe residential zone.

The change is evident from the viewing deck above Dhobi Ghat – the densely populated ghat is shrinking, and on both sides of the railway station fringe tall skyscrapers are looming. The lights in the building illuminate the M shape of Lokhandwala Minerva, a Kataria construction project, at a distance. When complete, Minerva is likely to stake claim as the tallest residential building at 299 mts. Next door, cranes are working into the night atop Piramal group’s Piramal Mahalaxmi.

On either other side of the Saat Rasta circle, which used to be called Jacob Circle, stand Nahar Excalibur and the soon-to-be-ready Rahejas’ Vivarea towers. Work is on at Belvedere Court on the opposite side of Vivarea, and Lodha group has started work on another huge mill land plot exactly behind Raheja towers.

Fast food chains McDonalds and Pizza Hut have set up shop at the circle. On the Famous Studios side of Mahalaxmi station, Bengaluru-based Prestige Group has also started work on its Liberty Towers project followed by Four Seasons Residences.

The quiet of a late Friday night is impinged by the nose of frenetic construction activity.

The gentrification of the neighbourhood is quite intimidating for someone like Mansoor Khan, a boiled egg vendor who has been doing business right in front of Mahalaxmi railway station’s entrance for 15 years. Originally from Bihar, Khan lives in Mominpura, and puts up a stall consisting of a large circular aluminum plate stacked with boiled eggs resting on a double cone-shaped standee.

There are barely any customers this evening. “Before the lockdown, I used to sell nearly 300 eggs a day only at my stall, and we had four such stalls at four corners on this bridge. So that’s 1000-1200 eggs a day at 10 per egg. But, now I barely manage to sell 100-150 eggs,” says Khan.

His customers were primarily the floating population of daily commuters, slum dwellers, boys who went to gymnasiums in the evening and a Rajasthani community of 150 settled near Shakti Mills. After the lockdown, he is trying to cope with the shrinking business. “But, they have all gone. Slums are vanishing fast, people in Dhobi Ghat are selling their homes and moving out. In another five years, this area will perhaps have no poor left,” he says.

Textile mill heartland

Jacob Circle was the heartland of the textile trade. As the business prospered in Mumbai, over 200 mills sprung up all over central and South central Mumbai in early 1920s and mill workers lived in the vicinity of the mills in small one bedroom tenements. The mill population increased with the migration from the Konkan belt over the years, bringing with it a distinct Maharashtrian ethos to the belt.

“Jacob Circle used to be the very centre of the entire textile mill industry, with seven huge roads meeting at the circle. Dynamic changes have taken place after the closure of the mills and to textile mill workers staying in that area. All that is gone. Naturally, all of India’s builders are going to concentrate in that area,” says city historian Deepak Rao.

Citing the Mumbai City Gazetter, Rao says Jacob Circle, formerly known as the Central Station, got its name in 1886 from General Sir George Le Grand Jacob (1805-1881), a cousin of Lieutenant John Jacob of Jacob’s Horses, also known as the 6th Bombay Cavalry, a unit of the British army that fought several wars and conflicts.

Citing another reference from Samuel T Sheppard’s 1917 book, ‘Bombay Street Names’, Rao says, “General Sir George Le grand Jacob was in the Bombay army and the political dept. At Kolhapur during the mutiny, he played a role in disarming the mutineers of 27th Bombay Native Infantry. He was also a scholar and transcribed the Sanskrit Ashoka inscription at Girnar mountain. His adopted daughter donated the handsome fountain, which adorns the Jacob Circle. Now it is called Sant Gadge Maharaj Chowk.”

The worker’s strife

Even while Mumbai emerged as a major global textile centre, the workers demanded increased wages and better working conditions. The decade between 1928 and 1938 witnessed 460 strikes, which hit the city’s mills. But the biggest strike by textile mill workers came in 1982 over negotiations between Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), a union supported by the ruling Congress party, and the promoters of Standard Mills over a bonus payout. The workers demanded 20% payout, but after negotiations, RMMS settled for 13.7% leading to resentment among workers against RMMS, the article said.

The resentment contributed to the rise of Dr Datta Samant, who spearheaded the January 1982 textile strike and was supported by an estimated 2.5 lakh workers. The strike was unsuccessful as Mill Owners Association refused to budge to the demands of the workers, and left the mill workers in severe financial stress. The closure of the mills also hastened their decline.

The rise of the underworld

“The time between 1982 and ’84 was a turbulent one, marked by workers issues. Social unrest and tensions, rising unemployment due to the textile strike, gave rise to crime. It was during this time that underworld dons Babu Reshim, Rama Naik and Arun Gawli who came from this social background emerged on the crime horizon in South Central Mumbai as BRA gang,” says Baljeet Parmar, a veteran journalist, who has chronicled the rise and fall of the Mumbai underworld for several decades.

Reshim, who worked in the canteen at Mazgaon Docks, was also associated with the dock workers’ union. “In the canteen, he came in touch with the union leaders of the time. One day, there was a big disagreement with the dock management leading to violence, and on suspicion that he had a role in the violence, he was sacked by the management,” recalls Parmar.

Later in March 1987, Reshim’s murder inside a police lock up at Jacob Circle shocked Mumbai. “Jacob Circle has also seen quite a few crime incidents, including the murder of Sunit Khatau, the Khatau Mills owner in 1994. But, no one had imagined that someone could be killed inside a police lock up,” says Parmar. The police lock up, now a G+1 building behind the defunct New Shirin cinema hall, is located close to the Modern Mill compound where the new Raheja Modern Vivarea project will come up.

The grand turnaround

The Mahalaxmi micro-market has developed over the last 15 years, with some of the leading developers pitching luxury and ultra-luxury projects in the belt, offering unhindered views of the Mahalaxmi racecourse and the Arabian Sea. Talking about Mahalaxmi as a preferred choice for the high networth individuals, Anuj Puri, Chairman, ANAROCK Group says, “In the heart of South Mumbai, Mahalaxmi is home to some of the most affluent families in the financial capital. The demand for luxury homes in this exclusive area is consistently high, and relevant supply scarce.” He said the area has some of city’s best restaurants, prestigious schools and hospitals like Wockhardt and Sir HN Reliance Foundation. “Mahalaxmi is well-connected to other parts of the city, which is important for HNI businesspeople. As a luxury housing destination in South Mumbai, Mahalaxmi has few peers,” he says.

Ritesh Mehta, Senior Director and Head - West & North India, Residential Services, JLL says, “Developers looking for larger land parcels where they can develop amenities and achieve the economy of scale have looked at mill lands and converting factory land. The advantage of a JV with mill land is that the developer doesn’t have to deal with the complexity of an SRA project.”

Mehta says the prices in the micro-market have been in the 60,000 to 65,000 per sq ft bracket, with Raheja Vivarea commanding a premium of 15-20%. The connectivity to South Mumbai, the Metro 3 corridor close by, and luxury shopping and entertainment hubs like Phoenix Mills, Palladium has helped the market grow. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has proposed to a cable-stayed bridge and another flyover to move traffic from Jacob Circle and link it to the Coastal Road.

“One can’t compare it with the Worli micro-market where the price band is between 75,000 to 1,50,000 per sq ft, with sea-front properties commanding 1,45,000 to 1,50,000 per sq ft. Older Samudra Mahal properties perched between 1,10,000 and 1,20,000 per sq ft,” he says.

Pankaj Kapoor, Managing Director, Liases Foras, an independent non-brokerage real estate research firm, says there are 17 projects within a 1.28 km radius of Mahalaxmi Race Course with an average carpet base price of 50,000 per sq ft (See map).

He says the cumulative unsold inventory of around 2,200 units will take 80 months to sell. “It has been a slow-selling micro market catering to the luxury and ultra-luxury segment of the market,” he said. Only about 187 units are sold annually on an average in luxury market, with a sales velocity of 0.7 per cent, the data showed.

“Mahalaxmi Race Course was created to differentiate mill workers (low-end) of Lower Parel and high-end demographics of Peddar Road. The redevelopment projects have been cashing on the proximity of the high-end demographics,” he concluded.

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