Marine Drive offers the microscopic and telescopic view of the State’s coming of age in the property market, that started with the boom days of the early 1990s

As the crow flies, Kochi’s iconic Marine Drive is little more than a kilometre long. But it is a priceless little stretch of land, set on the banks of the Vembanad Lake and running north-south, the futuristic temple to Kerala’s obsession with land and property; the microscopic and telescopic view of the State’s coming of age in the property market, a process that started with the boom days of early 1990s.

Between then and now, Kochi’s skyline has changed so much that a sailor, who visited Kochi 20 years ago, will not recognise the city from his memory. The building designs are peering into the future; hip roofs of clay tiles have given way to flat concrete; glass and steel have taken the place of wood.

Marine Drive is today home to more than a dozen real estate projects, each worth hundreds of crores of rupees. A cent (about 400 sq. ft.) of land on Marine Drive cost more than Rs.5 lakh at the turn of the century, today a 2,000 sq. ft. living apartment here costs at least Rs.2 crore.

This is the story of Kochi’s rise to the vanguard of real property development in Kerala, which had a fortuitous beginning, emerging as it did out of the shadows of extreme scarcity of liquid money and unaffordable bank rates combining to drive both builders and property buyers away.

Nobody represents the rise of Kochi as strongly as Skyline Builders, which rode the crest of a wave of great interest in real property both as a reservoir of value and as an equitable answer to expanding housing needs.

Abdul Azeez, managing director of Skyline Builders, recalled how it all began. He was at that time a partner in Skyline Group, engaged also in selling construction materials.

Manufacturing was not attractive in Kerala. All raw materials had to be brought in from outside. The group was looking to expand its business but “nothing big was happening in Kerala even as we expanded”, he recalled.

A few brainstorming sessions suggested that the company enter into the business of building homes, for which there was a perceived demand with expanding income among the expatriate Malayali population.

Mr. Azeez said that the boom in the Gulf labour market and the arrival of Cochin international airport in the late 1990s on the scene fuelled great interest in real property development in Kochi.

Cash-rich NRIs, familiar with the concept of high-rise living, were looking for opportunities to invest back home. They were convinced of the safety and comfort in high-rise apartments and most of them did not look beyond Kochi as the destination of their investments.

Mr. Azeez said when the first Skyline flats came up, about 90 per cent of the bookings came from non-resident Keralites. They continue to be the mainstay of all builders in Kerala. Even today around 50 per cent of Skyline’s projects are backed by NRIs.

A.R.S. Vadhyar, founder of Yasoram Builders, too recalls that the salad days of real property business in Kochi were marked by NRIs backing projects. “They formed about 50 per cent of those booking apartments,” he said.

The boom timers in the early 1990s were reaping the benefits of pioneers like Southern Investments (SI), which first introduced the concept of living in high-rise or clustered apartments in South India in the late 1960s.

V.A. Kurien, one of the founders of SI had set foot in Kochi way back in 1979-80 with Kadavil Court, the first apartment complex in the city Kochi, off Chittoor Road. “The demand in Kochi was overwhelming compared to Chennai,” Mr. Kurien said recollecting that he sold the first of these 1,500 sq. ft. and 2,000 sq. ft. flats for an average of Rs.1 lakh.

Contracting company Rameshwar Dayal and Sons, aka RDS, too was part of the pioneering group that set the trend for the early 1990s and built the first apartment complex in the city (Paul Abrau, Kacherippday) with a swimming pool and a party area in 1992, said John K. Manavalan, a retired Army engineer of the rank of Colonel, who was part of the group.

The boom in real property development in the 1990s should not be de-linked from the resurgence in retailing that appeared in sectors like textiles. Remanika marked the beginning with a bang but went down with a whimper, setting the stage for others like Jayalakshmi that made Kochi a shopping destination.

The first Skyline property was sold during 1991-92 (for Rs.360 a square foot in Gandhi Nagar) in tandem with these developments and egged on by an increasing realisation that Kerala, with limited land resources, had to expand vertically for its housing needs.

The period also coincides with the rise of Kochi as pan-Kerala city thanks to the Cochin International Airport, bringing Malayali expatriates invariably to its shores from districts like Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki and even Kozhikode.

“Everything that was said to be good about Thiruvananthapuram because of its connectivity and availability of good hospitals and educational institutions started happening in Kochi too”, said Mr. Azeez.

In a way, the investors appeared to have anticipated the international airport because even before the airport became a reality there was a boom in real property business, starting1992. But speculators pushed up prices so high that the bubble burst in 1996. Mr. Azeez said it was unimaginable that that a crash in real property market could happen when demand for housing was huge.

The revival took a long time in coming and, by early 2000, real property developers were quite ready for the second coming. Builders who went berserk during the boom took the hardest hit but as the new boom began to happen, apartment living had broken cultural barriers. People in Kerala were demanding international designs and builders were beginning to provide super luxury flats, costing fabulous sums.

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