The Pasta Darshini

A long time back I’d cribbed that in places like Bangalore where not too many people are willing to experiment with food, non-standard cuisines end up being insanely expensive. This was perhaps during my first trip to New York last year, when I’d been amazed to find extremely high quality food at nondescript places for very reasonable rates, and was cursing my own city for making me pay up exorbitant amounts every time I wanted to have something “special”.

Given that background, the new Veekes and Thomas outlet in Jayanagar 4th block (I believe they have outlets elsewhere in the city also) comes as a pleasant surprise. It’s a small place, situated across the road from the more famous Maiya’s. The whole establishment is less than 100 sq ft, with a large part of it taken by a massive machine to make sugarcane juice. The two times I’ve visited, there have been two guys there, one to make sugarcane juice and the other to make pasta. The seating area is limited, and you’re served in disposable (areca bark) plates and glass glasses.

They mostly make pastas and some other european dishes (their subtitle is “fine European cuisine” though I’m not sure how “fine” they are), and represent really awesome value for money. The average pasta there costs Rs. 60, and a soup I had on my last visit (wasn’t too great) was Rs. 15. And perhaps to go with the fact that they’re situated in the heavily-vegetarian Jayanagar, they don’t serve meat.

The wife says that it’s among the best pasta she’s eaten in Bangalore. While I disagree with that, I do think the food is really good given the price point. Also, given that they have only one cook, the waiting time can get a little long. The other thing with Pasta is that it is a slow-cooking dish, which is why it doesn’t lend itself too well to the darshini format – which is more suited for made-to-order or assemble-to-order dishes.

Nevertheless this is a good start. It’s hopefully a harbinger (sorry for using such a lofty word here; nothing simpler came to mind) for cheap “non-standard cuisine” in Bangalore. The next logical setup, I guess, would be a falafel-hummus stall. The advantages there are that the dishes are either quick-cooking or can be made to stock , ingredients to make them are easily available here, not much is lost by having a vegetarian-only place (I think there are easier to set up in terms of licensing than places that serve meat; and easier to cook as well) and the taste isn’t very different from Indian (yesterday I was describing the falafel as “AmboDe made out of chickpeas”).

Again, I can help someone set this up, though I’m not particularly interested in running the business since I think it involves a lot of hassles.


Floor Space Index

In an extract  from his latest book Triumph of the City Ed Glaeser argues that one way to improve urban living would be to increase the floor space index, and allow higher buildings. In another recent article, Ajay Shah argues that the presence of army land in the middle of cities is again hampering urban growth and development by increasing intra-city distances and reducing space for the common man inside the cities. I was thinking about these two concepts from the point of view of Bangalore.

Floor space index (FSI) is a metric that controls the total supply of residential area within a city. It is defined as the ratio of built-up area of the house to the area of the plot it stands on. Currently, in Bangalore it is capped at 1.5. This means that if I own a site measuring 60′ by 40′, the maximum area of the building I can build on it is 3600 sq ft. Clearly, by capping FSI, the total supply of residential area in a city is capped (assuming cities don’t expand outwards, of course). Currently, a lot of the development going on is of the type of builders acquiring “underutilized property” (old bungalows, say) and then “unlocking the value” by building buildings on it up to the permissible limit.

So I was wondering what were to happen if the government were to tomorrow decide to act on Glaeser’s recommendations and suddenly increase the FSI. For one, it would jack up the value of land – since there is more value in each piece of land that can now be “unlocked”. On the other hand, it would lead to a gradual fall in prices of apartments – since the limit on the supply of “floor space” would go up, that would lead to a fall in prices.

Existing owners of “independent houses” (where they own both the house and the land it’s built on) would be overjoyed – for now the value of the land they own would suddenly go up. Existing owners of apartments wouldn’t – their net worth takes a sudden drop. But all this doesn’t matter since both these groups are highly fragmented and are unlikely to matter politically.

What one needs to consider is how builders and real-estate developers would react to this kind of a move, since they have the ability to influence politics. For one, it would allow them to build additional floors in properties where they already own the land, so they have reason to stay positive. On the other hand, due to the increase in land prices, new development would become much more expensive than it is today, thus making it tough for them to expand. Another thing to note is that increased supply of housing and office space in the city would definitely negatively impact the prices of such holdings on the outskirts, and I’m of the opinion that a large number of real estate companies might actually be “long” housing space on the outskirts and would thus lose out in case the FSI were to be increased.

There are other implications of increasing FSI, of course. One of my biggest nightmares is that density in cities will increase at such a high rate that the sewerages won’t be able to handle the extra “flow”. And then there is the issue of increased traffic – though it can be argued that increased density means that commutes might actually come down. Overall, to my mind at this point of time, the picture is unclear, though given the overall incentives to the powerful real estate community it is unlikely to happen. Though I would definitely welcome any increase in FSI (this has nothing to do with my financial situation; and yes, based on my current holdings I’m “long FSI”).

As for army land, there are vast areas that used to once be on the outskirts which are now inside the city. If the army were to decide to sell them to the city, I’m sure it would be able to make a really large amount of money. But then given that the army is not a profit-oriented institution, it has no need for the money so will not let go of the land. In fact, as I write this, the army in Bangalore has taken up the development of lands around the inner ring road – some townships and football fields have come up. But then, this is not the use that Shah envisaged – for none of this actually integrates enough into the local economy to make an impact. And so for the army to sell the land, the decision would have to come from the central government. And given that increase in in-city floor space is likely to negatively impact the powerful real estate companies, don’t be surprised if they were to lobby against the sale of urban army land.

Tailpiece : A while back there was this issue of Transferable Development Rights. When the BBMP wanted to widen roads it announced that people losing land would be compensated in the form of tradable TDRs. For that to be effective, a necessary condition is that the cost of violating the building code is actually high.

Keeping Transaction Costs Low

The Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike’s coffers aren’t Bruhat, it seems. For the up-coming road widening project, for which considerable amounts of land need to be acquired, it seems like the BBMP can’t afford to pay in cash. Hence, it has been proposed that compensation will be paid in terms of Transferable Development Rights (TDRs). The basic funda is that when your land gets acquired, you get rights to construct more in some other existing site, or on the remaining part of your site, or some such.


According to a BBMP official, TDR is an instrument through which the Palike facilitates landlosers to construct additional floor or building in the remaining portion of the property or anywhere in the City.

The BBMP would issue a Development Rights Certificate (DRC), which can be either be utilised for personal need or can be sold to anyone who wants to construct an extra floor. The owner gets the right to construct a built up area 1.5 times over and above of that the property acquired for development. For instance, if 600 sq ft built-up area is given up to the BBMP, the property owner will receive a DRC for 900 sq ft built-up area.

This is interesting on several counts. Firstly, do you realize that what the BBMP is paying for the land is effectively an option? A TDR is nothing but an OPTION to construct more than what would normally have been permitted. The valuation of this option hinges upon the fact that current building laws are highly restrictive (in terms of the built up area as a proportion of the site area) and so the option of constructing more will actually be valuable.

It would be interesting to see how these options get valued. You can trust that there will be a lot of litigation concerning this since you can expect most people to have problem with the valuation. First of all valuation of financial options is itself so tough, you can imagine how hard valuing these TDRs can be.

Then, there is the whole supply aspect. The whole model of these TDRs will hinge upon the unwritten promise that more such rights will not be given away any time in the near future, since that will cause the value of existing TDRs to drop sharply. Given that there is one single agency (the BBMP) that controls the supply of such rights, and that the potential supply of such rights is infinite, there is a chance that valuation of these rights might be depressed.

One important thing the BBMP needs to take into account while issuing these rights is to make sure there are no transaction costs for trading these rights. The “transferable” bit needs to be emphasized in order for the value of these rights to be truly unlocked. I can see a large number of individuals who will be compensated with these rights who will want to trade them away, since they are unlikely to possess another site to utilize them. And given the number of big buildings coming up on small sites, I can foresee there being a decent demand for it.

I do hope that investment banks (or their equivalent) come forward in order to make markets in these rights. I’m sure banks won’t miss opportunity to step in here, but the important thing is for regulation that will enable such intermediation. It is in the interests of the BBMP to keep these transaction costs low, since that is going to have a positive impact on the valuation of these rights, and eventually less such rights can be given.

Postscript: It would be interesting to study the impact of these rights on bribery rates of BBMP officials. I’m sure that currently a lot of money is made in illegally granting rights for buildings that don’t conform to regulations. Since there will now be a legal way of getting similar favours (I’m told that the Akrama-Sakrama scheme has similar intentions) it would be useful to see if bribes do drop.