If everything works well, T’ Nagar may soon have a pedestrian plaza, a walkers’ paradise that will stretch from Panagal Park to Anna Salai/Mount Road. In terms of distance it is not much, being just about 1.4 km, long, but it is significant as it is probably the first instance when the authorities have recognised the rights of pedestrians. However, from concept to implementation is a long road to be travelled and much depends on how the project shapes up in reality.

The idea was first mooted in 2012 when experts from New York were called in to study the problems of public transport in Chennai. The team comprising the Big Apple’s Transport and Planning Commissioners was brutally frank in its findings – the city’s waterways were polluted beyond words and needed to be resurrected, the concept of designing flyovers and roads to facilitate car movement at high speeds was outdated, and the need of the hour was for increased use of public transport, encourage cycling and promote pedestrian facilities. The report singled out T’Nagar and, while recognising its high energy, said that it needed to be cleared of all traffic, making it a pedestrian area. It drew parallels between Panagal Park and Times Square of New York, which faced similar problems before becoming a walking/cycling only area. This appears to have been the inspiration for our Corporation.

The design, which was finalised in May this year, envisages the division of the area into three zones. The first, between Panagal Park and Dr Nair Road, and the second between Dr Nair Road and Residency Towers, will have pedestrian walkways and a dedicated bus lane. The last section, between Residency Towers and Anna Salai will have the standard four-lane carriageway and wide sidwalks. The cost is estimated at Rs 83 crore and part of it is expected to be funded from the Rs 50 crore loan that the Corporation hopes will be sanctioned by the World Bank for a larger revamp scheme of T’Nagar that includes aerial walkways and parking lots.

There are, however, dissensions within the Corporation’s executive on how the project is to be proceeded with. The engineers are of the view that it is best that the multi-level parking lot, which was to be constructed on one side of Panagal Park be completed before the pedestrian project takes off. They are concerned about the traffic chaos that will ensue if work on the latter begins without any proper arrangements for vehicles. It is, however, reliably learnt that the elected representatives are all for the pedestrian project to start at once, presumably because of its high profile nature and the urgency to see it completed before the term of the present Council ends in three years. The multi-level parking lot, incidentally, has had a history of its own. It remained on paper for years, with no bidder being interested in the tender. Estimated at Rs 25 crores, it has undergone further changes in the light of the pedestrian plaza – what was originally planned as a multi-storey parking facility, it has now been redesigned as an underground lot capable of holding 500 cars.

While all this is welcome and hopes run high for the revamp of T’Nagar, our fundamental fears, highlighted when this idea was first mooted in 2012, still hold good. What happens after the plaza is ready? Will it be free of encroachments? Will hawkers not take over the whole place? Will commercial interests not want all pedestrian areas to be made over as parking lots? Much depends on how the Corporation handles all that. Experience has shown us that construction of such facilities is relatively easy. It is in the maintenance that we invariably fail.