The story of a crown without a king

Rameshchandra Govind Gorasia, Managing Director and proprietor of Airgate Centre, formerly Taj Mall, has maintained that he followed the required procedures to put up the building. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]
He has done everything in his power to save his building from the inevitable. And for five years he managed to keep the dreaded demolition squad at bay.

But on Thursday, Rameshchandra Gorasia, the owner of Airgate Centre - formerly Taj Mall - broke down as reality of the impending demolition sunk in. For the first time in public, he invoked God’s name in his defence.

“God is watching. Whoever wants to mess my life, it’s okay. God will punish them,” he said upon receiving a 15-day vacate notice from the Multi-Sectoral Committee on Unsafe Structures.

The story of Taj Mall is a classic case of Government institutions bending over to accommodate a building that has been blamed for the mess that is Outering Road.

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It is also the story of a hard-headed owner with illusions of grandeur, perhaps spurred by the meaning of the name Taj, a mid-19th century Persian word which means crown, primarily worn by an Indian Prince of high ranking.

Prospective tenants

Where everyone else saw a bottleneck that causes endless snarl-ups on the stretch between Airport North Road and Pipeline Estate, the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (Kura) and the Chinese contractors redesigned the road in a move that spared the mall.

The National Lands Commission (NLC) also issued letters showing that the building was not standing on a road reserve. And although Kura blames NLC for the impasse, it also wrote a letter to Mr Gorasia on November 24, 2015 assuring him that “the current location of Outering Road will not require the building to be demolished.”

“We have never said it’s not on a road reserve. Every junction always has a slip. For the Outering Road-Eastern Bypass junction, that slip was taken over by TajMall,” says John Cheboi, Kura’s spokesperson.

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Another letter dated March 11, 2016, this time from NLC Chairman Mohamed Swazuri, informs Taj Mall Ltd that Kura “had redesigned the road such that the building would not be affected or demolished”.

A year past its completion date, the Outering Road has been altered several times to accommodate the mall. Now, faced with the reality that this multi-billion shilling road expansion will amount to naught if a key service lane on whose path the mall stands is not constructed, the Government has decided to act.

The controversy surrounding Taj Mall started right when the construction begun in 2008. Even then, word that it was on a road reserve made rounds.

The mall’s official launch in 2011 was attended by then Vice President and Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka. Its strategic position, and the fact that it was the only mallbeyond Mombasa Road’s Capital Centre at the time, made prospective tenants fall over each other to rent space.

Taj Mall tenants included Uchumi Supermarkets, Equity, Chase and Consolidated banks, Mater Hospital, a gym, Bata shoe shop and three restaurants. Back then, Uchumi occupied the entire second floor.

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While financial woes that afflicted the retail giant in 2015 forced it out of the mall, Equity and Consolidated banks moved out over fears that it would be brought down to pave way for the expansion of Outer Ring Road.

The banks moved just across on Airport North Road. Chase Bank exited the mall when it was placed under receivership in 2016.

The letters by Kura and Swazuri did little to assuage tenants’ fears.

Traffic to the mall drastically reduced when the management introduced parking fees.

When Sunday Standard conducted a tour of the mall in June, it was an empty shell. A small, relatively unknown supermarket occupied a wing on the ground floor. Its entire second floor was empty as was the third floor. Only Mater Hospital occupied the ground floor, with the gym and church on rooftop. 

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“Negative publicity and the back and forth between Kura and NLC drove people away from the mall. I did my own research on the status of the mall before I moved in and was assured it was not on a road reserve,” says Peter Mutavi, the proprietor of Aim Global Health and Fitness Centre.

“Rumours cost me Sh3 billion,” Mr Gorasia told Sunday Standard last year. 

Attempts by the owner to give it a facelift and a new name has not helped matters.

The mall’s woes deepened after the service lane blocked one of the main entrances, denying motorists from Utawala and Donholm direct access. To access the mall, motorists had to drive all the way to the General Motors (GM) u-turn and back to Embakasi.

“Getting in and out of the mall became a big challenge. That the road around the mall does not have a pedestrian path meant that everyone on foot had to go through it to access Pipeline Estate or Airport North Road, putting the security of the building at risk,” says Malaki Opondo, a member of the mall’s gym.

Sandwiched between a railway line and a busy road on one side and an oil pipeline on the other -- and the Eastern Bypass to boot -- it was clear that this mall was standing on borrowed time.

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