Tridhaatu Realty: A humbled Chembur developer setting the stage for a new dawn

There are times that one visits a real estate project only due to the sheer persistence of a broker or salesperson. This year – I agreed to visit one project, Tridhaatu Aranya, on account of the consistent doggedness of one of its sales members: Anish. He reached out to me for the first time in May. Eventually I visited this project in the suburb of Chembur in September. The pitch was unusual: It spoke nothing about the price and everything about the product.

I know Tridhaatu reasonably well. It has a focus in the suburb in and around Chembur as well as Matunga. I stayed in the suburb of Chembur for almost three years. Most projects by developers in that suburb were average and below average standard. Buildings that were 3-4 years old appeared to look like they were a decade old. Anyone in that suburb with an observant eye would notice that probably the one local hand whose projects stood out were those from Tridhaatu. He built a quality product but charged a steep premium for it. There were others like Shree Krishna Group that executed with finesse but didn’t have the glitz that was common with Tridhaatu.

Noticing the billboards in 2017-18, it was apparent to any watcher that the company was getting involved in several projects. The ambition was visible in the sheer number of launches and promotion. The quality of the campaigns was clearly very mediocre – I can’t recall the broad substance of even one of the launches. The biggest project was called Morya where the company went away from the redevelopment model and instead acquired a land parcel of almost 2 acres. That was perhaps the peak in terms of sentiment for the company.

Thereafter the key challenge was delivery. With multiple projects and excessive leverage – it got complicated like it has for almost every developer who has tried to hit the top league on the back of debt. Negative feedback flowed from every corner that I interacted with: Lenders, buyers awaiting their apartment, society members who had struck deals with the company for redevelopment etc.

The knock-out punch was clearly COVID-19. Panic struck. In response, the company went all-out to get demand by publicly cutting prices across many of its projects – in some cases by as much as 15-20%. I like that way of attracting demand compared to the silly hide-and-seek we see builders doing otherwise on prices.

Things subsequently improved for the company as the situation eased with COVID-19, price cuts and the stamp duty waiver. Sales got traction. Construction picked up. Financing environment got better. Prices inched up higher too. It was in that backdrop my visit to Tridhaatu Aranya happened. It is easily the most ambitious project by the company in an obscure location that overlooks the BARC hills. The views are outstanding. I don’t think many people in Mumbai would even be aware that such a surrounding exists in Mumbai. The project design is peculiar. Configurations are large. Pricing at a ticket-size level is high. Density is low. I reckon there is a possibility that Aranya could be the landmark project that Chembur has been searching for.

After my project visit, I had a chat with one of three bosses of the company – Dhananjay Sandu. His family has an illustrious history in Chembur. There is even a garden named after the family – Sandu Garden. Prior to the meeting I had deconstructed what his personality would likely be given his journey in the construction business and the buildings he makes. From the interaction that perception of mine was broadly in line with reality.

The man is enormously ambitious and wants to break into the top league. He believes in creating products that will outlive him. His mind and sensibility are geared towards making apartments for the upper-class – I suspect he will fail if he were to attempt affordable and micro-homes.

He wants to create a landmark project that will define the company and him. His one project – Aumkaar (done by another company where Dhananjay is involved – Sandu Developers), is arguably amongst the top 3 buildings in Chembur but I will hesitate to refer to it as a landmark project. At the same time, I sensed that Dhananjay is now a humbled man after the battering over the last two years. There is a self-understanding now on what is attainable with sustainability and what is not.

One positive trait I noticed was that he was unwilling to blame external forces for his situation. He owned up to his mistakes. It’s refreshing to hear that because Mumbai’s real estate industry is perpetually obsessed with blaming everyone else for their mess – be it government taxes, high interest rates, impractical customers, government approvals, rising input costs etc. If an alien dropped into Mumbai and heard the persistent sulks, he would probably believe that builders were the biggest victims in modern India.

How is redevelopment activity in the suburb? His view is that there is a good pick-up with the government FSI premium cut. Societies have become reasonable in their expectation and are choosy in their selection of developer.

Will he go and take up a long list of projects like many others are? He has a decisive answer: No. “I want to finish first what all I have taken up.” Personally, I am glad this is the direction Dhananjay has chosen. Tridhaatu is the type of player from whom I want to see a rebound – the ones who place emphasis on product and not cutting corners. Building projects that stand out.

If the lessons from the mistakes of the last 3-4 years stay with Dhananjay for the next decade – it will be a developer that people in Mumbai will find hard to ignore.

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