Speaking eloquently in near-flawless English, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat presented his ideas to improve the city and answered questions from over 100 Anglo Jerusalem residents at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center in the capital Wednesday night.
The presentation was the second in a two-part series, which also featured mayoral hopeful Moshe Lion, who spoke in English as well on Sunday evening.
“For me, it’s important to use religion, sports and culture to connect people, be they Israelis or Jews from around the world,” said Barkat. “To get there, we have to lead initiatives [in the city] and define issues through leadership to get people more involved.”
Barkat, who repeatedly said he hopes to attract 10 million tourists to the capital annually, said that by creating a wide array of events and improving the city’s infrastructure, Jerusalem has now surpassed Tel Aviv and Haifa in attracting visitors.
“That’s an unbelievable change,” he said. “The numbers are unprecedented.”
Noting the correlation among economics, culture and religion, Barkat said his vision is to continue to connect people from all demographics to the capital.
“When people connect with something, they’re willing to fight for it,” he said. “This is not my idea, it goes back thousands of years to King David.”
In terms of transportation, Barkat noted that “there’s no way buses can provide the solution” for Jerusalem’s traffic ills. As a result, he said, his administration is pushing through an ambitious NIS 15b. transportation plan to connect all neighborhoods in the city with train and cable-car services.
“It was hell to even get the Light Rail running and getting people on it,” he said of the citywide train service he spearheaded. “But with proper management and accountability I took responsibility, and we’re now expanding the current line in phases in a way we can all live and breathe in the city.”
By 2017, there will be a fully functional train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that will take only 28 minutes traveling time, he said.
“We’re meshing the city together in a way that Jewish and non-Jewish neighborhoods can’t be separated,” Barkat added.
With respect to housing, the mayor noted that more apartments were built during his term, but he acknowledged that “there’s more work to do to change the DNA of the municipality.”
Emphasizing that the current distribution of affordable housing is unfair, he said he has four strategies for changing the dynamic, including putting more homes on the market, doubling taxes for owners of empty apartments, increasing urban renewal and increasing city businesses.
“Empty apartments cause huge damage to our economy,” he said. “I’m happy people from all around the world buy apartments here, but I want them to be occupied.”
Barkat said a double tax on empty-apartment owners could be avoided if they rented out their units to students or other qualified tenants.
“Keeping an apartment empty is more dangerous than renting it and keeping more young people in the city,” he explained.
With respect to urban renewal, the mayor said he is creating a new unit within the municipality to focus exclusively on the subject, with an emphasis on building housing that could accommodate more families.
By creating an enormous new business district near the entrance to the capital, millions of additional funds from taxes could be generated for the city to offset the current, unrealistically high housing costs, he said.
“We’re planning 11 million square feet of office space to host 50,000 workers, which will enable more people to stay in Jerusalem,” he said. “By rezoning, we’ll make better offices for businesses.”
Barkat expressed confidence that he will succeed in accomplishing his objectives for the city if reelected on October 22.
“We can achieve these goals, and I intend on turning them into reality in the next five years,” he stated.