A landmark debate

A landmark debate

October 29, 2009 21:02

During Hol Hamoed Succot, a resident of Motza found out that the municipality had approved the demolition of Steinberg House, the first house built in the village by its founders, which served as a winery. Itzik Shweky, the head of the Jerusalem district of the Council for Preservation of Heritage Sites, was the first person to be alerted by a neighbor. Shweky, though already used to this kind of emergency situation, was astonished this time. From that moment on, he became totally engaged in a race against the clock to save the historic building. "That's how it works here. Most of my time, I run to put out fires. It is Sisyphean and tough and despite all the improvements we see at the municipality, it's still not enough. Preservation is still not to be taken for granted in Jerusalem," says Shweky. Almost a year after the election of Mayor Nir Barkat, most people involved in preservation issues agree that things are improving. After years of indifference shown by former mayors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, a situation that resulted in many cases of demolition of architectural and historical treasures, a serious attempt at making a list of historic buildings is being made. Architect and urban historian David Kroyanker once said that not everything should and could be protected and preserved, adding that urban processes must be allowed to run their natural course. "The major question is what should be preserved and in what way. Do we have to preserve completely, preventing a natural process of urban growth? Or should we allow some partial preservation with adequate supplements?" asks Shweky. In principle, the issue shouldn't be too complicated. Experts should define what has to be preserved and how, and the authorities - like the municipality - should see that structures slated for preservation should not be harmed. "In principle," says Shweky snidely. "In fact," he elaborates, "it's a daily struggle, and we don't always succeed." Less than two months ago, an ad-hoc group of residents in the German Colony managed, with the support of the local neighborhood administration, to obtain the support of the mayor and his deputies to annul the plan to shut down the Smadar Theater and sell the plot to build a high-rise. More recently, another group of residents tried - and so far have succeeded - to prevent the closure of the Jerusalem Pool in the German Colony to turn it into a parking lot. Residents, especially the middle and upper-middle classes, are well aware of their rights and of the possibility of opposing construction plans that do not fit the character of their neighborhood. At the municipality as well, the number of the environment- and preservation-minded is getting larger. Since the last elections and the appointment of former head of the local branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel Naomi Tsur as deputy mayor, things are moving in the right direction. Three new committees relevant to environment and preservation issues have been formed: the Environment Committee, the Preservation Committee and the Urban Planning Committee. All three are headed by Tsur, who also created and headed the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem for more than a decade. Currently, any plan to build, renovate or add an extension to an existing building must pass through the Construction and Preservation committees, which check whether the building in question appears on one of several lists of sites slated for preservation. If it does, the committees must decide to what extent the building must be preserved. In some cases the landmark cannot be altered at all, in others the façade must be maintained and in still others, extensions may be added. The main concern is the compilation of a comprehensive list of historic buildings - as the current lists are incomplete - and the definitions of the parameters of the changes that will be permitted. The new master plan for the city includes specific attention to preservation issues. The identification of the "historic city" in the different neighborhoods of Jerusalem, through a detailed program of localization of historic buildings and even of special trees, is in the process of registration and preservation. Although the plan is stuck at the moment at the Interior Ministry, which doesn't like some of its aspects, preservation nonetheless has clearly become a major concern within the various authorities of the city. "So basically, the whole issue is in good hands," says Shweky. "But there is still so much to do. Things take so much time, while law-breakers keep on destroying our heritage. And also, it must be stated, not all the decisions of these committees match what we have in mind regarding new projects and construction in the city." The Knesset passed a bill in 1994 to create a statutory committee on the city council whose task would be to submit its professional recommendations for a preservation list to the district planning committee. The law adds that in cases of debates that are originally submitted at the district committee (and not handed over after a first debate at the local planning committee), an expert in the matter of preservation must be present. "This expert doesn't have the right to vote, but his presence and his impact are quite meaningful, and he is part of the professional team of the committee," says Tsur. In the 1970s and '80s, the municipality of Jerusalem created a list of buildings slated for preservation. A list compiled in 1984 contains 110 structures of historical, architectural and artistic value - among them the Schocken Library close to the Prime Minister's Residence, and the main post office on Jaffa Road. Later, in 1989, others such as Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Yemin Moshe (including the old Sephardi synagogue), the Schneller Compound, the Anglican school on Rehov Hanevi'im and the Morasha neighborhood (Musrara) were added. Between 1998 and 2002, a team of experts from the municipality and from the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, under the direction of the city engineer, discussed the details of the list and all the additional structures included since. Still, according to Shweky, there are too many neighborhoods, such as Rehavia, Romema and Makor Baruch, that are not yet included nor preserved. Besides all these, the situation in the Old City is alarming. According to the National Council for Preservation, despite the fact that it is a world heritage site, many places are not protected. Upon taking office Barkat, who has been deeply involved with activities of the SPNI and residents for preservation issues, split the local planning committee in two: one for construction and one for preservation and construction. "In the former city council, we often witnessed the absurd situation in which the head of the preservation committee, deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack, approved a preservation plan and then rejected it the following day as head of the planning committee. This does not happen anymore, and this is not a trivial issue at all," says Tsur. Tsur and Shweky agree that the most important goal is to compile a comprehensive list of the buildings to be preserved. "The same law that required an expert as a consultant to the district committee also requires a detailed list of those buildings," explains Tsur. "Not only the building but the different categories - what to preserve, what degree of preservation. There are cases in which you cannot touch a stone; in other cases, you can keep only the façade, while in others you may just add stories but keep the original building as is. This is a huge task to be undertaken. Our most optimistic estimation is that it will take about two years before such a list is ready to be used." Shweky points to Steinberg House in Motza as a good example of the situation. "A developer buys some property and submits a plan, according to the law, to construct a new building, and nobody discovered that he couldn't just do what he wanted there, as it is a landmark building. Also because in this specific case, there was some misunderstanding. Motza became part of the planning and construction committee of Jerusalem some 10 years ago, thus the contractor presented a plan that shouldn't have been accepted even at the first stage. But in this case, it was only due to a neighbor's alertness that we found out before it was too late!" As another example, Shweky cites Kikar Zion. A new Hamashbir store, which was approved following a long struggle between the developer and environmental groups, will be constructed in the building that was formerly occupied by the Underground club and other landmark businesses. "The plan was to erect a new building there for Hamashbir. As a result, the whole façade of the Nahalat Shiva area has been destroyed. So what I would say is that the new Preservation Committee is a good step, but it is not radical enough in its concerns, such as other historic buildings." The struggle over preserving and determining the extent of extensions to the house at Rehov Emek Refaim 48, for example, is four years old, continues Shweky. It has been determined that this structure, which was used by British officers during the Mandate and afterwards as a kindergarten, will maintain its facade and have several stories added. "The risk of its being demolished is still not over. As long as we don't have a definitive list, we're in trouble." For Naomi Tsur, things look slightly different, perhaps because she is now seeing things from a different perspective than when she headed the local branch of the SPNI and the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem. "We have already completed the first phase of the compilation for the list of buildings for preservation," she says. "But even without this list ready, look what happened with the Schocken Library building [on Rehov Balfour, designed by renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn]: The developer who bought this historic building had to fight to preserve it, even after he purchased it and began the work on it. It was the environment committee which I head that permitted him to keep a part of the structure and to save this part for public use. Ultimately, it will be 80 percent of the building, preserved and restored, that will serve a public purpose. We still don't know exactly as what - a library, a Mendelsohn memorial room, a little cafeteria with changing exhibitions on architecture. A wide range of projects are planned here, and the developer had to build his villas behind it to make his profit - that was our work." Regarding the residents' activism, Tsur says that it resulted in a "blessed change in the policy." "As for the current campaign against the closure of the Jerusalem Pool [in the German Colony], the question is: Will it be like the Smadar campaign? I don't know, because in this case, as in others too, we need to see the whole picture. For instance, is it the right place for a public swimming pool in the city in that particular neighborhood? I'm talking from a general point of view, not from the place where residents of that neighborhood stand. We have to decide, from a comprehensive perspective, if this is what is needed. There are various suggestions offered in the neighborhood, such as a swimming pool, a parking lot, perhaps something else. We have to listen carefully to all the voices and then decide for the benefit of the majority and the city's needs." DR. ELAN Ezrachi, a longtime resident of Rehavia and chairman of its neighborhood administration, which includes the German Colony, says he is not against normal urban development. "Not every building is to be preserved, and not every building that should be preserved must be preserved in the same way. We have to make room for a normal urban growing process of natural development. We're talking about human beings living here, and the situation has certainly improved since Naomi Tsur has been at the municipality." However, a group of residents has raised an alternative voice to the committees of the city council and has a far more radical attitude, claiming that this administration, and the former one even more so, has acted against the needs of the city in terms of preservation and restoration. The group, called Extinguished Houses, accuses the municipality of caving in to the real-estate tycoons instead of preserving the city's architectural heritage. On its Web site, it presents a list of buildings, especially in Rehavia and the German Colony, with pictures of what stood there before and after reconstruction or restoration work. "Not every building preserved is beautiful, just as not every new modern building, designed according to the architectural environment, is ugly; it's just not true," argues Ezrachi, who believes that "Even a very historical environment should be allowed to live normally." PLANS AND decisions regarding preservation and construction are presented to the two committees and tested from both angles - environmental and public needs. The vision of the mayor, shared by a large number of his deputies and his constituency, is also based on his ability to bring the decisions to the city council - in other words, it needs the support of the coalition. The problem, say some officials at Kikar Safra, is that not all the members of the coalition see things the same way. "The interests are different, sometimes even opposed," says one official. The process of compiling a list of buildings for preservation - out of the four or even five lists that already exist but still have not been approved by the city council - is not just a matter of putting addresses in a row but of finding the means to convince all those involved to accept that the list will be based on professional and objective lines. This might turn out to be a very tough mission to accomplish. At least one thing has been achieved recently: a tender for a committee to work on the complete list. "What we expect from this is to clarify the terms of reference of the definitive list of buildings for preservation," explains Tsur, "including all the various terms and qualifications, what kind of preservation for each structure. The fact that this important tender is going public despite the difficulties, including a working conflict between the municipality and its employees committee, is in my eyes a real achievement." According to Shweky and the members of Extinguished Houses, the problem is that while historic buildings are being demolished, facts are being created in regard to additional construction on houses slated for preservation. DURING HOL Hamoed Succot, a developer blatantly flouted the law and sent a bulldozer to demolish a building on Rehov Yisa Bracha in the Bukharan Quarter classified for preservation, arguing that the owners feared a crumbling of the whole structure, endangering the children who played in the area. The case is considered highly sensitive at the municipality, since until the above-mentioned event, this building, designated to become a yeshiva, was undergoing a preservation and renovation process. As a result, municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio decided to take the developer to court. According to Tsur, who holds the environment portfolio, the law in such a case requires the offending party to restore the building to its former state. If this is not possible, the municipality has the power to stop any construction plan on the site and turn it into an open space for the community. All parties involved agree that this event should - and apparently will - serve as an example for the future. At Kikar Safra, the anger is so marked that this action is rumored to have set a precedent. "There will be an attitude of 'before the Bukharan destruction' and 'after the Bukharan destruction,'" Ophir May, head of the construction permits department at the municipality, told his colleagues - meaning that from now on, the handling of such cases will be severe. However, the real problem might be even greater. What happened recently to the magnificent century-old house in the Bukharan Quarter - it was totally demolished by the contractor - didn't happen because the proper procedure was not followed. The old house was known to all parties as a building slated for preservation. In fact, the architect hired by the new owners, who want to transform it into a yeshiva, was an expert in preservation and prepared a professional plan of dismantling and reconstructing the external parts (each stone was numbered and planned to be separated and then replaced). But taking advantage of the three-day strike of the municipality - no inspectors came to observe at the construction site - they sent a bulldozer to tear down the building, claiming that it was "becoming dangerous and feared it would crumble." At the municipality, the reactions were so intense that May, the head of the inspection department, issued a letter to the relevant employees declaring that "This case will become a test case from now on" and said that the reaction will be "spectacular and will serve as an example." The plot has been turned into a public space for the next 25 years; the heavy tools of the developer have been confiscated; and a fine of NIS 250,000 has been imposed on the head of the yeshiva. But for Tsur, the picture is much broader. "Take the Rehov Hanevi'im project, for example. What we're working on there is a huge change in the situation. We are all - I, the city engineer Shlomo Eshkol, the staff - working according to the mayor's vision in order to save the whole area. Let's not forget that at least a quarter of the buildings slated for preservation are situated on this street!" The Rehov Hanevi'im plan - a substantial change from the former administration that planned to transform it into a four-lane street - is in fact becoming a kind of test case of preservation and restoration. "Until now, the main interest was traffic and transportation," explains Tsur. "Well, no more. From now on, the people's best interest, the preservation, the need to respect our heritage and historic structures and the special character of the city are what really matter, and the whole plan regarding this particular street is directed toward these values and not the needs of vehicles," she says. "The thing is that the project cannot even start before the light rail on Jaffa Road becomes operational. So it's all intertwined. But it is clear that we have a holistic view, and thanks to it we are creating the first planned public domain in the city that will save all the buildings for preservation and will allow a genuine encounter along the whole street, from its eastern to its western end - an upgrade for the merchants, the residents, the tourists - for everyone," says Tsur. In his office situated on the second floor of the Sergei Building at the corner of Heleni Hamalka and Monbaz streets, Itzik Shweky keeps files of hundreds of newspaper articles on the topic of preservation, as well as a huge archive of pictures of demolished and threatened historic buildings. Despite all the failures, like the one in the Bukharan Quarter, Shweky believes that things are improving. But he says that laws and enforcements are crucial, but not enough. For him, there is no doubt that serious involvement of the public, who care about their historical heritage and will be ready to stand up for its preservation, is the only way to combat the real-estate sharks and the failure of the establishment. "All these struggles are not for us, they are for the future, for the sake of our children and grandchildren. We have to understand that people come from all over the country and the world to see Jerusalem's beautiful architecture and historic buildings," he says. "They don't come here all that way to look at modern, functional buildings. We have to learn to cherish, preserve and save our heritage, for the future generations."

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