Jerusalem's 13.8 km., NIS 3.2 billion state-of-the-art tram line - slated to officially open January 5, 2009 - promises to revolutionize transportation for the city's 700,000 residents. But for the 27 families living at 2, 4 and 6 Sderot Herzl - a once-quiet 1930s-era compound known as Etz Haim now in the middle of a vast construction site - there has been no "easing of the way," as the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) promises in a clever Hebrew pun. Their lives have become a cacophony of jackhammers and buses, punctuated by dust, lawyers and despair - with no end in sight. Who is to blame? Therein lies a tale of sophisticated urban planning clashing with the reality of Ottoman- and Mandate-era property and squatter rights laws, bureaucracy and plain old greed. The 100-odd residents of the three buildings are almost all key-money tenants, explains Ziona Lankri - one of the residents penned in behind a 10-meter-high fence placed there by the multinational City Pass consortium to protect her from the danger of the LRT construction scant meters away from her apartment. Amnon Elian, the town planner who is the manager of community relations for the Jerusalem Mass Transit System Project, explains that his quasi-governmental body has installed acoustic double- and triple-paned windows and purchased air conditioners for the residents. But expropriation of private property for public benefit is simply not an option since the demolition of the decrepit buildings is not actually required to build the LRT and its glamorous bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Elian sighs in frustration as he displays his thick file of liaison work with the hapless residents. Drilling for the anchors for the soaring 340-meter-long suspension bridge was recently completed, and construction on the landmark will start shortly, he says hopefully. But looming on the horizon just to the east of the neighborhood is construction of Jerusalem's new main train station, slated to open in 2011. Buried 80 meters below an eight-story office building, trains will whisk commuters to Tel Aviv in 28 minutes via Modi'in and Ben-Gurion Airport. But first they'll have to pass by Etz Haim - which means Tree of Life, a metaphor for Judaism, and refers to the staves which support a Torah scroll. Further complicating the issue is the actual ownership of the land. Key money is an archaic, limited form of real estate possession under which the owner receives 40 percent of the proceeds from any sale with the balance going to the leaseholders. To characterize them as slums would be unfair; though surrounded by unspeakable conditions, the actual apartments - however small - are clean and reflect pride of ownership. Rooms on the lower floors at 2 Herzl facing north have their light blocked by the towering fence. Lankri, whose living-room window looks out onto the LRT construction barrier, bought her unit 23 years ago as a newlywed for the equivalent of $21,000 back when Israel's currency was being wracked by triple-digit hyperinflation. It would take a forensic accountant to calculate the value in today's money, after a series of currency reforms has seen the Israeli lira replaced by the shekel and then the NIS. That sum is currently the cost of a parking space in prestigious central Jerusalem projects. Who owns the land on which Etz Haim stands? It's a non-profit hekdesh (religious charity-owned land), notes Stephen Berman, who until going into private practice in 2003 was the attorney for the municipality's real-estate department. Etz Haim is connected with the property-rich, haredi yeshiva of the same name that sits on a huge swath of prime land just east of the Mahaneh Yehuda market stretching south from Jaffa Road. As such, the seminary - which was founded in 1841 by Jerusalem's chief rabbi Shmuel Salant and touts itself as the "first and leading Torah center in Israel" - enjoys a status comparable to a Muslim wakf charitable trust. Lurking behind the historic yeshiva stands Haim Golovencicz, a shrewd Jerusalem developer who wants to erect a 33-story skyscraper and commercial center - Jerusalem's equivalent of the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, which also stands at the nexus of highway, rail and public transit routes. Golovencicz has offered the residents a paltry $30,000-$40,000 each to move. Rabbi Yosef Tucazinsky, a member of the board of the hekdesh, is willing to discuss compensation with each key-money tenant separately, but not as a group. But that's precisely the issue for Lankri and her neighbors, many of them seniors who have lived at Etz Haim for decades. The activist would like each protected tenant to be temporarily relocated, and then receive a new apartment upon completion of the proposed tower. Not that it's clear if the mixed commercial and office high-rise would also include residential usage. Lankri has handed out flyers to her neighbors showing a Manhattan-esque skyline rising from their once-peaceful neighborhood, with the Calatrava Bridge's looming 118-meter high pylon at its center. "Don't vacate your homes until an arrangement and just compensation for a new building has been made," cautions her leaflet. Don't let developers exploit your legitimate rights, she warns. From Rabbi Tucazinsky's perspective, it is Lankri and her fellow key-money tenants who want to strike it rich by the redevelopment of the valuable site - to which they have very limited rights. Rabbi Tucazinsky confirms Etz Haim is also in the process of redeveloping its landmark Jaffa Road property. But he is anxious that his haredi yeshiva not be portrayed as having major real estate assets lest that perception damage its fund-raising potential. "We live off donations. Everything is on paper now. And you can't pay salaries with paper." Citing attorney-client privilege, Berman declines to discuss specifics. But he will be seeking damages from the local Town Planning Commission for the decrease in property value caused by two changes in recent years to the Town Planning Act, numbers 8000 and 9999, which respectively permitted the LRT and the Calatrava Bridge. The law allows three years for compensation suits to be filed. Lankri, it seems, is determined to pursue her case. Nothing here is simple, however. Last year a group of savvy residents of the neighboring expensive freehold buildings at 10 and 12 Herzl Boulevard led by Dr. Tami Tannenbaum failed to obtain an injunction to halt the Calatrava Bridge - which will pass very close to their property as it curves south toward Beit Hakerem. That precedent can only add to the doom and gloom for Etz Haim's leasehold residents. Yosef Tucazinsky's niece, Haya, is one of the haredi residents living at Etz Haim, where she pays $300 monthly for two rooms. "We try to get by," she shrugs. "There aren't a lot of alternatives." Construction begins at 7 a.m. and continues to 7 p.m. In a gesture of good will, City Pass halted work for Succot. Another resident, who asks that her name not be used, cynically laughs at the possibility that the LRT and its futuristic bridge will open on schedule - if at all. (The transportation project is currently three years behind its original timetable.) She has never heard of Amnon Elian. Lankri's son Elad is fed up by the whole mess. Recently recovered from wounds he suffered in the war in Lebanon in August, he's packed his bags and is heading off to Australia. Golovencicz could not be reached for comment.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share