This week, on October 17, after over a decade of researching, planning, protesting and investigation, the National Planning and Construction Council is expected to hand down its final decision on Regional Planning Plan 37/1, popularly known as the Safdie Plan for the development of western Jerusalem. The plan, named for the renowned architect and city planner Moshe Safdie, is one of the largest development plans ever undertaken in Israel. It calls for the construction of approximately 20,000 housing units and about half a million square meters of industrial and commercial space, infrastructure, roads and bridges over 26 square kilometers of natural woodland and forests in the western part of the city. This would create at least three new development zones - in Mount Heret, next to Mevaseret Zion; in the hilly and forested areas near Hadassah-University Medical Center; and to the south of Moshav Ora and Moshe Aminadav, on the Lavan Range. In a potentially far-reaching precedent, the plan also calls for the cancellation of an existing national park, the Mount Heret National Park. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority opposes this decision but does not have the authority to veto decisions taken by the council. Finalized in 2001, the roots of the plan go back to 1992, when then-director-general of the Interior Ministry, Haim Kubersky, headed a special commission that recommended annexation of additional land to Jerusalem's municipal jurisdiction to the west of the current built perimeter. The land west of Jerusalem was annexed as Kubersky recommended. However, the municipality ignored Kubersky's sternly worded admonition that the annexed dunams should not be touched until the building reserves within the former municipal boundaries were fully exploited. In 1998, the Jerusalem Municipality commissioned Safdie to create a development plan for annexed areas. Such a plan would be needed, the municipality contended - and continues to contend - in order to stem the negative migration of thousands of secular, well-educated people out of Jerusalem by creating affordable residential and commercial space. Since its inception, the Safdie Plan has been opposed by broad-based environmentalist and urban-planning groups. Green groups contend that the destruction to the pristine, and rare, Jerusalem hills should be undertaken only as a last possibility, before resorting to what they have called "irrevocable damage" to the environment. Urban planners emphasize that it is more important to develop the potential of existing neighborhoods than to build new ones. Furthermore, they argue, the Safdie Plan will actually accelerate the drain out of Jerusalem, both because of the ensuing lack of open spaces surrounding the city and because the new neighborhoods will draw off the stronger population of the city and hasten the demise of the already-suffering city center. Refuting supporters' contentions that the plan is necessary because of a lack of potential housing reserves within the city proper, urban scientist Uri Bar Shishat conducted several extensive studies that prove, he says, that land reserves for nearly 70,000 housing units could be made available immediately, while land reserves for a total of 105,000 are potentially available. "Instead of densifying the city, as the proposed municipal master plan suggests, the supporters of the Safdie Plan are running away from the city," Bar-Shishat accuses. In response, city officials have claimed that it is "impossible" to actually build those housing units, due to conflicted ownerships and public funds that would be required for expropriation of privately owned lands. Opponents also point to what they view as contradictions in the faulty planning processes. During the decade and a half in which the Safdie Plan has been commissioned, finalized and promoted, other projects, including the light-rail project, were also approved. Yet the public justification for and viability of the light rail are predicated on the densification of existing neighborhoods, up to a total of approximately 70,000 additional housing units, in order to supply the required number of uses to make the light rail project feasible. Furthermore, during these years, the Jerusalem Development Authority also presented plans for the creation of massive highways, necessary, they say based on what appears to be tautological logic, because the Safdie Plan would require them. Correspondingly, a new group of experts, also hired by the city, now claimed that there were practically no potential reserves for residential housing in Jerusalem. Therefore, since, due to political reasons, it would appear that it is impossible to build to the north, east or south, planners contended that they had no choice other than to build in the hills. In an extensive interview last spring, then urban engineer Uri Sheetrit told In Jerusalem that it was necessary to both densify residential areas in the city and build to the west. However, he was unable to resolve the discrepancy between the two assessments of the potential for residential housing in Jerusalem. Nor was he able to explain the contradiction between a light rail that intends to cut back on vehicular traffic into the city and the Western Ring Road that will encourage residents to use their cars and the suburbs that will make it necessary for them to do so. As is always true in Jerusalem, any plan as large as the Safdie Plan will also have geo-strategic, political and economic ramifications. This relates in particular to the plan known as E1. That politically sensitive eastward expansion plan was frozen last year in the wake of American pressure not to build in the West Bank. Mayor Uri Lupolianski has said the he bases his support for the Safdie Plan on the unfeasability of the E1 expansion. However, even without taking the reserves described by the Bar-Shishat research, Professor Shlomo Hasson of the Hebrew University and head of the Futura Research Institute, notes that eastward expansion is within the "national consensus" since Ma'aleh Adumim, Israel's biggest settlement, with 32,000 residents, is considered to be one of the major settlement blocs that Israel will maintain as part of any final peace treaty with the Palestinians. By 2002, opposition to the Safdie Plan had coalesced into a broad-based coalition, now numbering nearly 60 environmental, planning and social action groups, known as the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem. This coalition was able to gather more than 16,000 public objections to the Safdie Plan and submit them to the planning authorities. Other groups opposing the plan include the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Lands Administration, and the Zionist Council in Israel. The Jerusalem Development Authority countered by enlisting another team of experts, headed by Israel Prize Laureate, the late Professor Arieh Shachar, who had previously publicly announced his support for the plan. The cost of the "new" research came to NIS 600,000. In response to the massive opposition and lobbying, the interior minister appointed Gideon Vitkon, a former head of the Israel Lands Administration, to investigate the objections, as stipulated by Israeli law. After more than six months of hearings, most of them public, Vitkon issued a report with nine general recommendations, most of which - but not all - support the overall Safdie Plan. The National Planning and Construction Committee was supposed to have made its final decision in July, but recessed without deciding, postponing the decision until next week, on October 17. Opposition has continued and will continue until the last minute. Over the summer, a lobby of some 50 MKs, representing parties across the political spectrum, and led by Labor Party MKs Matan Vilna'i, Colette Avital (Labor), Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) and Dov Khenin (Hadash), promised to pressure the government and the Knesset, despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strong support for the plan. Late last month, at a rally against the plan sponsored by the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem, these Knesset members were joined by developer Shraga Biran as well as representatives of the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and others. MK Ya'acov Margi of Shas revealed that revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef opposes the plan, too. The Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem will organize a protest vigil during the National Planning and Construction Council's October 17 meeting. The National Planning Council is not bound by law to accept investigator Vitkon's recommendations and it remains unclear how it will resolve these conflicting and competing claims and vested interests.

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