Avi Moshe-Segal hops cheerfully between the piles of building materials and heaps of soil. Expertly, he navigates a group of visitors around the gems in this huge construction site in the heart of Tel Aviv – 33 beautifully renovated, two-story, red-roofed houses. These are the remaining legacy of Sarona, the Templer colony, whose establishment by the Temple Society, the German Protestant Messianic sect preceded the first Hebrew town by 40 years.

Seventeen years ago, Moshe-Segal was one of a few passionate citizens who fought against a real estate development scheme that would have wiped out this historical corner of the city. Back in 1995, when he was still a young student, Moshe-Segal found out about the demolition plans during one of his strolls through the quiet, run-down neighborhood. At the time, the site was home primarily to government and military offices and workshops, and contained a past about which not many Israelis knew. He broke the gloomy news to the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites and a campaign was launched to save the colony.

Today, Moshe-Segal is a tour guide who has turned his enthusiasm for Tel Aviv’s history into an occupation. Back then, however, he could never have imagined the struggle he had initiated would result in turning the compound into one of the country’s most ambitious renovation projects.

Not only did the campaign prevail and lead to extensive changes in the real-estate plan, but subsequently, in 2005, a number of the Templer houses were rescued from an additional threat of destruction under plans to widen a nearby highway. A complex operation saw five buildings moved 30 meters south of their original positions.

Now, the Templer structures, which served in the past as the colonists’ houses, wineries, workshops and public buildings, are the heart of a 40-dunam (10 acre) park slated to open this spring. Aspiring to become Tel Aviv’s new tourist and shopping attraction, the houses will serve as venues for commercial, recreational and cultural activities.

“I am still excited to see all of this,” Moshe- Segal says as he looks around, contently taking in the cheerful hum and buzz of the renovation activities.

The park’s NIS 35 million development cost was funded by the site’s owner, the Israel Lands Administration, and 27 of the preserved buildings are preserved and operated by Ganei Sarona, a private group of entrepreneurs. These structures will accommodate restaurants, bars, cafés and high-end shops. The remaining six buildings belong to the Tel Aviv Municipality and will host two small museums, a state-of-theart visitors center and a small campus for a graduate program of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The altered real estate development project now consists of 17 skyscrapers – office towers, hotels and residential high-rises – that are being erected around the park by a second group of entrepreneurs, the Irani-Rogovin partnership.

Stretching over a lmost 1 90 d unams, the Sarona preservation and development mega-complex creates a brand new district in the middle of Tel Aviv. And its immensity is not limited to the surface alone: With financing from the municipality and the government, a grandiose transportation infrastructure is currently under construction below ground, at a cost of 600 million shekels ($150 million). When completed, it will include an underground road link connecting all the main traffic arteries surrounding this central location; a future station for the city’s planned light rail, and a huge subterranean parking lot with 15,000 spaces.

To operate this complicated mix of private and public ventures, the municipality set up the Sarona Administration within Ahuzot Hof, the city’s real estate and parking company.

The authority of the Sarona Administration, explains deputy manager Meirav Shaul, “is like that of a small town – business licensing, construction permits and any activity that takes place on the premises. Its annual budget will be around NIS 6 million in the first couple of years, and up to NIS 10 million in the years to follow.”

Shaul says that she is not worried that such strong private-sector involvement in the running of a municipal project will collide with the public interest. She also rejects concerns that Sarona’s metamorphosis into a consumer-focused project will only widen the city’s social gaps, which were highlighted by the protests of 2011. Critics claim that not only will the residential towers be affordable only to the wealthy, but the park too will be quite costly, with entrance fees to be charged even for the compound’s museums and visitors center. In a city already too expensive for many of its residents, Sarona may become just another mall, albeit an outdoor one, skeptics say.

Shaul dismisses this notion. Each and every Tel Aviv resident, she believes, will benefit from Sarona. “Outdoor events – and there will be many of these – will be free of charge,” she says. “And the fee for the visitors center will include the other facilities, such as the oil-press museum and the optics museum. In addition, certain groups – such as soldiers or school children – will be granted discounts.

“But enjoying the park will not necessarily involve expenses; spreading a blanket on the lawn, enjoying the well-kept gardens of this green lung won’t cost a penny. We’re constructing an entire technology-based information system from which all the data required to enjoy the park, including maps and hiking routes, will be available and accessible to all.”

Nevertheless, the municipality has failed to compel the high-rise developers to allocate a certain percentage of the residential area to affordable housing for specific sectors of the population that are being driven out of Tel Aviv due to the ascending cost of living.

The municipal spokesperson’s office blames the government. “There are about 630 residential units in the compound,” a statement from the office said. “In 2008, when the construction plan was in the approval stage, the Tel Aviv Municipality demanded that 20 percent of the units be integrated as affordable housing. But, the Israel Lands Administration blocked this move following a directive by the Interior minister.”

The heavy reliance on commerce for this type of project can prove tricky. A smallerscale renovation project, Hatachana, was launched some three years ago in Jaffa’s old seaside railway station. The project, like the Sarona development, turned a group of refurbished historical structures into an outdoor high-end mall. But Hatachana failed to attract the expected masses of shoppers.

Ran Steinman, one of Ganei Sarona’s entrepreneurs, dismissed the comparison.

“There’s a big difference between the two sites,” he asserted in a press conference last year. Sarona’s central location and larger scale, along with the vast range of shops and recreational venues it will house, make it a much more attractive spot, he explained, adding that his group of investors expects “a daily turnout of about 25,000-50,000 visitors.”

The decision to turn Sarona into a park confined by high-rises and a highway is also being questioned by some experts.

“An anachronistic and ridiculous concept of urban preservation” is how architect Irit Solzi, a partner at Irit & Dror Architects & Urban Planners, puts it.

Solzi, chair of Merchav – Movement for Israeli Urbanism, says that instead of incorporating the preserved area into the city’s vibrant lifestyle, as contemporary preservation projects in Europe do, the plan turns Sarona into an overly ornamented enclave, isolated from Tel Aviv’s distinct rhythm. The new site, she explains, “creates a huge urban block with little access to cars and in which pedestrians will be forced, due to the large wall imposed on the park by the high-rises, to walk long distances on foot.”

Her biggest gripe, however, concerns the fate that the project imposes on the colony itself. “Sarona,” she says, “was built by the Templers with the classic grid of a township, a grid from which many European cities have evolved – small streets, stretching 90 meters from each other.” Yet, she continues, instead of preserving the urban nature this grid offers, the renovation project got rid of the streets, “in favor of a big green park in which the colony’s remaining houses are being overly preserved like toys in a garden.

“Sarona was taken out of its real context – an urban compound based on a nice little network of streets – and was turned into an amusement park, into a ridiculous version of Disney, into a wall of towers watching over artificially sweetened exemplars of the past, meticulously arranged within the green lawns.”

A more contemporary understanding of urban preservation, Solzi says, would have preserved Sarona’s principal grid, adjusted the proportions of the modern buildings to those of the old ones, and incorporated the city’s vibrant pulse into the preserved area by allowing the urban mix of cars, bicycles and pedestrians to flow throughout the rehabilitated streets – “as is the practice in many cities in Europe, where the preservation projects seek to interlace the preserved areas into the towns’ organic life and express the cohabitation of past and present as a part of the ongoing cycle of life.”

Controversy was never a stranger to Sarona. Founded in 1871, the colony was one of seven settlements established in Palestine by the Temple Society. The sect, a breakaway from the Lutheran Church, was established in Germany in the mid-19th century with the ideal of hastening The Second Coming by leading a lifestyle of strong, religious devoutness entwined with hard, mundane work in the Holy Land.

During their 80 years in Palestine, the Templers built roads, developed commerce, established industrial plants and introduced modern farming methods that were successfully implemented with local techniques and crops. Their achievements significantly influenced the Zionist pioneers, who sought – and widely received – valuable guidance from prominent Templer agronomists.

The Templers, for their part, were keen to cultivate good neighborly relations with both Jews and Arabs and the founding generation tried to maintain a position of neutrality in the conflict between the two communities. On the other hand, they were also ardent German nationalists, and as Nazi inclinations gained a growing grip among the younger generation, most of the community’s members were expelled during World War II.

Sa rona’s vacant homes were then turned into British military and police headquarters; and when the British forces left Sarona on December 16, 1947, the Hagana, the pre-state Jewish militia, took over.

During his tour, Moshe-Segal guides visitors through the cellars and passageways the Templers carved into the sandstone to connect the buildings of the wineries. He describes how the Hagana used the hidden spaces during the early months of 1948 to secretly assemble military aircraft from 20 old planes purchased by the Jewish Agency from the British Air Force. The scraps, he says, were converted into 14 planes, essentially becoming the Israel Air Force’s first squadron.

A few months later, Sarona became home to many of the fledgling state’s principal governmental activities and was re-branded by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion as Hakirya – Hebrew for “the urban precinct,” a name that erased the site’s German past.

Among the government institutions at the site were the Finance Ministry, the government printer and the headquarters of the Mossad intelligence service. The old antenna used for the Mossad’s covert communications is now being reintegrated into the park-in-themaking.

Moshe-Segal doesn’t share any of the concerns of the critics of the revamped Sarona. “It’s an exceptional creation of an urban historical park that will be multifunctional. Each and every person will be able to enjoy Sarona according to their own needs.”

North of the site, across the expanded highway, still lies the present-day Kirya, the Defense Ministry and IDF headquarters.

There, behind barbed wire and concrete walls, several dozen more of Sarona’s Templer houses patiently await their own redemption.

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