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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
The decision to turn Sarona into a park confined
by high-rises and a highway is also being questioned by some experts.
anachronistic and ridiculous concept of urban preservation” is how architect
Irit Solzi, a partner at Irit & Dror Architects & Urban Planners, puts
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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
North of the site, across the expanded highway, still lies the
present-day Kirya, the Defense Ministry and IDF headquarters.
behind barbed wire and concrete walls, several dozen more of Sarona’s Templer
houses patiently await their own redemption.