The Old City of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Two days after Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin ordered a moratorium on construction of an Old City road – which residents of the Jewish and Armenian quarters said would delay emergency care and significantly reduce their quality of life – Mayor Nir Barkat announced he would suspend the project until both communities’ concerns are addressed.
Although Barkat initially issued a defiant statement following Elkin’s Tuesday directive, saying construction would proceed as planned, on Thursday morning, after meeting with community leaders from the affected areas, the municipality reversed its position.
“Mayor Nir Barkat discussed the Armenian Patriarchate Road rehabilitation project with the plan’s professional team, and the mayor decided to freeze construction at this point and adjust the plans to guarantee the residents’ quality of life throughout the construction period,” the statement said.
“The mayor directed the municipality to conduct another round of public hearings prior to the project’s final approval and execution.”
Scheduled to begin Sunday, the plan was to repave 600 meters of the roadway leading to the Western Wall – between police headquarters and Zion Gate. Expected to take over two years to complete, it would also add several minutes to emergency response times during the noisy 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly construction.
Additionally, the project would force the thousands of residents to use relatively distant alternate bus routes from Dung or Zion Gates, instead of nearby Jaffa Gate.
Further complicating matters, the Israel Antiquities Authority would oversee the project amid expectations that artifacts will be unearthed during construction, which could further delay its conclusion by up to four years.
The municipality and Jerusalem Development Authority intend to replace the badly pocked pavement with stone, and build a public square for tourists next to an Armenian genocide memorial.
Elkin’s decision to delay construction followed a last-minute and heated community meeting with Jewish and Armenian residents and municipal representatives on Monday night.
Shoshanah Selavan, chairwoman of the Jewish Quarter Community Council, who led the joint effort against the municipality and the city’s development authority, said she received a call at 11 p.m. on Wednesday from the municipality asking her to attend Thursday’s 8:15 a.m.
“They called and said Nir really wants to meet with you to work together to solve all the issues,” said Selavan, adding that Barkat’s top advisers also attended the hour-and a- half meeting at city hall.
“I met with the mayor and he said, ‘We are going to work this out. We are listening to you, we are taking all your requests seriously, and we are going to make sure the project works for all of us.’” Selavan described the meeting as cordial and highly constructive, noting that the mayor acknowledged that mistakes had been made with respect to the city’s planning for the project, and vowed to correct them.
Although no formal time frame was presented, Barkat said he would hold several hearings in the interim to ensure all the concerns of the Armenian and Jewish residents are adequately addressed.
Selavan added that Elkin’s office told her that nothing can proceed until it is brought to him for final approval.
She noted that she intends to hold a meeting with the Jewish Quarter Community Council next week to provide a full report of what was discussed during Thursday’s meeting.
In the meantime, Selavan said she will not prevent the project if both communities’ concerns are carefully considered and resolved.
“I know that there are people in the Jewish Quarter that still don’t want the project to proceed, but I said to them that as a representative of the neighborhood, if I can get answers to all the problems we raised, then there’s no reason to stop it,” she said.
“If I can convince the head of our security and safety committee that everything will be okay, then I have no problem with it,” she added.
Moreover, Selavan, who, prior to Thursday’s meeting with the mayor said the municipality and JDA representatives roundly ignored both communities’ concerns during 10 months of meetings, said she is now confident that they will have a positive partnership going forward.
“It seems that now they are taking us very seriously; that they know they crossed a redline,” she said.