Analysis: Neither Safdie nor his critics has the answer to Jerusalem's woes

The fear is that a project bought up only by part-time residents, spending only a few weeks a year in Israel, will turn into a ghost neighborhood.

October 16, 2006 11:12
environmentalists protest against safdie plan 298

against safdie plan 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])


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Last week was no holiday for the capital's real-estate agents. Succot is one of the busiest times of the year for those who make their livings marketing Jerusalem's more luxurious homes. Wealthy religious Jews from the US, Britain and France throng the city's five-star hotels and between prayers at the Great Synagogue and meals at over-priced kosher restaurants, they go apartment-hunting. They're looking for a good investment, a holiday home and perhaps also a future bolt-hole for a time when a combination of high taxation and resurgent anti-Semitism will force them to leave their comfortable galut. The more haredi prefer the neighborhoods of Sha'arei Hesed, while others snap up seven-figure properties in Rehavia, German Colony and Baka. This trend has caused an exceptional phenomenon in Jerusalem: while the volatile Israeli housing market has fluctuated wildly, down almost as much as up over the last decade, prices in these areas of Jerusalem have gone steadily up, almost unaffected by slumps and terror attacks. Special projects are being built with these foreign buyers specifically in mind. One such gated community is being built on the southern outskirts of the city, promising a panoramic view of the Old City. "They also promise at least 30 percent local buyers," says one real-estate expert. "That's a joke, I've not heard yet of one local buying an apartment there." The fear is that a project bought up only by part-time residents, spending only a few weeks a year in Israel, will turn into a ghost neighborhood, like the David's Village luxury complex built over the old Mamilla quarter opposite Jaffa Gate. But that is not the only downside to the influx of foreign capital into the Jerusalem property market. The upward trend in prices influences not only the luxury market. A medium-sized apartment in what were not long ago middle-class neighborhoods is now out of the reach of all but the rich, forcing young couples, many of whom grew up in the area, to build their futures elsewhere. Families with children are also forced to relocate in search of larger living quarters. This is just one of the many planning and housing problems currently facing Jerusalem that neither side of the big dispute over the Safdie Plan is going to solve. Those in favor of the major enlargement of the city westwards, building over 20,000 new homes in currently wooded areas as outlined in the plan, claim that it will cause prices closer to the center of town to finally go down. There is little reason to believe this will indeed happen. The appeal of homes in the older, leafy neighborhoods, full of historical character and interesting architecture, within walking distance of shopping, cultural and religious centers, will not be diminished. But neither is the alternative plan advanced by environmentalists - anxious that Safdie will cause irreparable ecological damage to the Jerusalem Hills - a suitable answer. They claim that there is sufficient land within the city's current municipal borders to build tens of thousands new apartments. While this claim is highly contentious, even if some of these homes were to be built, no municipal or state agency is powerful enough to ensure that these apartments will be affordable. And if they succeed in making inner Jerusalem, which is not blessed with many parks and open spaces, even more cramped, why should anyone want to live here? All this is just about the higher end of the housing market. Down the road from the million-dollar homes of Baka, there are cramped tenement blocks, built in the Fifties and Sixties to accommodate the waves of immigration swamping the new state. The population of these blocks is getting steadily older. Many of the apartments vacated by families who have managed to improve their conditions have been filled by the Housing Ministry with various social cases, perpetuating these neighborhoods' slum status. Even if one of the plans succeeds in producing a supply of new moderately priced apartments, how will that alleviate the plight of these hovels? We haven't even mentioned the city's demographic imbalance. Jerusalem's main problem over the last two decades has been the departure of the city's economic backbone, medium to high-income secular young men and women and families. Neither plan manages to address the flight of secular and national-religious families from areas that are steadily being bought up by haredi groups. The Safdie Plan will serve only to accelerate the flight of non-haredi families from these areas. The Green Plan has no way of guaranteeing that the homes it envisages within the current city limits will be bought by those planning to leave Jerusalem anyway. Then, of course, there is the other demographic concern. Neither plan takes into account Arab east Jerusalem and the problem of Ma'aleh Adumim, Jerusalem's burgeoning eastern satellite. The E1 plan to enlarge Jerusalem eastwards would have the advantages of supplying any necessary number of affordable homes with little environmental impact and connecting Ma'aleh Adumim as an organic part of the city. It would also cement Israel's hold on the eastern approaches to its capital through the building of Jewish neighborhoods, and this is just what has caused the diplomatic opposition which has been holding up E1 for years. But if the diplomatic climate were to change, or a future government were to decide to go ahead whatever, the Safdie Plan and its alternatives might prove superfluous. Greater Jerusalem is not far off from becoming a million-people metropolis. But in addition to all the social, environmental and financial considerations that go into a major planning decision in any large city, when it comes to the Holy City, there is another range of political, religious, diplomatic, historical, national and international concerns to worry about. It's not merely a question of how many homes will be built and where, or even if they will meet or exceed future demand, but of Jerusalem's future identity, its borders and owners. Is this the national capital of Israel and the Jewish people, with a diverse population including a real cross-section of Israeli society? Is it a religious city of God, forbidding and unwelcoming to other different groups? Is it an insecure border town? Major building projects are crucial for the city's future, but they are not enough to drag Jerusalem into the 21st Century. The city's real problem is a lack of vision and leadership. City Hall is a powerless and deficit-battling organization. Its critics charge it is badly run and too concerned with fulfilling the aspirations of various special-interest groups. The Jerusalem Development Authority, which is backing the Safdie Plan, is doing some real planning, along with a number of independent bodies, but it lacks a wide-ranging mandate. Nobody knows who the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs is and anyway, all he has is an empty title. The National Planning and Building Authority is concerned mainly with authorizing plans, not formulating real policy. Whatever its decision this week on Safdie, Jerusalem's planning woes will be far from over.

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