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Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski notified no one about his plans to announce a freeze of the Safdie Plan - not his deputy Yehoshua Pollack, who holds the Planning portfolio in City Hall, not the municipality's Director-General Eitan Meir; nor were the senior officials in the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Interior Ministry's planning authority, who are co-sponsors of the plan, made aware of the abrupt volte-face.
In various meetings and discussions last week, Lupolianski said nothing to indicate that he was having second thoughts. The headlines in Friday's newspapers surprised them all, except the mayor's press adviser.
Lupolianski is no Green. It's enough to stroll through the capital's rubbish-strewn streets to realize that. As the former holder of the planning portfolio before becoming mayor, he eagerly authorized every plan presented by rapacious contractors, blighting Jerusalem's skyline with eyesores like the Holyland project. Development in the Prihar Valley, one of the last major green areas within the city, was blocked only due to vigorous public opposition.
The Safdie Plan to solve Jerusalem's housing problems by building 20,000 new homes to the west of the city might have been former mayor Ehud Olmert's baby, but Lupolianski was Olmert's number two the whole way, making sure all his demands were met in the local planning committee. Lupolianski has been mayor for almost four years, and in all that time, he was impervious to environmentalist demands that the city come up with an alternative to Safdie.
There are valid arguments on both sides of the Safdie argument and a wide and almost baffling array of reasons to choose between the Greens - who believe that it would have an irreversible ecological impact - and the planners, who are convinced that expansion westward is the only way to supply affordable housing to young families. Lupolianski's decision seems to have nothing to do with any of these. He has been intimately familiar with the plan ever since it was first presented eight years ago, and at no point until now has he expressed any reservations.
So why has Lupolianski suddenly changed his mind when the plan is so close to crossing the final hurdle in the National Planning and Building Committee? The fact that he held no professional discussions with planning and environment experts prior to his decision raises the suspicion that it's a PR-motivated decision.
Lupolianski built his original mayoral campaign as being a haredi politician capable of maintaining good relations with all segments of the population and he received votes from thousands of secular citizens. That consensual image has been tarnished of late by what are seen as policies benefiting mainly his core haredi constituency. The riots surrounding this month's Gay Parade which Lupolianski opposed also served to portray him as the representative of a violent and intolerant group. The Safdie controversy is not a religious-secular issue, but Lupolianski and his media advisers see the environmentalists as a major group within the liberal-secular establishment, and hence his attempt now to score some easy points with them. Affordable apartments for young couple might be important, but woodlands and nature reserves offer much better PR.
There is also another more sinister explanation. In Lupolianski's announcement on Friday, there was a caveat. He expects the environmentalists to form a coalition with him that will push through alternative building plans. If not, he will have no choice but to revert to Safdie. These plans are mainly about bringing building within the existing neighborhoods to saturation-level, but also include at least one new project at Mitzpe Naftoah, also a "green" area. Those still supporting Safdie suspect Lupolianski of trying to cut a deal with the environmentalists that will enable the city to build at least one new neighborhood that will be marketed to his haredi voters.
Lupolianski said during a visit to a haredi school less than two months ago that "we [the haredi community] plan to be a majority in Jerusalem." Canceling Safdie is one way to go about it.
This latest development isn't the end of the Safdie saga. City Hall was a central backer of the plan, but the main initiators were the city and national planning and development authorities and they still hope to push it through. Losing Lupolianski's support won't help their case, but they still have a good chance at the national committee.
The mayor is playing a dangerous game. If Safdie is finally turned down, he might have gained some short-lived popularity in green circles and perhaps furthered the rabbis' Jerusalem agenda. But if the plan still goes forward, he will have created the significant precedent of a major municipal development taking place against the mayor's wishes, making a lame duck of himself.