Shopkeepers protest as trade 'dies' in inaccessible central J'lem

Stores in inaccessible central J'lem report hundreds of millions in losses.

By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
October 19, 2007 00:31
ben yehuda street trees 88

ben yehuda st 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Ongoing changes to minimize the entry of private cars to central Jerusalem and to create pedestrian malls as part of the city's light rail project are snarling traffic and driving away shoppers from the city center, furious merchants and motorists said this week. The light rail system had been expected to be running in February 2009, but repeated delays mean it will be mid-2010, at best, before even the first line begins operating. The NIS 4.2 billion project, which is being jointly funded by the Transportation Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality, is the first of its kind in Israel. Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat has called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into the delays, but his proposal has not won the support of any city or state officials. A spokesman for the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs said Thursday that the minister and director-general of the office had been replaced two months ago, and that the issue was being looked into. When the installation of the line on Jaffa Road begins, city officials are predicting more traffic delays, with vehicles slated to be rerouted to the nearby Rehov Hanevi'im. City officials said the project's "revolutionary" moves would, in the long-term, reinvigorate the "dead" city center and dramatically improve the economic condition of merchants. But shopkeepers said this week that the construction, dust and multiple road closures to private vehicles had only hurt their income, with many drivers avoiding the city center at all costs, and that stores in the area had lost hundreds of millions of shekels in sales. "Everything here is dead since the municipal road work began three or four years ago," said Ofer Bezalel, 44. A decade ago he opened a second-hand music store on Rehov Shatz, just off King George Street. His street is already closed to cars while a pedestrian-only walkway is being built. The six-month, NIS 5 million Rehov Shatz project is slated to be completed by December, said Asaf Vitman, director-general of Eden, the municipal subsidiary that is carrying the construction. "As soon as we complete the work, the street's economy will start flowing," Vitman said. But after years of construction, it might be too late for veteran small businesses owners on the dust-filled street, which was lined with cigarette butts, trash and broken tiles. "For small merchants who live from hand to mouth on a day-to-day basis, long-term plans are problematic because they simply will not make it until the long-term comes," Bezalel said. He said he was thinking about moving out. "The infrastructure work is being carried out at an agonizingly slow place," he said. "The work has simply destroyed my business," said Moshe Yossifov, 61, who owns an electronic repair shop just down the street and is also thinking about closing up shop after three decades. He said that while a pedestrian-only walkway was good for businesses such as coffee shops and boutique clothing stores, nobody wanted to bring a large electrical appliance for repair if they could not access the area by car. "Everyone here has despaired of the city," said Moshe Bar, who gave his age as "60+" and who owns a second-hand bookshop on the street that has been in operation for more than 30 years. "They came, broke down the street, never clean it and then say they will fix it later," Bar said. "In 50 years, they will fix it." Vitman insisted that the first heavy fall rains would clean the dust from the street. "It is only natural that the situation is difficult when construction work is under way," Vitman said. "After it is completed, everyone will be smiling." But the head of the Jerusalem Merchants Association, Avraham Birenbaum, who has been a vociferous critic of the light-rail project, said this week that the five years of intermittent road work had led to an average drop of 55 percent in sales for city merchants, costing them hundreds of millions of shekels. "The situation for merchants in central Jerusalem is only going to get worse with the inauguration of the light rail system," Birenbaum said. He said closing downtown to private cars and the planned rerouting of city buses from Jaffa Road was only exacerbating the situation, as the more affluent were increasingly heading to malls with their ample parking and lack of traffic headaches. "The average Israeli who has a car only goes shopping and out to a place where he can get to with his car," Birenbaum said. "The city is creating artificial traffic jams by the changes in transportation in the city center even before the light rail is here." Keshet Cohen, a 27-year-old Jerusalemite, said she was now forced to do most of her shopping at the city's Malha mall because of the difficulty in parking downtown. In the past, she said, she frequently went downtown, but now every time she drove down King George Street she committed "some traffic violation or other" due the ever-changing signs and traffic rules. Still, for all the dozens of stores that have closed, dozens of new ones have opened in their stead. "The city center is dead, and the Jerusalem Municipality is doing everything it can to resuscitate it," said Kobi Mamilia, head of the city's Transportation Department. "The city center will be one big open-air mall with clean air when the project is finished." The spokesman for the light rail project said that he could understand the concern that some merchants felt, but that it was misplaced. "Jaffa Road is already dead today, and if there is no light rail project this city will be completely destroyed," Shmuel Elgrably said. He said that 150,000 passengers were expected to use the first line of the light rail system - which will run from the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl via the city center, with 23 stops along the way - on a daily basis. Major Israeli companies and a top business tycoon had already voiced interest or purchased land on the city center's main drag, which will only be accessible to passengers on the light rail system or pedestrians, Elgrably said. In the meantime, negotiations continue between the the state, the city and the City-Pass Conglomerate over a new completion date for the project, Elgrably said, adding that an accord should be reached "in the coming weeks." Elgrably said that pending the negotiations he could not cite a new target date. Earlier this year, the project was temporarily derailed due to a lack of manpower and construction problems, including incorrect tracking installed on a main thoroughfare near the Mount Herzl military cemetery which has since been ripped out and reinstalled. Finance Ministry officials could fine the conglomerate - which is made up of three Israeli and two French companies - for any delay in the work, officials said, but this has not been done to date. Jerusalem City Engineer Shlomo Eshkol this week did urge state officials in a letter to have a team of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology experts check the cement used for the tracking of the rails in order to avoid any problems in the future, and to attain a specific timetable for the project in an effort to reduce traffic congestion.

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