An indelicate balance

An indelicate balance

By GAIL LICHTMAN
December 10, 2009 19:44
emek refaim bldg 248.88

emek refaim bldg 248.88. (photo credit: Sarah Levin)

 
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How much urban commercialization is too much? When is the balance between change and preservation tipped to the point where the charm and character of the city's historic neighborhoods are lost? These are the questions German Colony residents and the municipality are pondering as they face a recent request to open two restaurants in a historic residential building on one of the neighborhood's quiet side streets. On November 18 residents of Rehov Emile Zola 4, a historic building slated for preservation - located on the narrow, one-way street between Emek Refaim and Rehov Jan Smuts - received notices from the municipal planning and construction committee that two requests had been filed for exceptional use of the building's ground floor. The requests, by Null Ridge Hill, Inc., were for permission to open two restaurants in the building, which is currently zoned for residential use only. The public was given 14 days to file objections. To date, the general policy of the municipality for the neighborhood has been to allow commercial enterprises along the main street - Emek Refaim - and to keep the side streets for residential use. The German Colony was founded in 1873 by the German Protestant Templers and is considered one of Jerusalem's architectural treasures. Emile Zola 4, while not a Templer building, is an outstanding example of early 20th-century Arab architecture. Built in 1925, the three-story stone building, with its symmetrical façade, is decorated with colorful Armenian ceramic tiles around the window and door lintels. Its balconies have stone railings with octagonal carvings and an arcade of arches supported by stone columns. The building bears the Arabic inscription "The one king is the victor," with the year of construction according to the Muslim calendar - 1244. "This is a test case," says Jerry Goodman, a resident of Rehov Emile Zola and the man spearheading neighborhood objections to the requests. "Restaurants on the side streets will ruin the neighborhood. If these requests are allowed to go through, they will set a precedent for the entire neighborhood. Soon our side streets will be overrun by businesses and they will no longer be residential. Our neighborhood already suffers from noise and crowds and lack of parking. This will be the beginning of the end, turning the unique and charming German Colony into a crass commercial area." Also opposed to the requests and filing an objection is the local community council, Ginot Ha'ir. "In principle, we are opposed to any discussion of expanding the commercial area beyond Emek Refaim," Ginot Ha'ir executive director Shaike El-Ami told In Jerusalem. "The municipality is currently working on a new master plan for the German Colony that will clearly delineate commercial and residential areas. This plan should be ready in about six months. Until this plan is adopted, we oppose any discussion of exceptions for commercial entities on the side streets. Let's get the overall picture in place and then deal with exceptions." Ginot Ha'ir urban planner Ze'ev Arad notes, "This is a struggle for the character of the neighborhood. One of our criteria has always been no commercial enterprises on side streets. This is a very sensitive area, and granting these requests will be creating facts on the ground before adoption of the master plan, thus pulling the rug out from under the planners working on this plan. We need the overall concept of the neighborhood first. Why decide now, when we will have a plan in half a year?" In a statement issued by Ginot Ha'ir, the community council links the requests for the two restaurants at Emile Zola 4 to an ongoing, wide-ranging series of "initiatives working toward changing the status quo and creating a new situation through sporadic decisions: Emek Refaim 48, the Smadar Cinema, the Jerusalem Pool, the building of Park Hamesila and cancelation of the existing parking, as well as attempts to allow penetration of commerce into the historic side streets." The Emek Refaim Merchants Council, a body formed a year and a half ago to represent the interests of area merchants, opposes business on the German Colony's side streets. "In principle, we are against allowing businesses to overflow onto the side streets," says Assaf Obsfeld, owner of the neighborhood's Café Aroma. "We are for maintaining the delicate balance of the status quo. We [the merchants] are on Emek Refaim and they [the residents] are on the side streets. This is for the general welfare of the community and allows us all to coexist. Remember that trucks have to deliver goods, and there is no place on the side streets for loading and unloading. This is our overall position. We are not getting into specific cases or objections." The property at Emile Zola 4 is owned by Achi Neemanut, which also owns three other adjacent historic buildings on the street. Null Ridge Hill, Inc. is a subsidiary of Achi Neemanut and was set up for the purpose of establishing the two restaurants on the property. "We have invested NIS 1 million in developing the courtyard between Emile Zola 4 and Emile Zola 2 [which is also on the corner of Emek Refaim and is home to the RYU restaurant]," explains Tzali Reshef, legal adviser for Null Ridge Hill, Inc. "We will make sure that the entrance to the restaurants is through a passage next to RYU on Emek Refaim. The new businesses will open onto the courtyard and not Emile Zola. There already is one restaurant - RYU - in this courtyard. This courtyard will serve the atmosphere of the German Colony. If our requests are approved, we hope to have entertainment there. We will do our best to prevent noise. We understand the desire of the residents to keep this area quiet. But there is always conflict between developers and residents in historic neighborhoods." Reshef says it has not yet been decided whether Null Ridge Hill, Inc. will run the restaurants or franchise them out. Despite Reshef's assurances that entrance to the restaurants will be from Emek Refaim, Emile Zola 4 resident Michael Borkowsky is not assuaged. The long-time German Colony resident, who has lived in his key-money apartment since 1962, is against both requests for zoning exceptions. "Once the German Colony was a sleepy little neighborhood," Borkowsky relates. "But in the last decade or so, it has come alive. I am not against restaurants or businesses, but they should be confined to Emek Refaim. I have never objected in the past, even though the parking situation is a problem, there is noise and in the summer, when I sit on my balcony, odors from the restaurants waft over and some are not so pleasant. The owners [of the property at Emile Zola 4] claim that the entrance will be from Emek Refaim, and they base this on the fact that they tore down the fence between Emile Zola 2 and Emile Zola 4. This is ridiculous. How would you react if someone opened a restaurant right underneath you?" Another long-time German Colony resident is Prof. Avraham Baniel. The 91-year-old retired Hebrew University chemistry professor has lived in his home on Emile Zola since 1978. But he remembers the German Colony from the days of the British Mandate. "I remember the German Templers who lived in these homes," he recalls. "At a certain stage, they joined up with Hitler and when World War II started, they were interned by the British, who confiscated their property. They were finally sent back to Germany. The neighborhood was deserted; but with the establishment of the state, when housing was needed for new olim, the Templer homes [and the homes of Arabs who fled during the War of Independence] were subdivided into apartments. Then, in the 1970s, gentrification of the neighborhood began, and many of the homes were restored to their original beauty," he says. "There are more than 50 restaurants on Emek Refaim," Baniel continues. "We have enough restaurants to feed us for eternity. There is no justification for destroying this jewel of a neighborhood for more restaurants. Tourists come from all over to see the special buildings and character of the German Colony. Our homes are what give the neighborhood its unique quality." The municipal spokesman's office told IJ that the municipal planning and construction committee will hold discussions on the matter and, after hearing from both sides, will decide whether to approve the requests and if so, under what conditions. Municipal policy is to try to strike a balance between preserving historic areas and commercial growth in these neighborhoods.

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