Downtown business owners are worried about the traffic noose being drawn around the city center as work continues on Jerusalem's long-delayed light rail and busway system, respectively called the Red and Blue lines. Commuter woes will only worsen as sections of Jaffa Road begin closing this fall to facilitate track laying and landscaping. Jerusalem Business Development Center (MATI) head Uri Scharf is concerned some businesses may not survive the long-anticipated interruptions. "The [construction] work will continue for nearly a year more. We've seen in other cities in the world, like Frankfurt or Zurich, where similar projects continued for three to five years, that certain businesses were compelled to close as a result of the blocking of entrances for their customers. And if that wasn't bad enough, the business owners were obliged to pay dearly for the paving. "Here in Jerusalem, outgoing municipal director-general Eitan Meir has promised that during the entire period of work [on Jaffa Road], which will continue for a year, access will be assured to every single business, and that loading and unloading of merchandise will be permitted in the morning hours. Moreover, here the municipality isn't seeking the financial participation of business owners." Will those steps prevent financial loss and store closings as customers dodge hoardings and dust? "In my view, there are going to be more than a little of the anticipated disruptions to business in the city center," says Scharf. "But international experience teaches that a little suffering in the short term pays off in the long term. This whole complex process is going to bring life to the center of town. What's been carried out on Rehov Shimon Ben-Shetah gives a preview of what is expected in other areas. "Upon completion of the work there," he continues, "some good businesses, upscale restaurants and pubs opened. An indication of the positive impact of the work carried out there can be gleaned from the improvement of the taxes the municipality is collecting in the city center this year - NIS 120 million as opposed to NIS 3 million last year. "This indicates that the serious business community has already absorbed where all this is leading. "By the way," he adds, "already today, according to a [survey] carried out, on average 130,000 men and women walk along Jaffa Road per day. This compares to 30,000 in the Malha mall. "Regarding preventing private vehicles from approaching [downtown], there are a number of cities in the world that have no approach whatsoever to the center," Scharf points out. "In London the restriction is backed up with heavy fines. In Milan there is no entry to a huge swath of the center. I haven't heard these cities are dying." Downtown business owners don't necessarily share Scharf's "no pain, no gain" view of the new transportation plans, and the pending closure of Jaffa Road. "My personal view is that the closure of traffic will kill the city," says David Aminoff, an accountant who gets a ride to his Rehov Ben-Yehuda office and takes the bus home. "People won't come downtown if they can't get in their car." The narrowing of the roads may lead to a disaster with ambulances unable to get around the traffic jam, he warns. "They'll have to make some parking [arrangements]," says Avi Schmidt, who manages a portfolio of rental apartments in the city center. Otherwise business will suffer, he surmises. Indeed Kikar Square plans to create five major commuter park 'n' rides to feed the Red and Blue lines - but none in the city center. The first, a new covered parking garage at Holland Square by Mount Herzl, the western terminus of the light rail, is slated to open in November, to be followed by others in Talpiot, Mount Herzl, Pisgat Ze'ev, Har Hotzvim and Binyenei Ha'uma. But in the meantime, driving and parking downtown is becoming increasingly restricted. Signs have sprouted across downtown in recent days, posted by the Eden Company, a subsidiary of the Jerusalem Development Authority, noting further street closures as part of the ongoing pedestrianization of the city center. The plan, modeled on Zurich's main drag, the Bahnhofstrasse, will see Jerusalem's major artery Jaffa Road and many branching streets closed to regular traffic, which will be re-routed to an inner city ring road. The newly affected streets include Rehov Herbert Samuel and the northern end of Rehov Yoel Salomon - which both connect Rehov Shammai to Kikar Zion and Jaffa Road. Recently signposted no entry, drivers may only drive there during restricted hours, ostensibly for loading and unloading. And the traffic light on Rehov Herbert Samuel at Kikar Zion has been covered, pending its removal. A few blocks to the west, at the other end of the existing Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, Ben-Yehuda and Hahistadrut streets have been similarly restricted, though they remain open for taxis. The offices of the Nesher service taxi to Ben-Gurion Airport is located on the block of Rehov Ben-Yehuda slated to also become pedestrian-only. Work is nearing completion to convert two one-block long streets downtown - the so-called "Little Bezalel" and Rehov Schatz - into pedestrian-only promenades covered with granite cobblestones quarried in China. Leading south from Rehov Hanevi'im to Kikar Zion, Rehov Hahavatzelet has been dug up for a sewer drain. When completed, the roadway will also be made pedestrian friendly, thus eliminating curbside parking. Similarly Rehov Shammai, like parallel Rehov Hillel, will be narrowed and landscaped - at the expense of many parking spots. The work has baffled drivers in the city center, who seem unable to comprehend City Hall's newest traffic maze. At Kikar Zion, where a temporary metal barricade has been erected to prevent cars from exiting onto Jaffa Road, perplexed drivers routinely shove aside the barrier and drive on. Other motorists veer through Zion Square and exit at the pedestrian crossing across Jaffa Road. To get to that point, they must drive through the no-entry signs on Rehov Herbert Samuel or Rehov Yoel Salomon. Not all Jerusalem drivers are scofflaws, however. The more observant of traffic regulations make a three-point turn at the end of Rehov Shammai, which is now officially a two-way, dead-end street, causing back-ups and utter confusion. After repeated calls to the municipal hotline (106), and a referral to the parking authority, a source confirmed that the new traffic arrangements were permanent. The new road closings are meant to facilitate the laying of the tracks on Jaffa Road for the light rail project, which is five years behind schedule due to financial and technical difficulties. While significant progress has been made on the light rail's 13.8-km long, NIS 3.5 billion Red Line, including laying track on a section of Sderot Herzl and partially erecting the Calatrava Bridge near the Central Bus Station, the key to the whole vision - the closing of Jaffa Road except for trams - remains vague. "We still don't have any detailed engineering plans about Jaffa Road," admits light rail spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli. The city spokesman's office confirmed that there was no date set for work on Jaffa Road. "The municipality will coordinate the [light rail] works with those involved, including local business owners, Egged bus company, the Transportation Ministry, the police, etc.," spokesman Gidi Schmerling told In Jerusalem. As hazy as the near future may be, the final result is clear. "In the coming years it will be difficult to reach the city center by private vehicle," he says. Similarly Itcho Gur, spokesman of CityPass, the consortium building the light rail, confirms the municipality hasn't approved any plans yet for Jaffa Road. Everything is pending "until after the holidays," he says. Will the huge investment in infrastructure and urban renewal pay off? Zoning changes have primed the pump, says Eden CEO Asaf Vitman, allowing for an additional 1.2 million sq.m. of new commercial, residential and public sector development, he says. When the light rail is completed (expected in 2011), and the high-speed train to Tel Aviv pulls in to its new underground station two years later, downtown Jerusalem will have been transformed into a network of pedestrian-only streets extending from Mamilla, past the Mahaneh Yehuda market. A thicket of new buildings will also rise in the area, including a courthouse, a new campus for the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, hotels and luxury condominiums for foreign Jews - and all will be difficult to reach by car.

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