The seashore has always been a draw, attracting fishermen, families, artists and sunset watchers. For centuries, people were willing to accept the nuisance of getting their feet wet if it meant they could enjoy the waves and the sand. But in Victorian times, built-up beachfront promenades came into fashion, allowing visitors to the shore to enjoy the air and the view without mussing their summer beach costumes.
In 1920, 11 years after Tel Aviv was founded, the first Hebrew city still had no such promenade. When Lord Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner for the Mandate government in Palestine, visited that same year, he suggested turning the Allenby area into one. He had no idea how far his suggestion would go.
Nowadays, everybody loves the Shlomo Lahat Promenade, especially on hot summer nights. Slim-legged moms jog behind high-tech strollers, bicycle gangs navigate the crowds, fully cloaked Arab women speed-walk in Nikes, and hairy-chested sprinters sweating in Speedos mix freely with religious families, girl watchers, girls, tanned surfers, sight-seers, people watchers, and sunset gazers - as well as teenagers, cats, dogs, motorcycles and kites.
And why not? It's free, as are the cool sea breezes after sunset, and Israelis love freebees. But promenading is only part of the fun to be had on Tel Aviv's tayelet. Pilates groups stretch out on Gordon Beach early on Sunday and Wednesday mornings. Saturday evenings see folk dancing in back of the Renaissance Hotel, and others meditate to music at Frishman Beach in the evenings. Sports fans cheer on their teams at games shown on big screens at establishments along the beach, which also hosts beer festivals, volleyball tournaments, fireworks displays and movies. Anyone who gets hungry can picnic or stop at one of the dozens of cafes, restaurants and bars located along the tayelet.
Unlike beachside promenades in other big cities around the world, the Tel Aviv tayelet is free of strip joints or rowdy bars. For the most part, it's considered a safe place at any hour of the day or night.
As part of a new strategic plan for the city, the municipality has met with local residents, fishermen, businesspeople, architects, engineers and environmentalists over a period of three years, seeking input on how best to refurbish and expand the tayelet.
"A city as crowded as Tel Aviv needs to have as much open access to the sea as possible," city architect Yoav David tells Metro. "The vision is to bring the sea closer to the people, and the people closer to the sea. It helps people relax and makes city life more bearable," David explains.
When completed, the renovated tayelet will stretch 13.7 kilometers along the coast - from Bat Yam to Herzliya. Four of the current projects - Midron Jaffa, Charles Clore Park, Reading and Tel Baruch - are designed by Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architects Ltd. The company won the 2006 Project-of-the-Year Prize for landscaping the Rowing Club Park on the Yarkon River.
Midron Jaffa (Jaffa slope or incline) comprises an area behind the Arab neighborhood of Ajami. It served as an official waste dump for municipal buildings for 19 years, from 1970 to 1989, destroying the coastline. Over the years, the dump had grown so high that few were aware it concealed a pristine, turquoise coastline. Only after a prolonged public court battle was the dumping finally stopped, but that moratorium left a 200-dunam piece of land running from the Jaffa Port to Givat Aliya that posed an environmental hazard. Then Tama 13 - the national master plan for preserving the Mediterranean coast - designated most of the area as a park, allowing the Midron Jaffa project to proceed.
The Governance of Jaffa, the organizational arm of the municipality that is overseeing the extensive development and restoration underway in Jaffa, initiated a series of public meetings with the local residents to discuss the Midron Jaffa project. They made their wishes clear: "We want you to give us back the sea!"
The municipal company Ezra and Bizaron has been overseeing at Midron Jaffa what turned out to be the largest waste removal and recycling project in Israel. Since 2005, a million tons of waste have been sifted and recycled at the site. As a result, nearby residents are already enjoying cool sea breezes, as well as ocean views and Mediterranean sunsets long hidden from view.
In addition to the connecting promenade, the plan calls for a park and a very long, wide beach that will connect nearby neighborhoods to the sea, including sitting areas with sea views, play areas, bike paths, parking and lighting. Plants appropriate for the seaside were selected. The project is slated for completion by April 2009. "This will be one of the most beautiful parks in Israel," says Shmuel Katchelnik, manager of the Department of City Improvement.
A walk northward on the new promenade takes one through the history of the ancient port city of Jaffa. The waterfront buildings are being restored, as well as the pier, with all its old-time charm. But local fisherman still haul in their nets early in the morning, and the first catch of the day is taken to market as it has been for centuries.
North along the water, the next project - now fully under way - is the restoration of the Charles Clore Park, which was originally funded by Sir Charles Clore, a British financier and philanthropist, in the 1970s. Architect Alisa Braudo of Braudo-Maoz says that the park "never really connected well with the city." Originally designed by landscape architect Hillel Omer, the well-known poet and writer of Hebrew stories for children, the park's hilly terrain blocks the sea view, and the park has no clearly marked entrance.
Discussing the Clore Park project with Metro, Braudo says that her firm wanted to respect the ideas of the original design, but needed to lower some of the hills so that the sea "would be more connected to the city."
"By opening vistas and creating inviting entrance plazas, we hope the design will bring this area closer to the city, and the city closer to the sea. For me," Braudo continues, "the sea is the main actor in this show, and we want to give it an appropriate stage."
The Clore Foundation is now directed by Sir Charles's daughter Dame Vivienne Duffield and has donated the money for the park's renewal. The renovations, overseen by the Tel Aviv Foundation, include pathways, pergolas, and the addition of trees, vegetation, lighting and accessibility routes. Shaded pathways lead from the entrance plazas to the sea, new play areas, an events stage, water jet pool and outdoor exercise areas. Moreover, the park's eastern side, as well as the existing waterfront area, will offer a bike path and promenade.
The project is slated for completion by the end of this summer and the new eastern promenade is already in use by joggers, families with strollers and bicyclists. The new path allows walkers to bypass the decrepit Dolphinarium, the scene of a 2001 terror attack that left 21 people dead. In fact, Metro learned, plans to extend Clore Park to the south and include more beach to its north would get rid of the Dolphinarium altogether.
Some even hope that the Dolphinarium will soon be replaced. According to David, the municipality is now preparing a new statutory plan that would give the facility's 18 dunams of land back to the city, allowing more space for the park as well as open access to the beach.
Beach access is a recurrent theme in the projects. Changes have been made to other structures that have been keeping would-be beachgoers from the water, like the Gordon Pool in front of the marina. A long struggle between swimmers, environmentalists and city planners ended in an agreement that the pool could be renovated so long as the area around it was opened to the public. This means that 12 dunams that have been blocked off are now being planted with trees and equipped with benches. A wooden deck is being constructed on the side of the pool that overlooks the sea, with a view of the marina.
Then there is the "Hyatt hole," known by locals as the "Forum Palace." Situated just north of Independence Park on the corner of Rehov Nordau, this wasted piece of valuable property has been deemed an eyesore for many years. Originally designated for a Hyatt hotel, a huge hole was dug, fenced in, and then left. The city is now looking into ways to persuade the owner to release the property.
If removing such blots on the landscape so residents can get to the beach seems like a miracle comparable to that of Moses parting the Red Sea, consider the city's plans for the heretofore off-limits territory of the Reading Power Plant.
Pinhas Rotenberg, who established the Israel Electric Company with power stations in Naharayim, Haifa and Tiberias, built the Tel Aviv plant in 1938. He invited Lord Samuel and Rufus Daniel Isaacs, First Marquis of Reading (for whom the power station is named) to be members of the corporation's directorate.
Environmental groups have continually accused the Reading Station of causing severe pollution, both to the air in Tel Aviv and to the sea. In early 2006, the station was partially shut down due to failure to comply with environmental regulations that required it to shift to natural gas instead of crude oil as its main fuel. Since then, the station has reopened, and is now powered exclusively by natural gas.
Described by the architects as "the forbidden area" because it was closed to the public, the space between the water and the electric plant will now be made accessible to visitors who want to enjoy this section of Tel Aviv's coastline. Financed by the Israel Electric Company, the 60-dunam stretch of beachfront will be connected to the existing promenade along the Tel Aviv Port by a 160-meter suspension bridge for walkers and bicyclists. The bridge, designed by architect Gidi Bar-Orian, is slated for completion in early 2009.
In addition to its section of the Bat Yam-Herzliya tayelet, this area will include an "open museum," designer Ruth Maoz - like her partner Braudo, a graduate of environmental design at Bezalel - says. "We want people to connect to the history of the area," she declares. "There are so many layers of history along the coast of Tel Aviv. This history is embedded in the landscape and people should know how things were before."
The museum, still in its design phase, will most likely include the story of Rotenberg and the beginnings of the IEC. There will also be information about the area's flora and fauna. The design also includes a seaside park, landscaped entirely with indigenous beach plants.
The northernmost point of the Tel Aviv project, and closest to home for architects Braudo and Maoz, who both grew up in the area, is the Tel Baruch tayelet. Braudo, who grew up in the Maoz Aviv neighborhood, recalls spending lazy childhood days on the beach. "I always loved to walk along the beach and to swim in the sea," Braudo says. "I still do. Even now, I find time to walk along the beach to get away from all the noise and pressure of the city," she says. The municipal firm Atarim is managing the project.
Another new section of the promenade, including bike paths and gardens, is planned to extend north past the Sea and Sun residential project to the border of Herzliya, running along cliffs that overlook some of the most beautiful beaches in the city. Bicyclists should gear up - like most of the other work on the tayelet, this project should be finished in 2009.
While many people enjoy the tayelet and many more are expected to flock there thanks to the new projects, getting there remains a battle. Parking and traffic along much of the promenade remains a major problem. Last month's "White Nights" event drew crowds, creating a traffic nightmare along Herbert Samuel Boulevard.
Public restrooms are also conspicuously lacking. David says that the city and Atarim have approved plans to begin renovations to the existing facilities and expand them to meet the public's needs. Last year's Beer Festival organizers - foreseeing a problem common to events in their industry - provided their own port-o-potties.
"Tel Aviv is correcting mistakes that were made in the past," David declares. "If we continue the way we're going now, we'll have a much closer connection between the people of the city and the sea. People may even begin to ride more bicycles, walk more and enjoy life more."
This ideal comes at a price. According to Katchelnik, the entire tayelet project will cost around NIS 230 million. He knows that unless the new coastline projects are maintained, no one will enjoy them for very long. "Getting these projects done is the fun part," he says. "Now begins the real work of maintaining these new parks and promenades. That's my biggest headache. We fight every day and every night to keep these areas clean and beautiful," he says.
In addition, security companies have been hired to patrol the construction sites. But Katchelnik knows that the public needs to be educated. "We've been talking with youth organizations and educators about the need to teach people from a young age to protect our natural resources," he says. "I hope that someday, people will learn to care for what's beautiful in our city so that we can enjoy these natural resources for many years to come."
Slowly but surely, Tel Aviv moves further from the days when city waste and garbage were poured into the sea. The city turns 100 in 2009 and Mayor Ron Huldai hopes to have most of the refurbished tayelet completed for the celebrations. The town known for having been built "with its back to the sea" is now investing in creative thinking and trying to bring its residents closer to the water, and is making sure that the waterfront is fit to welcome them.
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