Once upon a time, Tel Aviv’s Atarim Square was a vibrant and aesthetic landmark. This won’t ring a bell with new immigrants to Israel, but it’s how it’s remembered by more veteran residents. Today the square is neglected, unattractive, notorious for its seedy Pussycat strip club and mostly used as a means of getting to and from the sea.
Indeed, it is located in a prime location, steps away from the beach, overlooking the Marina and Gordon Pool, and at the top of trendy Ben-Gurion Boulevard.
Something must be done to revive the face of the square – that is clear to all. But a plan that is in motion by the Tel Aviv municipality is viewed with displeasure by many of the city’s residents.
City hall’s plan involves building three highrise buildings of 30 to 40 floors, which will include a hotel and residential apartments as well as a commercial center, a plaza and a six-lane road to cross over to the beach. A fourth building will also be built to replace the existing Carlton Hotel.
The initiator of the plan is the JTLV Investments company, the developer is Idit Properties and the planners are famous British architect Norman Foster and Israeli architect Avner Yashar.
JTLV promises that Atarim Square will become “the hottest spot in Tel Aviv in just a few years. This central Tel Aviv location will link the charming Ben-Gurion Blvd. to the beach, merge with the promenade, and include spacious shopping and recreation areas for the public, as well as high-rise apartment buildings and luxury hotels.”
But a group of concerned citizens see the plan as catastrophic and founded an NGO last summer to protest it, under the banner “No to Towers on Kikar Atarim.” The group, which comprises 19 members and has been supported by hundreds of others, has slammed the plan as “megalomaniac,” lamenting that the towers will block the view of the sea and the new roads will cut the boulevard from the beach for pedestrians.
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A survey conducted by the Tel Aviv Municipality last year indicates that the overwhelming majority of residents agree with them, as does a poll commissioned by the NGO more recently. The municipality consequently said that in light of the clear resistance to the plan by members of the public, it would conduct dialogue with the NGO members and architects to hear their concerns and alternative proposals.
The municipality survey, which was not a scientific poll, was conducted via the Internet last year from June 12 to August 22 using a sample of 392 people aged 30 to 49, residents of the city center and the Old North. The survey found that 72% were “not satisfied at all” by the general plan and 84.6% were not satisfied at all with the proposed construction. When asked the reasons for their opposition to the plan, 77% said it was because of the height of the towers, 54% because of the use of the buildings for hotels and apartments and just 28% because of the architectural design.
Some 69% said they would rather see the square’s open space used for green space and seating areas. Instead of the towers, respondents were divided, with 30% selecting the option of a public pool, 26% choosing a public institution like a library or music center, 12% a community center, 7% a center for elderly members of the population, 4% for an educational center for toddlers and 21% selecting “other.”
The NGO also commissioned a survey conducted by Geocartography at the end of April, which found that 73.1% of Israelis believe that the towers will harm the quality of life in the city.
The survey also found that 86.4% of the population believe that construction on the beachfront would obstruct access to the sea.
Moreover, 87.8% said they prefer a plan that leaves the public areas in the hands of the public via the establishment of public areas, parks, etc., so that the sea can be viewed from afar and the land can be used by everyone.
The Geocartography poll used a sample of 500 respondents questioned via the Internet. The margin of error was 4.38% at a confidence level of 95%.
“The results of the survey prove that most of the public, not only the residents of Tel Aviv, understand that beachfront construction harms the environment and access to the sea. The results prove that the vast majority of the public demands that Kikar Atarim be designed so that the open public spaces will be kept for the benefit of the general public with open access to the sea,” said architect Meira Mor, a member of “No to Towers on Kikar Atarim.”
“We appeal to the mayor, Mr. Ron Huldai, to listen to the feelings of the residents of his city and the general public, to save Tel Aviv and not to expropriate all of the sea for the interests of the tycoons.”
In light of its own findings, the municipality said in November that it had “decided to continue consultation in a series of roundtable meetings. Three meetings will take place in the coming weeks, with the participation of the Architects Association and public representatives who object to the plan. At the end of the process, the updated plan will be distributed.”
A municipality planner told the Magazine
that these meetings are still in progress and therefore there were no updates at this stage, but she indicated that changes could be made.
But the NGO has dismissed the roundtables as mere “lip service” and claim the NGO serves as a “rubber stamp.” If the municipality has genuine intentions, it argues, it should declare its willingness to change the scope of the development and open to “real public debate.”
THE NGO charges that the JTLV plan will cause a host of environmental issues, including increased traffic and air pollution, and diminish or eliminate urban flora and fauna. The activists also argue that the high-rise buildings will generate severe wind turbulence that will affect the boulevard and nearby streets as well as depriving them of sun. (The problem with tall buildings set fairly close together is that they can create wind tunnels, when the wind is forced into the narrow gap between them, causing blasts of strong wind instead of a steady breeze. Blocking the sea breeze is particularly problematic somewhere hot and humid like Tel Aviv, as it could change the temperature behind the buildings as the rising hot air is harder to disperse and the cooler breeze won’t be able to penetrate.)
“As was the case with all the high-rise residential towers built in Tel Aviv in recent years, the apartments in the new towers will be bought by foreign residents for investment purposes,” the NGO asserts. “This means they will be empty most of the year and be used by their owners for short periods of time, creating an alienated enclave inside one of the most socially amiable neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, which consists of young people, parents with children and the elderly.”
“Needless to say, the towers will not help solve the scarcity of affordable apartments in Tel Aviv,” it states. “The people who live in Tel Aviv throughout the year are the ones who need more housing solutions, not the affluent flat owners who visit the city a week or two a year.”
“For me, personally, it bothers me that the Tel Aviv Municipality is taking public land, selling it to developers, and that it’s on the coastline,” architect Daniel Simantov tells the Magazine.
The NGO’s main aim is “not to sell public land to developers and not to build towers at the cost of the residents,” Simantov says.
“They are simply stealing the sea, the public land that’s less than a meter away from the sea.”
“The people who use those apartments probably won’t even be Israeli citizens,” adds Ruthi Guter, a translator and another active member of the NGO. “Most of the apartments will be used as holiday apartments by people who come to Israel about once a year, and they will get to see the sea, and everyone who is below won’t… building towers is for an exclusive group.”
“This is not ‘just a not-in-my-backyard’ issue,” Guter stresses, saying that similar initiatives are being proposed along the entire coastline, some already underway and others already complete. For instance, she believes that the work to replace the abandoned Dolphinarium with towers is going to be “catastrophic.” But in Nahariya and Herzliya, she notes, residents won battles against such plans. If the Kikar Atarim plan goes ahead, Guter opines, more places with follow suit.
The NGO decided to fight the battle over Kikar Atarim via the legal route, using all the money they had fund-raised to hire lawyer Eli Vilcheck to that end.
“The municipality didn’t go the about right way approving the plan for Kikar Atarim,” explains Guter, saying that city hall did not submit its plan to the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee, after having increased the plans for the towers from 25 stories to some 40, when hotels are usually allowed a maximum of 25 stories along the beachfront according the rules of the municipality’s Planning and Construction Committee.
“They said they needed to add more floors in order to make it profitable because it is expensive to destroy Kikar Atarim,” Simantov says.
“It’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game and saying Kikar Atarim won’t be part of the game,” says Guter.
An urban planner from the municipality told the Magazine
that the significance and benefits of the changes they want to make to the site justify the extra floors.
In April, the Tel Aviv District Court decided to send the plan back to the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee and it is now pending that committee’s decision.
Following the court decision, city council member Zipi Brand- Frank expressed her support of the plan’s opponents, saying: “This is the second time that the district court in Israel has ruled that the Tel Aviv Municipality acted callously and illegally, and has forced the municipality to return building plans for Kikar Atarim to the discussion table. Two months ago, the district court judge canceled the municipality’s decision to sell the remaining municipal space owned by the residents to a private developer. Throughout, I was the sole city council member who opposed the sale of the parking lot, the only public holding in Kikar Atarim. I fought against 30 city council members, including the mayor.”
“I am glad to see that the court is again ruling that the municipality’s conduct is improper, to say the least,” she added.
“This is an enormous achievement for the residents’ authentic struggle against the well-oiled municipal machine. I expect Mayor Ron Huldai to think about the public good and act to rehabilitate Kikar Atarim for the benefit of the residents through a balanced and well-considered plan that takes into account the fact that the coast is a precious resource that should belong to everyone.”
IN A statement published by Globes, the JTLV company stated, “We welcome the court’s ruling, which ratified the agreements between the parties and said that the matter should be sent to the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee for discussion in the coming months. The court recognizes that there is no need to deposit the Tel Aviv 5000 plan for objections. As a result, we expect the processes to be completed as soon as possible, so that development of the project can continue.
“This is a historic opportunity, for which people have waited many years, to fix the neglected area, which has become a blight in the heart of Tel Aviv. The new plan will facilitate direct access from the street to the sea in the future.”
The NGO is in favor of renovating the square, but does not believe it necessarily has to be demolished, and certainly not in favor of towers.
A renovation of the square, Guter says, will be much cheaper and easier and won’t harm anyone, “but nobody has really given it a chance. Since it deteriorated about 30 years ago, nobody really tried to revive it – which could be done with a few simple methods. They haven’t even tried the most basic steps.”
“They don’t even do the basic of the basic – they don’t even clean the place,” Simantov adds. The pair note that lights and elevators are not maintained and safety hazards are neglected.
“Two weeks ago, they did an art fair there and it was full and you could see the potential,” Guter says, pointing to the endless possibilities lent by the space.
“It is the largest piece of public space at the edge of the sea other than Charles Clore [beachfront park],” Simantov remarks, while an urban planner from the municipality argues that the plan will enhance public access to the beach.
“At the moment, there are two tunnels on either side of the square which are an eyesore,” she says, explaining that the idea of the plan is to cancel the two levels that currently exist, in which pedestrians cross the square via an elevated slope and then descending steps to reach the beach side, while cars go underneath the square. The new plan seeks to replace this with a one-level road and a pedestrian crossing, which the city says will provide direct access to the beach from Ben-Gurion Boulevard.”
“But this might be revisited,” she adds, stressing that the municipality has heard the ideas and views of others, and with the decision of the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee it can decide how to proceed.
She described the activists’ attention to the six-lane road as a “type of demagogy,” noting that one of the lanes is a left-turn and adding that the number of lanes could potentially be reduced to four.
Addressing statements that the square should be renovated instead of destroyed, she pointed out that an effort had been made to renovate the square several years ago, but the various owners of the properties on the square objected. “The municipality can’t do whatever it wants with the land,” she insists.
In April, the NGO held an exhibition of planning alternatives for the square suggested by various architects and students, and the best of these are due to be presented to the municipality this month.
Eventually, the final proposals will be presented to the members of the Tel Aviv Planning and Building Commission and elected public officials will decide on the future of Kikar Atarim.
Meanwhile, many wait with bated breath.
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