Bureaucratic nightmare: The master plan for Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem

As town planning schemes, once approved, become law, there is little room for technical errors.

December 12, 2016 21:26
3 minute read.
Beit Hakerem

A house in Beit Hakerem. (photo credit: COURTESY ANGLO-SAXON)

Everything he touched turned to gold.

Along with Jerusalem’s Rehavia, neighborhoods in Haifa’s Carmel and settlements throughout the country, architect and town planner Richard Kaufmann designed Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood in the 1920s.

He clearly established its identity, with the most modest means: green streets perfectly tailored to the natural topography, pedestrian ways connecting the public buildings of his day with intimate public open spaces, and the sensitive subdivision of land. Not at all surprising is that so many descendants of the neighborhood’s founding families reside there to this day. Beit Hakerem has flowered, home today to some 15,000 residents.

Some 10 years ago the Jerusalem Municipality decided a new master plan for the neighborhood, covering an area of close to 230 acres, was to be prepared. Former Jerusalem city architect Uri Shetrit (who was sentenced and found guilty for his role in the Holyland project affair) awarded this all-important commission to architect Yigal Levy.

Important town planning schemes are assigned round numbers, Beit Hakerem’s Master Plan is No. 16000, and its official planning file was opened in January 2009.

In July of this year, more than seven and a half years later, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee approved the plan for public review and formal objections.

Regrettably, the documents released at long last aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. At times illegible, incomplete, inaccurate, inconsistent or full of superfluous information, 16000 is possibly the worst set of planning documents ever deposited for public review and objections in Jerusalem.

As town planning schemes, once approved, become law, there is little room for technical errors. Whereas most every town planning scheme is checked down to the commas in its bylaws, this one didn’t just fall through the bureaucratic cracks, it was forced through them. Those public servants charged with the task of checking these documents in the municipality’s city planning department and in the office of the district committee breached that trust.

Social responsibility? The common good? Don’t make them laugh.

Given the muddled mess the parties involved have created over such a very long period of time, 16000 is today a hot potato.

In their defense, key officials in the municipality and the district committee’s planning offices are attempting to shift the blame on one another, hiding the true state of the plan documents from the public and maintaining that the content of the plan can be separated from its thousands of errors.

The sad state of the plan documents, including their content, is of course an exact reflection of the extreme negligence evident in their preparation. A very few examples: Denmark Square and environs, the traditional heart of the neighborhood, which hasn’t been dealt with in over 40 years, has simply been ignored.

Commercial frontage of unspecified usage and area is proposed alongside the lightrail line on Herzl Boulevard and therefore impossible to service. Access to new underground parking garages, intended to contain hundreds of cars, is from tiny Hameshorret Street, just nine-and-a-half meters wide, already clogged up today.

A proposed public parking lot is indicated within the well-known WIZO compound, a fenced and guarded enclave on Hehalutz Street, built in the Fifties. It doesn’t seem as if architect Yigal Levy ever walked Beit Hakerem’s streets.

All of which brings us to the major problem presently facing the Beit Hakerem community.

Given the incredibly low technical level of the plan documents, bordering on malpractice, how can residents be expected to submit formal objections to documents whose every second line is an error? Their only recourse, it seems, is to submit a basic objection to the entire plan, demanding that the municipality withdraw and correct it from the bottom up. But correcting the documents and attempting to improve their content is unlikely to solve the problem. Apparently, we are speaking here of malpractice over a period of years. If this is so, the only real solution is starting anew. A serious examination of how major planning projects are contracted out by Jerusalem Municipality is long overdue.

What ought to have been a wonderful professional challenge, a well-considered and thoughtful step into the future, has led to a disastrous dead end. Beit Hakerem’s community has waited all these years in vain, waiting for the architect and town planner worthy of following in the path of Richard Kaufmann’s brilliant legacy.

The author, a resident of Beit Hakerem, is an architect and town planner.

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