Snap Judgment: Stuck in Jerusalem

Construction in Israel isn't about urban planning. It's about money, influence and corruption.

October 26, 2006 13:47
safdie 88 298

safdie 88 298. (photo credit: Courtesy of SPNI)


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The Jerusalem neighborhood where I live, Arnona, is one of the capital's more pleasant and attractive areas. The one major drawback is leaving it, especially in the morning, when rush-hour traffic slows to a crawl along the only road that leads to the city center. And the traffic jams have gotten even worse the past couple of years, thanks to a spate of new housing construction on land once occupied by the apple orchards of nearby Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. It wasn't supposed to be this way though - a new roadway was built just to the south of the neighborhood at the same time this construction began, which would have provided another means of access to the area. Unfortunately, you can't connect to this roadway from Arnona yet - because its planners neglected to first handle legal objections from residents living in adjacent areas. In the meantime, though, the new housing continued apace, adding thousands of new residents - and their cars - to the already congested snarl that takes place every weekday morning. It could be worse though; I could be living in one of those far more massive Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Pisgat Ze'ev just north of the city, where the daily traffic jams on the area's one major access road seem insolvable any time in the near future. In the meantime though, wide new roads and a massive traffic circle have already been constructed for a small luxury neighborhood in the city center, well before even one of its homes (villas) has been constructed. Although it's particularly acute in Jerusalem, examples of this kind of inept and inequitable urban/transport/infrastructure planning are prevalent all over Israel. Is this because Israelis don't have any innate capacity in this field? Not at all. But construction in Israel isn't about urban planning expertise; it's about money, influence and, in many cases, outright corruption. Israel is a small nation in which over 95 percent of the land is government-owned or controlled. Land is the country's single most valuable asset. It's no coincidence then that a disproportionate share of official corruption cases in recent years involved property development. Or that real-estate developers - most notably the notorious David Appel, charged with allegedly bribing the sons of prime minister Ariel Sharon - have emerged as the most prevalent political "fixers" in the private sector, dishing out unethical favors and illegal bribes. All this is no secret. But even more conscientious public officials, especially on the local level, are often loath to do anything serious about it, because all that new construction provides them with a valuable source of revenue in the form of municipal property taxes. No wonder then that housing and other property development often goes up so quickly in Israel without the benefit of proper planning procedures or the construction of adequate infrastructure, especially road or public transport facilities. WHICH BRINGS us, alas, to the so-called Safdie plan for the development of Jerusalem, which involves the building of some 20,000 housing units spread out over 26 square kilometers in the pastoral hills just west of the capital. The plan, which is supposedly designed to strengthen the Jewish population of Jerusalem, has aroused fierce opposition from a wide range of urban activists, with the criticism reaching a crescendo as it approaches its oft-delayed final vote of approval in the Interior Ministry's national planning and building committee. The pages of this newspaper have been filled with fierce attacks on the Safdie plan in the past few weeks, and I am not going to rehash here the various objections put forth by a variety of better-qualified (than I) planning, environmental and economic experts. Needless to say though, everybody knows that Jewish flight from the city is largely due to a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, not housing, and that this new development will more likely draw veteran Jerusalemites from a weakened city center rather than bring in new residents. Rather, I want to focus on one simple aspect of the Safdie plan, which has me, a long-time Jerusalem resident/property owner, frightened at the very thought of this scheme. All of its potential positive aspects - and even all of the objections - are based on the supposition that these new neighborhoods will be built, at the very least, with guarantees that they will be accompanied by the concurrent construction of the minimal infrastructure and transport needed to avoid having all this new housing drag down existing conditions and services throughout the city. Does anyone really believe that? Does anyone seriously think that the existing ministries of Construction, Transportation and Interior, whose corridors are permeated by the influence of wealthy and politically connected private developers, are capable of ensuring that the public good will be served during construction of this massive project? Does anyone have any confidence at all that this is also the case with a Jerusalem municipality riddled in recent years by real-estate corruption cases, or a mayor's office headed by a haredi politician (Uri Lupolianski) whose primary concern seems to be collecting as much local real-estate tax as possible from the working public to help subsidize the large sector of the local unemployed ultra-Orthodox community who pay little or no such tax? I certainly find it hard to believe that anyone in my neighborhood thinks so, as they sit in the morning rush hour and wonder what exactly it is they get in return for paying the highest level of municipal property tax while so many other middle-class residents flee the city. Like all Jewish men married in a religious wedding ceremony, I made a vow a dozen years ago that "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right arm wither away." Having stuck it out here for over 20 years, while so many of my friends and peers have abandoned Jerusalem during that same period, I'd say I've taken that promise more seriously than most. But the Safdie plan, which is supposed to bring new blood into the city, would ultimately only serve to drive many more like me out of its boundaries. While the road out of my neighborhood may be jam-packed, if this plan is finally approved, the way out of Jerusalem will only seem that much more like a one-way street. The writer is director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project.

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