The other Holyland

Many issues of architectural design are not being addressed seriously.

By REUBEN BEISER
April 23, 2010 16:50
The Holyland project in Jerusalem (AP).

holyland 311. (photo credit: AP)

Several years ago, as a young architect in a large Jerusalem firm, I was called into the boss’s office and introduced to the Holyland project. I would be asked to handle some of the rezoning. Now, many years later, watching the who’s who of the project get arrested or called in for questioning, I am at once nostalgic for a colorful period of my personal history and concerned that many fundamental issues of architectural design, urban design and city politics are not being addressed seriously despite all the commotion.

I cannot join in the wave of public outcry asking pointed questions along the lines of “How did such a thing get built?” or “Who let this happen?”

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Those of us in the trenches of commercial architecture and urban planning know the enemy and, to paraphrase Pogo, he is us. The desire to make progress involves taking risks, making decisions and lots of compromises. Corruption exists, corruption is bad, but corruption cannot be the only thing to blame if our city doesn’t look like we want it to.

It’s not easy to build in Israel or in Jerusalem in particular. Available land is limited and expensive. Much of the corruption in a case like Holyland, or earlier in the Aryeh Deri/Har Homa case, revolves around reclassifying agricultural or park zoning (cheap) into residential zoning (expensive). In the game of buying cheap and selling high, you can trust luck, or make your own luck.

As George Plunkitt of Tammany Hall put it at the end of the 19th century: “Somehow I always guessed about right, and shouldn’t I enjoy the profit of my foresight? It was rather amusin’ when the condemnation commissioners came along and found piece after piece of the land in the name of George Plunkitt of the 15th Assembly District, New York City. They wondered how I knew just what to buy. The answer is – I seen my opportunity and I took it.”

Plunkitt argues that there’s a difference between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft.” Profiting from inside knowledge was – to him and the many families fed by his political machine – honest. Dishonest graft would be taking money to look the other way when bad deeds are done. His perspective could be criticized as moral relativism, but it’s crucial to understanding city politics as a culture of decision making. What, we should ask, is Jerusalem’s decision-making culture, and how best to work with it?

EACH STAGE in the complexity of building has its own cliques. Land usage is one, but the permit process also has a fallible human face. With the zoning and permit process taking so much time, everybody needs a little help from his friends. Some slight it as protekzia, others call it service. Legislators must choose whether to attack it head on or adopt certain positive traits into the system.



While working on the Sderot Begin project, for example, I witnessed how imposing a foreign but fair standard cost the taxpayers millions. By law, the city corporation managing the project had to approve the cheapest bid. Another law prohibited going over budget. Together, these laws generated extensive cost overruns. How? Contractors submitting bids relied on the second law and front-loaded their bids. Early works, like excavation, were priced high, but the final bid was low because all the finishing costs were underpriced.

When the initial construction costs went over budget, the job was summarily canceled and the contractor never had to finish the project at his low rate. New bids went out to complete the work and prices rose to realistic levels, creating cost overruns. The attempt to work rationally and fairly trumped common sense.

Ultimately, an imperfect system breeds its own solutions, and often those cut corners reflect criminal levels of corruption. However, corruption does not deem all decisions as inconceivable without it.

If Holyland came about because people took bribes, they should go to jail. But the same project could have been built quite legally. Holyland sits on what was, for veteran Jerusalemites, a beautiful wooded recreational area – one of Jerusalem’s last. At the same time, it was a property being closed in upon by urban highways and the Jerusalem Mall, and bordering another large green area. Having provided a thousand or more residential units near the center of the city, Jerusalem planners were now made free to reject the Safdie plan, which called for extensive development in the Jerusalem forests, or another plan which sought to develop the “gazelle valley” triangle below Givat Mordechai, opposite Holyland. These projects are not related and one does not directly affect the other, but there is value in the comparison. There exists rational, professional justification for building high-density housing in a metropolis of more than a million residents.

Perhaps the disproportionate development is not Holyland, but the neighborhood of private villas next door. Why should one family enjoy a half-dunam of central Jerusalem property, when eight could in four stories or 24 in six? Would Holyland stand out so much if there were equally large projects nearby? I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions. The answer isn’t necessarily yes.

They’re working questions that planners need to answer. Where are the young families of Jerusalem going to buy homes? Where can children walk to the bus, school, grocery or library? Jerusalem’s urban plan must answer these and other questions. But it’s 2010 and the Jerusalem plan of 2000 still awaits final approval. What’s a planner/developer/contractor to do?

Yes, I worked on the zoning for Holyland. It wasn’t a building I particularly liked, but we did our best to work with what we were given. The damage had been done, and we were trying to rectify it, trying to lower the number of units. I never got to finish that zoning. I don’t know if I ever really believed I was working on something tangible.

I do know that at meetings with the developers, I was under orders to accept nothing – maybe just a glass of water.

The writer is an independent Jerusalem architect and founder of the annual Jerusalem Succa Design Competition.


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