After Safdie

After the freeze to Safdie's Plan, the project was rejected by the NPC. What's next for J'lem?

February 15, 2007 14:53
After Safdie

moshe safdie 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

On February 6 the National Planning Council, by a vote of 24 to 3, overwhelmingly rejected the Western Jerusalem Plan, commonly known as the Safdie Plan, which called for building 20,000 housing units on 24,000 dunams in the hills west of Jerusalem. The plan, which was originally commissioned by the Israel Lands Administration and the Jerusalem Development Authority and given to world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie (a native son of Jerusalem), was opposed by the largest coalition of activists ever assembled in the city, a group of 20 organizations led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. More than 20,000 signatures of residents, MKs, intellectuals and architects were gathered opposing the plan, claiming it would destroy the green areas around the city and be a death knell for the historic city center. Eventually, even Mayor Uri Lupolianski called for freezing the plan. But what was never in dispute is the fact that Jerusalem, like any other city, needs to grow to be ready for the future. One of the factors that has led to the outward migration of young Jerusalem residents has been the lack of affordable housing in the city. It is generally agreed upon that the city will require between 35,000 to 45,000 new housing units by the year 2020. Green groups have insisted all along that there is enough land inside the city to more than meet these needs. A January 19 report by the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem, authored by Uri Bar-Shishat and Yael Hammerman, claims that the city has enough land reserves for the building of up to 111,000 housing units. Backers of the Safdie Plan have been arguing that even if there are enough land reserves for all these units, the number of units that can actually be built is much lower due to problems of land ownership, inheritance and other disputes. But now that the Safdie Plan and its 20,000 units are out of the picture, where will Jerusalem be building and how will this building affect the character and nature of the city? Moshe Cohen heads the planning team for the city's Jerusalem Master Plan 2020. "The city has developed three strategies," he says. "One, we will have to increase density. If today the average building in Jerusalem is four stories high, we will increase this to six stories by 2020. Of course, this will involve the building of high rises. We will also be engaging in urban renewal in low-density, low socioeconomic neighborhoods. Two, we will be building on the periphery of existing neighborhoods with higher density buildings. And, three, we will be building new neighborhoods." With respect to high-rises, Cohen says that near the Old City walls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there will be no high-rise building. In the area of the Old City's visual basin, extending from the Old City walls south to Rehov Yanovsky, east to the crest of the Mount of Olives/Mount Scopus, west to King George Avenue and north to Salah a-Din Street, the maximum building height will be four stories. Rehavia and Talbiyeh will be preserved with a maximum building height of four to six stories. In the center (main streets) of the newer suburban neighborhoods and on the surrounding ridges, building will be permitted up to a height of 18 stories. Along King George and Jaffa streets, the maximum height will be 24 stories and at the western entrance to the city 33 stories. In east Jerusalem, due to the village character of the neighborhoods and the narrow streets, there will be no high-rise building, except along Derech Ramallah and that will be only up to eight stories. Some neighborhoods, such as Ir Ganim, Kiryat Menahem and the Katamonim, where low-rise, low-density and low-cost housing was built in the 1950s and 60s, will be slated for urban renewal. This will involve either adding additional floors to existing buildings or demolishing existing structures and replacing them with higher, more densely populated buildings. New buildings, of higher density, will rise along the peripheries of existing suburban neighborhoods such as Gilo, Pisgat Ze'ev, etc. The city has planned some new neighborhoods as well. In January 2007, the municipal Building and Planning Committee approved a plan for 983 units in the new neighborhood of Har Homa Gimmel. Additional new neighborhoods are planned for Givat Hamatos and for the old Foreign Ministry compound. In addition the JDA, through its subsidiary the Eden Company, is engaged in a $100 million revitalization project for the downtown area that includes bringing residents (especially young people) back into the center to live and the conversion of property into residential units. But how do these solutions sit with the same green groups who opposed the Safdie Plan? Many of these groups have been opposing high density, high-rise building in the city for years. "Jerusalem today has no choice but to build higher and more densely," notes Yael Eliashar, coordinator of the Coalition for the Preservation of the Jerusalem Hills, one of the main groups who opposed the Safdie Plan. "We [green groups] cannot automatically reject every high-rise building project. We intend to examine each project on a case-by-case basis. Of course, there can be no high-rises in the Old City visual basin and in some other historic areas of the city. Planning has to be carried out intelligently and with sensitivity to the special character of the city and its neighborhoods. "One of the main lessons of the defeat of the Safdie Plan is that city planners must work with the public and not against it. We are especially adamant that this be done in carrying out urban renewal projects in neighborhoods like Ir Ganim and Katamonim. If city planners do this, they will get good results." Yael Hammerman, SPNI Jerusalem branch architect, believes that as long as quality of life is maintained, she and other greens will accept increased density and high-rise building. "If a ratio of between five to seven square meters of green space per resident is maintained, this will be okay with the greens," she says. "I would also insist on the preservation of historic buildings and low-rise buildings in these areas and in the vicinity of the Old City. I would be willing to accept up to 24 stories in the city's periphery, but I draw the line at 33 stories, not even at the edges of the city." However, even with all these land reserves and the building of some 45,000 new housing units, it is still not clear that the city will obtain the desired results - stemming outward migration of young couples and shoring up the middle class. SOME CRITICS claim that land costs inside the city are too high, and apartment prices will still be in a range unaffordable by young couples and middle-income families. They fear that many neighborhoods near the city center, slated for additional building or added stories on existing structures, will become high-priced ghost towns of luxury units owned by foreigners. In response to questions from MKs on February 13, Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit blasted the cancellation of the Safdie Plan, calling it "a scandal that will cause land and apartment price increases in the center of Jerusalem." Earlier in the day, Sheetrit said that his ministry would appeal the national council's decision, which he claimed would have serious negative implications on Jerusalem's demographic balance. The minister said that the issue of Jerusalem is one that should be discussed by the government. Of the three votes cast in favor of the Safdie plan at the national council meeting, two were by representatives of the Construction and Housing Ministry. The third was by a representative of the Ministry of Communications. Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollak, who holds the municipality's planning portfolio, has stated that building 45,000 new units within the current city limits will not offer a realistic solution to the non-haredi population. Cohen points out that in addition to new units Jerusalem needs to upgrade and/or replace existing units at a rate of 2% per year to match Tel Aviv's density. "In Tel Aviv, the density is 28 sq.m. per person," he says. "In Jerusalem, it is 16 sq.m. per person." To alleviate this problem, the municipality will be approving building additions to existing, smaller apartments. The Givat Mordechai neighborhood recently received approval for Rehov Hashahal residents to receive permits allowing an additional 20 to 50 sq.m. to be added on to each apartment. In any case, a city is more than just bricks and mortar. "For Jerusalem to get on the high road involves more than just building," notes Eliashar. "Jerusalem needs a soul. It has to provide, in addition to affordable housing, jobs, good education and a high quality of life." In all the hoopla over the Safdie Plan, almost no mention was made by either proponents or opponents concerning the impact of the industrial and commercial space included in the plan. Now, another look at this aspect may be in order. After Intel announced its plans to close its Jerusalem plant, Ezri Levy, CEO of the JDA, told In Jerusalem that "the problem is that Jerusalem doesn't have massive land for industrial purposes and when Intel tried to find a different location for its new plant in Jerusalem, they were told that there was no suitable land." The city currently has a potential of some 1.570 million sq.m. of industrial and commercial space in six hi-tech/industrial areas under development by the JDA - Har Hotzvim, Malha, Ram Technology, Pisgat Ze'ev, Atarot and Givat Shaul. This does not take into account older industrial areas that are at full capacity such as Talpiot and Romema. In addition, Atarot has suffered a number of terrorist attacks in recent years that have made it less attractive to potential clients. The Safdie Plan called for adding 500,000 square meters of industrial and commercial space to the city in an area near Mevaseret Zion. This would have increased the total industrial space available in the city by one-third. "I am extremely worried about the future of industry in Jerusalem," says Ezri Levy. "The half a million sq.m. in the Safdie Plan that was allocated for industry was critical for the city." Levy says that Jerusalem still has a 10- to 15-year reserve of hi-tech office space in Malha, Ram Technology and Har Hotzvim. "Our problem is with land for industry, for new plants. Today, we already have almost none. There is nothing left for this in Har Hotzvim and only about 100 dunams in Atarot, which are more for mid- and low-tech industries than hi-tech. I really don't know what will be. We are now considering how to proceed but it is still a question mark." MAYA CHOSHEN, researcher and editor of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies' Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook, says such issues are of secondary importance. "The kind of population the city has and how well it is run are more important than the size of the city, or how many new housing units it can build," she explains. "A larger city does not ensure that Jerusalem will be strong and should not be a goal in itself. The goal should be one of providing quality of life for the city's residents and having a diverse population where each sector is secure in its place." Choshen believes that the motivation driving city fathers and all governments since the city's reunification in 1967 has been the preservation of the 70/30 ratio of Jewish to Arab residents within Jerusalem. Because of (until quite recently) a higher Arab birthrate, this involved massive building to attract Jewish residents to the capital. The Safdie Plan was the result of a demographic study done in the mid-1990s by Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, the esteemed Hebrew University demographer, which saw the ratio changing to 62/38 by 2020. "When the politicians saw these results, there was a major uproar," Choshen recalls. "Then-mayor Ehud Olmert said Jerusalem was threatened by the change in the ratio, and the Jewish population must be increased by expanding the city's borders. Since for geopolitical reasons the city could not expand to the east, the south or the north, it was decided that it should expand westward." But Choshen points out that DellaPergola presented his estimations of what the population would be in 2020 based on mortality, fertility and outward migration rates available at the time. He predicted a city of 958,000 residents. "His results were demographic data based on what existed then," she relates. "The city confused an analysis of trends with a forecast and took DellaPergola's data and turned it into a goal. DellaPergola did not say that 958,000 is what it should be." Using DellaPergola's figures, the city extrapolated that if it wanted to maintain the 70/30 ratio and the Arab population would grow to a certain number by 2020, then it would have to increase the Jewish population accordingly. Therefore, the city must add an additional 45,000 housing units to maintain the Jewish population at 70% and the Arab at 30%. "In my opinion, in Jerusalem's present state, more important than the number of residents is the character of the city," Choshen continues. "The 70/30 ratio is not sacred and neither is the population figure of 958,000 in 2020. Of course, having an Arab majority would influence the city's future. It doesn't seem to me that the 70/30 ratio can be maintained in any case." Choshen thinks that a figure of 840,000 residents is a more realistic population figure for 2020. This is the figure in the Master Plan prepared for the Jerusalem District. It maintains a ratio of 64/36 and even this may not be realistic. Despite a significant fall in the fertility rate of Jerusalem's Arab sector over the past two years, the city will not see a decrease in the growth of its Arab population for some time. "As we have seen in Latin American and the third world, a population with a high fertility rate whose rate drops, continues to grow at a rapid rate for some years to come due to a very large, young population that is still coming into fertility," Choshen explains. "Only when this population decreases, does growth slow." In addition, the construction of the security barrier has caused many Arab residents who left the city to return to live within its limits. Choshen thinks that if the city is intent on maintaining the 70/30 ratio, there is the option of redrawing its borders and separating from some Arab neighborhoods. But this is a political question and is not on the table at the moment. "Striving for a large population that is largely poor will harm the city more than a smaller, stronger population of middle class, young couples and educated people," she concludes. "Right now, we have enough land until 2020. It is more important to build inside the city limits and improve the quality of life than to expand outward. We have time to think about where we want to go in another decade and a half. At this point, we have to look more for quality than quantity in the city."

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