(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
At Montreal's Expo '67, Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie's Habitat housing project - a series of stacked, pre-fab modules - revolutionized the concept of residential construction when most detached housing was being laboriously built brick by brick.
Safdie's idea for Mamilla, the 121-dunam site situated west of Jaffa Gate and the Old City, was equally visionary. Conceived after the Six Day War, it called for a pedestrian-only, mixed-use district.
At the time, Israel and the Western world were still in the thralls of car culture; zoning promoted separate urban areas for distinct uses - all accessed, of course, by private transportation.
Safdie sought to change that with Mamilla, in a bold social experiment intended to create a pedestrian-only bridge between the Old and New cities, mixing retail and residential, as well as Jew and Arab.
Delayed for nearly four decades, phase one of Mamilla opened six months ago. Sarit Hadad put on a dazzling show for the glitterati of Jerusalem, and the future seemed promising for the luxury outdoor mall being billed as Jerusalem's Rodeo Drive.
Six months later, how is the much-touted luxury shopping and residential complex faring?
Of the 140 stores, more than half are in the area of Mamilla still under construction. The current retail mix is heavy on jewelry and clothing. Signs announce the future opening of various enterprises including a bank branch and Steimatzky Books.
The latter will be located in Stern House, where Theodor Herzl stayed during his visit to Jerusalem in 1898. The building itself has been disassembled stone by stone and moved to a new location. The numbers painted on the stones to record their sequence have been left to show that the building was moved.
Safdie's 600-m. promenade connecting Jaffa Gate with Independence Park is still only half finished. The venue, which was used for Hadad's concert and for evening markets over the summer, is spotlessly clean and manicured but empty because it has nearly always been chained shut.
But that is changing. Following an investigation by the municipality's legal department, Kikar Safra recently defined the promenade and the row of stores along Rehov Mamilla as an open public space just like any other road rather than as a private shopping mall. Notice to that effect was sent to Alrov as well as municipal inspectors and Israel Police. The new usage, a boon for window shoppers, went into effect Thursday.
The new opening policy may help the retail level below, which is busy, if not exactly teeming. Strolling along the pedestrian-only street past the 19th century Hospice Saint Vincent de Paul, it's hard to believe this level was once a main commercial road chock-full of vehicles. The remaining historic buildings have been lovingly restored, and the store interiors carefully preserve original details. Mamilla compares favorably with downtown Moscow's elegant pedestrian mall Arbat, some Russian tourists comment.
But neither the Arbat nor Rodeo Drive have the ambience of a construction site with hard-hatted construction workers rubbing elbows with the well-heeled.
While Mamilla is attracting a mix of tourists and Israeli pedestrians, Arabs shoppers are few - notwithstanding the ambition to recreate the mixed shopping district of the British Mandate years.
The level of finish is reminiscent of exclusive shopping districts in Europe and North America. There are no commercial signs in Hebrew.
Especially popular are the three cafes - Aroma, Rimon and Roladin, all of which afford a panoramic view.
Less successful are some of the high-end retail shops. Walking by, many of the boutiques are empty; the Body Shop is advertising for a manager; the staff at Miller jewelry stand around looking bored.
Alex, a salesman at Billabong Board Shop, which opened May 28, says "Today is a weak day," while Friday saw a lot of traffic. "You need balance, it seems."
Rita Hawi of Barococo Royal European Jewelry, which opened a month ago, explains: "They don't know us well yet but [customers] are beginning to show interest."
Some potential purchasers have come by the jewelry store three times to discuss an item. Prices range between NIS 5,000 and NIS 35,000, which is cheap compared to H. Stern, she points out.
Paradoxically, Mamilla's central location has been a factor in the dearth of large crowds. The construction hoardings and cranes mask that phase one is open. Many people seem unaware of what awaits them up or down a flight of steps. The future main entrance on the west side remains a construction site.
Alrov, the privately owned real estate development company behind the Mamilla project, has tried to woo customers with free parking and huge banners that proclaim "Open now" and "Entrance."
Alrov was founded in 1978 by Alfred Akirov, who remains its CEO and chairman. The company, which trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange under the symbol ALRO, has diversified outside Israel in recent years and now has holdings in Britain, France and Switzerland. Next year it plans to begin developing the Stradivarius Hotel near Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.
Having been delayed for nearly four decades, Mamilla, it seems, will have to wait a little longer. Next year, when the five-star, 207-room Alrov Mamilla Jerusalem Hotel opens and the construction crews disappear, Mamilla will truly test the vision of Safdie and Akirov.
"The success of Mamilla as a meeting place is essential to the revitalization of urban life in downtown Jerusalem," says preservationist and architect David Kroyanker, who is currently writing a book about the Mamilla quarter.
"Since it is not complete, it is very difficult to judge the great potential of the Mamilla area until the project is completed," adds Kroyanker. "I believe that if the political situation and the security problems don't interfere, it will be successful."
Kroyanker praised the standard of preservation, and noted that the underground parking lot offers the highest standards in the whole country.
Still, it remains to be seen if there are enough wealthy tourists and Jerusalemites to support a project as rarefied as Mamilla. Dafna Hochman, the vice president of marketing for the Tel Aviv-based Alrov Group, declined a request for an interview to discuss sales and leasing.
The two-level outdoor mall was followed in October by the occupancy of the high-end quarter's 50 condos, spread over five buildings. As of six months ago, 14 units had been sold - all to non-residents, noted the project's sales manager Ben Wasserstein back in May.
The luxury condominiums, the smallest of which is 187 sq.m., are staggered so that none block the views. Prices for the super prestigious Mamilla apartments range from $1.1 million to $13m.
None of the owners plans to reside there as their primary home, Wasserstein said. Thus their presence - or absence - won't measurably impact on Mamilla.
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