No one is objecting progress. People may be negating changes, but progress is always a good thing. Better conditions, better services, better living standards. Progress almost always comes with a price tag. When people are asked they have to choose between what they are willing to lose in order to gain what is coming ahead. In the case of historic street Emek Refaim, what comes ahead – the light rail and planned traffic changes in the neighborhood – do not seem to justify the heavy price that the neighborhood is asked to pay. This is why the local community has departed on a just campaign to improve the plan and save the neighborhood.
The light rail or fast tram is an urban public transport system that uses rolling stock - vehicles that move on a railway - similar to a tramway, but operating at a higher capacity, and often on an exclusive right-of-way.
Light rail networks have exclusive paths and resemble light metros, or partially operate on streets, giving right-of-way to the light rail over vehicles. Light rail systems are found throughout the world. They have been especially popular in recent years due to their lower capital costs and increased reliability, and the fact that they are electrically operated and therefore reduce air pollution in cities.
The Jerusalem light rail network began in 2002. It was undertaken by the CityPass consortium, with a 30-year concession to operate it. After repeated delays due to archaeological discoveries and technical issues, the red line, the first of several light rail lines was completed in Jerusalem in 2011. The line is 13.9 kilometers (8.6 miles) long with 23 stops. Extensions to the red line are currently under construction to the northern suburb of Neve Yaakov and to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital to the southwest. When completed in 2018, the line will extend to 22.5 km. The red line project has been criticized for budget overruns, for its route choice and effect on neighborhoods, and for contributing to air and noise pollution during construction. As construction took almost a decade, it had also severe economic repercussions for small businesses along its route, especially along Jaffa street in the city center.
The green line was approved by the City of Jerusalem, while the blue line, which is planned to pass along Emek Reraim street, is in the approval process (Ministry of Interior plan number 101-0178129). Due to the severe damage to the street and the surrounding neighborhood, the plan was met with opposition by the local community. The opposition process under way, is a great example of community involvement in the planning process. An example that teaches us of what happens when the city and the winning CityPass consortium try to ignore the community, but the community makes sure it is heard, and it is heard loud and clear.
Like most residents of the neighborhood, I became aware of the community process in January 2017. The community campaign opened with a gutsy preliminary petition before the Regional Court, based on breach of trust. At the end of the summer of 2016 Mayor Nir Barkat gave the community only 3 months to come up with alternatives to City Hall’s plan. In November the community – assisted by local professionals and academics - presented the City with a 120 page report on the alternatives. However, within 24 hours of meeting with the Mayor and the City Council the original plan – ignoring the community objections and alternatives - was submitted to the Regional Planning Council. The appeal hearing at the Jerusalem District Court took place on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at 11 am. Given the speed with which the alternative plans were dismissed, Judge David Mintz accepted the community claim of an implied agreement and promise, but the petition was rejected based on the judge’s interpretation of other salient facets of the community petition, and he ordered the community to pay the others side’s costs.
Next, a meeting was scheduled to learn about legal objections to the light rail project on Emek Refaim on Monday, January 16, 2017 at 8:00 pm at the Community Center Ginot Hair (Beit Yehudit) on Emek Refaim. The meeting invited residents and merchants of the Moshavot, and anyone opposed to the plan, to come and learn about the filing of legal objections before the Regional Council, on March 6, 2017, after having obtained a filing extension for objections. The evening's agenda included an update of legal proceedings initiated so far, an explanation of the procedure for filing objections before the Regional Council, a presentation of strategy and the importance of the objections, and hands-on assistance with preparation and filing of the objections, including signature before a lawyer who was present for that purpose.
On February 19, residents were informed that Amutat Refaim Bamoshavot (NGO) was registered on February 1, 2017 (no. 580638690) with over 1,000 signed supporters. The Amuta filed a pivotal objection based on the 120-page report – with a complete outline of planning insufficiencies and procedural illegalities – backed by expert opinions, and supported by more than 1700 objections by individuals, businesses, and organizations to the plan.
On Wednesday, June 14, the local planning and building committee held a series of meetings with residents and organizations that submitted objections to the plan at the City Hall. These hearings were not binding and not a substitute to hearings before the District Planning and Building Committee. However, discussions with residents formulate the recommendation of the local committee to the District Committee. More than 100 residents showed up wearing campaign T-shirt, building up community presence and political pressure to the committee politicians. Due to pressure an additional meeting was scheduled for June 28, 2017 at the City Hall. In parallel, a public campaign was underway, including banners along Emek Refaim, and posters in residents and businesses.
On July 20, 2017 from 9:15 am the hearings at the Regional Planning committee will take place. This is the decisive committee, yet, they intend to hear 1700 objections in one day (!). Residents are invited to attend this important meeting.
Given the experience of Jaffa street, with long delays and the collapse of the businesses along the route of the light rail (see: http://www.jpost.com/Local-Israel/In-Jerusalem/Jlem-merchants-disrupt-city-council-meeting-over-light-rail-construction), the objections oppose repeating the same errors on Jaffa street and cause similar destruction to Emek Refaim.
Emek Refaim is the main axis of the German Colony historic neighborhood, established in the 1870s by members of the Templer sect from Wurttemberg, Germany, who settled in the Refaim valley SW of the Old City. The land was purchased from the Arabs of Beit Safafa. The Templers were Christians who broke away from the Protestant church and encouraged their members to settle in the Holy Land to prepare for Messianic salvation. They built their homes in the style to which they were accustomed in Germany - farmhouses of one or two stories, with slanting tiled roofs and shuttered windows, using local materials such as Jerusalem stone instead of wood and bricks. The Templers engaged in agriculture and traditional trades such as carpentry and blacksmithing. Their homes ran along two parallel streets - Emek Refaim and Bethlehem Road. The Templers were deported by the British Mandatory government during World War II, considered as enemy citizens. Some of them resettled in Australia. Many of the lots were purchased by well-to-do Christian Arab families attracted by its location between the developing neighborhoods of Katamon, Talbiya, and Baka, which were populated by some of Jerusalem's wealthiest Arabs. In 1948 the Arab residents fled due to the fierce battles for control of the area during the Arab–Israeli War. The abandoned homes in the German Colony and other parts of Katamon were used to house new immigrants. Since the end of the 20th century, the neighborhood has undergone a process of gentrification, with the restoration of old landmark buildings and incorporating some of their architectural features, such as arched windows and tiled roofs, in new construction. Numerous cafes, bars, restaurants, and boutiques have opened in the neighborhood. Emek Refaim street has a mix of architectural styles, including Swabian-style homes, late provincial Ottoman-style, and British Art Deco from the Mandatory period, mixed with the eclectically ornamental look of houses from the beginning of the twentieth century.
This very sensitive ecosystem, which includes historic buildings, adult trees, and a neighborhood-scale street culture supported by pedestrians, local businesses, cafes and restaurants, is in danger to disappear during and after the light rail work is completed. To just point out the physical barrier required by law to be erected along Emek Refaim, to separate between the light rail from vehicular traffic, will separate the sides of the streets and damage the continuity of public space and the free-flow of pedestrians, bicycles, cars and public transportation. For this reason, the community, aided by professionals and experts, proposed to the City to seriously examine the tunneling of the blue line under Emek Refaim, as an alternative to the current plans, and as was approved for another neighborhood - Geula. Experts show that tunneling will be cheaper and will protect the unique architecture and natural foliage in the neighborhood, the community character of the area, and will avoid years of destructive building to the businesses and to local residents. These objections are also supported by the councils of the Baka and Ginot Ha’ir community centers and public institutions such as the College of Management and the local Clalit health clinic.
“Emek Refaim is Not Rechov Yaffo” is a video recently released to explain to the public the facts and the damage to the neighborhood. It can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEOCroqtCm0&feature=youtu.be