Will Jerusalem be changed by a skyline of new high-rise towers?

Jerusalem is being filled with towers of different heights, and many residents are claiming that there is no serious debate regarding the need for these towers.

 JERUSALEM’S HEBRON Road. Three more residential towers are slated to go up – two with 12 stories and one with 18 stories. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
JERUSALEM’S HEBRON Road. Three more residential towers are slated to go up – two with 12 stories and one with 18 stories.

Nobody probably realized it back then, but the controversial Holyland project (which ended by sending former mayor and then prime minister Ehud Olmert to jail) was the first indication that Jerusalem was entering the tower era.

For the purpose of building that megalomaniacal project, which began in 2001 and was completed by 2010, all the long-standing Holyland Hotel buildings were destroyed. The exception was a private house, which was turned into an office building. The historic model of Jerusalem was transferred to the Israel Museum, and the pine grove was cleared.

Today, Jerusalem is being filled with towers of different heights, and many residents are claiming that there is no serious or transparent debate regarding the need for these towers and their proposed locations. Moreover, the residents of the capital are not involved in the decision-making process at all. 

Time after time, often inadvertently, they discover that the municipality, through the local planning and construction committee, has approved more towers in the city without any accessible information about where and why those towers are being built. 

Prof. Mike Turner, UNESCO chair for Urban Design and Conservation Studies, wrote a study last May titled “Is This the Death of the Historical City [of Jerusalem]?” In it, Turner, an architect, proposes enabling the development of the area while maintaining strict rules about its special character. The plan suggests a network of main roads that would be a guideline for construction, as well as detailed city building plans for an area, to ensure the preservation of natural and urban landscapes in the area of the plan. 

 THE HOLYLAND complex – the birth of Jerusalem’s tower mania. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) THE HOLYLAND complex – the birth of Jerusalem’s tower mania. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It also calls for maintaining of the traditional sacred sites and properties of all religions, and the preservation of archaeological sites in the areas under consideration. He said he had no knowledge regarding public debates, by any municipal forum or official bodies, about the plans to build high-rise buildings.

Officially, Safra Square’s position is that there is no choice but to build high, since there is a need to construct more housing units and, at the same time, protect the city’s green spaces. However, where, and moreover, how high the structures should be built has not yet been clarified. 

One example is a 40-story tower which the municipality has recently approved. This is planned as a residential tower with a luxurious hotel in an area of about 28 dunams. It would be built on the axis of the light rail near Ein Kerem and adjacent to two important national institutions – Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem

This grandiose plan has caused an uproar. Those who object to it say it is a megalomaniac project that goes against the character of the city and is a debasement and commercialization of the heritage and memory of the Holocaust. The project, to be called the Epstein Complex, was designed by one of the world’s leading international architectural firms, Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, which is also designed the famed Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The plan is scheduled for an approval hearing in early May at the District Planning and Construction Committee. 

According to the Jerusalem Municipality, it is possible to propose building plans with up to 30 stories. However, because of this plan’s design concept, this 40-story building is based on the understanding that one very high tower – a “single building advantage” – is better for the environment than two or more lower ones. 

President of the Jerusalem District and Planning Administration, Shira Talmai-Babai, maintains that the alternative of the single building has significant advantages in terms of public space. In addition, she says there are environmental advantages, such as a reduction of shading and winds. It would also feature a square measuring approximately 12 dunams that would allow the edge of the city to meet the surrounding forests.

For city engineer Yoel Even, towers are unavoidable. He says that serious planning work is being done regarding where and what is being approved. 

“Of course, we respect the historical city (not to be confused with the Holy Basin inside the Old City walls), where we carefully plan where to approve these towers.”

Yoel Even

“Of course, we respect the historical city (not to be confused with the Holy Basin inside the Old City walls), where we carefully plan where to approve these towers,” he says. “For example, we approve towers up to 26 and 30 stories along Jaffa Road (and the light rail), but we stop approximatively at the intersection with King George Street so that we do not get too close to the Old City from there on.”

HOWEVER, THE news of the construction of a sort of “Burj Khalifa” near Mount Herzl has not been received with open arms.

“This is a vilification and commercialization of Israel’s heritage and the memory of the Holocaust,” says Yossi Havilio, deputy mayor of Jerusalem. “This is a megalomaniacal and unnecessary project, disconnected from the character of Jerusalem and the capital’s skyline, and therefore must not be approved. What have we come to, that even the sky is not the limit? Those who want to see the Burj Khalifa, should go to Dubai.” 

According to him, the elements that the project planners are proud of – a direct view of Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem and Ein Kerem – are exactly why the plan should be opposed. “We should not bring this arrogance to the doorstep of Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. The Holyland Tower is treated as a monument to corruption, and this tower will be treated as a symbol of contempt for Israel’s heritage. There is no justification for a 40- to 50-story tower that will overshadow the national memorial sites and Ein Kerem.”

Even in the neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel, which is close to the project, there is vehement opposition. 

“This is a megalomaniacal project that is not suitable for the area and is not in the right place. Every time some developer comes with a different idea, the planning institutions distort the [existing planning] policy,” said Assaf Shafner, chairman of the building committee of the Kiryat Hayovel community administration, at a recent meeting. 

Residents and activists of the Ein Kerem neighborhood, which attracts thousands of pilgrims and visitors a year, claim that such a project will destroy its unique pastoral character. They are constantly in battles with the municipality, maintaining that “visitors come to Ein Kerem not to see the towers of Dubai.”

But the problem might be more than this specific project. “Both the municipality and the planning institutions are talking about the fact that the Jerusalem ‘Burj Khalifa’ building is unique in its height and scope of construction. Hence, it is clear that once it is approved, it will be very difficult for the municipality and the planning institutions to oppose future towers of similar scope and in controversial locations,” Havilio points out. 

THERE IS more. “It’s as if the city planners are caught up in the fever to build high everywhere. Residents feel that the planners are skipping over us in order to add more towers. The profits of the developers and contractors silence any objection,” says a Kiryat Menahem resident, who is a municipal employee. 

Another example of the magnitude of these projects is the Building Complex plan in the city center, between Jaffa and Haneviim streets, near Davidka Square, which will have an underground station for the high-speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train.

It includes three buildings of 28 to 31 floors, alongside a lower building of up to eight floors. It is expected that the land of the approved plan will sell for hundreds of millions of dollars, with part of the money to be used for public purposes. Activists, however, say that this disproportionate plan will lead to an urban disaster in the city center.

In the haredi sector, the resistance to high-rise building casts doubt on most of the plans. Geula residents say the plans for their neighborhood ignore the needs of the residents, as well as their lifestyle and their right to live in a neighborhood that has a long-standing defined character.

“Behind this are hidden hundreds of millions of dollars and a lot of economic interests of contractors and entrepreneurs who want to build towers along Yirmiyahu and Bar-Ilan streets, which is expected to pour a huge amount into their pockets,” according to an ad signed by rabbis of the neighborhoods. The ad was focused against the plan to run the light rail through Malchei Yisrael, Yirmiyahu and Bar-Ilan streets in 2021.

“In addition, we oppose the expansion of Bar-Ilan and Yirmiyahu streets under the guise of a construction plan, the purpose of which is to widen the street for the benefit of vehicles crossing from the north to the south of the city. We also oppose the construction of high-rise towers on the street. We oppose that in the proposed evacuation and construction plan in the neighborhood of Shmuel Hanavi, they will build high-rise towers that are not compatible with the ultra-Orthodox public.” So far, there are only a few, if any, plans for towers in the haredi sector. 

In neighborhoods that are a few minutes’ drive from the center of Jerusalem, the towers will reach a height of 24 stories, according to the urban master plan. Although the master plan has not yet been submitted due to political disputes, it forms a planning basis for the development of Jerusalem. Regarding evacuation-construction plans, there will be no limit on the number of floors at all, which in practice increases the height of the towers to more than 30 floors in order to be economically viable.

Where are these towers planned or already under construction?

  • Shalom Yehuda Street in Talpiot, four 25-story towers with 390 units
  • Asher Street in Baka, two residential buildings with 19 to 25 floors.
  • Talpiot industrial area, 148 residential units in two towers, combined with employment and commercial areas 
  • At the entrance to Jerusalem, 12 skyscrapers, which will be mainly offices (some will house the government offices), with 33 floors. From there, a sequence of towers is planned that will combine hotels, offices and residences up to the city center. 
  • In a demolition and construction project near Talpiot, 15 long-standing buildings will be demolished to make way for the construction of two 25-story residential towers. 
  • Near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, between Agrippas, Eliash and King George streets, two 24-story towers are planned.
  • In the Etz Haim Yeshiva complex, a six-story hotel building will be built; next to it, two 24-story residential towers will be constructed. More will be built in the KIAH complex: two 16-story towers for hotels and offices. 
  • The historic Beit Mapai at the intersection of Jaffa and Hanevi’im streets will be turned into a 24-story tower. 
  • On King George Street, three residential and hotel towers are planned. These will be built in the Heichal Shlomo complex not far from the Leonardo Hotel, as well as a 15-story office building on King George Street. 
  • At the intersection of Hebron and Moshe Baram streets, Rami Levy will build three residential towers: two with a height of 12 floors and one with 18 floors. The tallest towers in the complex will be the Zion Towers of the Hasid Brothers Company, with 24 stories; the construction will be on a ridge 800 meters above sea level.

Another residential tower is the Jerusalem of Gold project by the developer Shlomo Eliyahu, at the intersection of Rabbi Akiva and Hillel streets. This huge and prestigious residential project, which was promoted in the mid-1990s, includes two 25-story towers with 209 apartments. The tower was built despite many objections submitted against it. The 24-floor Seidoff Tower on Jaffa Street at the corner of Eliezer Street (near Mahaneh Yehuda) was also erected despite strong objections, which included appeals to the National Council and the Supreme Court.

Who will benefit from these towers? 

The socio-economic rating of the average Jerusalem resident is low, and the massive construction of residential towers, where maintenance expenses are usually more expensive, raises the concern that the future plans of the municipality will actually burden the families who currently live in the city. 

About a decade ago, the former president of the local planning committee, Kobi Kahlon, admitted to being divided regarding the construction of towers. He explained that when a four-story building becomes a 30-story tower, many families that cannot make ends meet will pay management fees of hundreds of shekels every month for living in towers. “Do we want to replace the existing problem in the city with a new problem that will develop in another 20 to 30 years? On the other hand, is it appropriate to leave the families in an old building without protection? It is not a simple dilemma.”

How did we reach this situation? In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, high-rise construction in Jerusalem was one of the burning issues on the city’s public and political agenda. The opposition to high-rise construction, and the failure of these struggles shaped the city’s skyline. 

In the early 1970s, the Wolfson Towers were erected above Sacher Park, which is still considered a serious urban and architectural mistake. In the late 1970s, the city’s residents managed to prevent a row of towers in the Bell Park area. Later, the Clal building, Migdal Ha’ir and the Rasko building were constructed in the center of Jerusalem; all three are still controversial. Other initiatives, such as an observation tower in Armon Hanatziv and the huge “universe tower” planned by Ram Karmi in the center of Jerusalem, were canceled after public opposition.

The number of towers planned, then, in the city center is small compared to the plans at the entrance to the city, but their impact on the landscape will be dramatic. Unlike most historical European cities, which limit the height of construction, builders are allowed to construct towers up to 24 floors. 

 JAFFA ROAD – more projects are slated for the downtown area. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) JAFFA ROAD – more projects are slated for the downtown area. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

One controversial project is the Eden Tower, designed by Jewish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, in the shape of a huge pyramid. The design of the tower has already been changed at least four times. In one version, the developers demanded an exception from the height allowed in the outline plan. The tower is set to be redesigned, following the Jerusalem district appeal committee’s approval of an additional 15 meters.

In the 2000s, the discussion shifted to construction at the expense of the hills west of the city. After an extended struggle, in 2007 the Safdi plan to expand Jerusalem to the west was canceled. The Obama administration’s pressure to avoid building new neighborhoods east of the city, and the government’s pressure to build as many apartments as possible, increased the crowding in Jerusalem.

The most important decision was made at the end of July 2000. The District Committee for Planning and Construction, in collaboration with the Jerusalem Municipality, established a new policy, according to which buildings with a height of 18 to 30 stories can be built on the lots adjacent to the light rail tracks. Today, there is one light rail line, but in the coming years four more lines are expected, and the existing line will be extended. This means that already, even before the new train lines are established, it is possible to submit plans for high-rise buildings in several areas of the city.

THE THIRD concentration of high-rise buildings is expected to be built in the southwest of the city, in Kiryat Yovel and Kiryat Menachem. In these two neighborhoods, extensive plans for urban renewal have been prepared, which means the demolition of the old tenements, most of them five to seven stories high, and replacing them with massive buildings of dozens of stories. 

The most advanced plan, which has already been approved, is the construction of two buildings with a height of 32 and 24 floors on Norit Street in Kiryat Menachem. These residential towers will have underground parking lots, elevators and sprinklers, costing residents hundreds of shekels a month, which could be a problem for some.

In ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or those with a low-income population, entrepreneurs prefer not to build towers because there will be no demand for these apartments. 

Urban planners point out that high-rise towers along the light rail stations would reduce the use of private vehicles. However, construction of towers and new plans that are approved outside the area accessible to the stations will have the opposite effect: continued dependence on cars and substantial damage to residents’ mobility. 

The Administration for Urban Renewal of Jerusalem determined the areas where construction can be crowded according to an index of accessibility to light rail lines and public transportation. According to that plan, areas with less transportation connectivity should be more moderately crowded. But in practice, under the “evacuation-building” plan, the committee approved towers that rise to 30 stories or more, even on streets where it is difficult to access the bus and light rail stations. 

Due to the desire to avoid using Shabbat elevators, haredi families avoid living on high floors, so the 30-story towers will not be relevant to them. In some projects, a 10-story building was approved alongside taller towers, with the aim of creating a diverse community. In other projects, the lower floors are intended for the ultra-Orthodox, and the upper floors for the secular. However, according to the activists, the recent price increases will only attract the upper-middle class from the secular or National Religious sectors.

Jerusalem also has a unique problem: Due to the mandatory regulation that requires the buildings to be clad with Jerusalem stone, the city’s towers are massive and have a dramatic effect on the landscape

“The best tall buildings built in the world are usually made of glass because it is a light material by nature,” says architect David Kroyanker, a historian of Jerusalem’s architecture. “Stone, by its nature, does not rise well to height. Hence, there is not a single beautiful tower in Jerusalem. 

“There were three sacred cows in Jerusalem: building in stone, building only on ridges and not in valleys, and building on the traditional skyline. All three were slaughtered in one or another process, and the slaughter was not always kosher.”

David Kroyanker

“There were three sacred cows in Jerusalem: building in stone, building only on ridges and not in valleys, and building on the traditional skyline. All three were slaughtered in one or another process, and the slaughter was not always kosher.” ❖

Corridors of Power

During the last twenty years, Jerusalem has changed its face. From an intimate family town, it has become a big city: A government city, a holy city, a tourist city... Jerusalem now has a thousand faces. But now the change is mainly physical. The small, modest houses that characterized the city are vanishing, with tower blocks taking their place.

The debate on whether or not to build such tall buildings has already ended. It is clear to everyone that dense construction and height means a death sentence for the values of nature and the open spaces of the city and its surroundings.

The decisions on this important subject have, thus far, only been made in local professional-political forums. There has been no debate about the skills of the decision makers in Safra Square, or of the mayor’s decision to approve high-rise building projects.

Such important decisions, which have an immediate impact on the city’s appearance and character, should not be made solely on a professional level, backed by local political parties. Even if there was no intention to ignore the public, this is the reality of the position, which is a big mistake. 

Jerusalem is not only the capital of Israel, it is also the capital of the Jewish people around the world, as well as being a holy and important city for Muslims, Christians and other religions.

It’s not too late to do the right thing, and by that I mean establishing an international forum made up of people from all over the world who know and love Jerusalem. This forum would give people a voice and enable them to discuss their concerns and express their love for this very special and unique city.

Jerusalem deserves this. ❖