Herzliya's rocky road to reinvention

Optimism and disappointment collide as an ambitious NIS 40 million project is slowly redefining Herzliya's city center.

The common image of Herzliya is one of beaches, hi-tech companies, well dressed businessmen, huge luxurious houses and fancy hotels - but this does not include the city's run-down old center. Michael Morag, head of the NIS 40 million project to remodel Herzliya's city center, aims to change this perception. Until March 2006, the old center of Herzliya showed few signs of a model city center. Few people came to shop or mingle, mainly because of the lack of attractions and better options in neighboring cities. The sidewalks were ageing, broken and not stroller-friendly, making it difficult for parents with young children to take walks or go shopping. Many of the stores - while there were some newer and attractive ones - looked as old as the city itself. Those who did visit the center of town usually came on a specific errand, and as soon as the task was completed would leave immediately. This situation, combined with residents' increasing tendency to prefer the city's attractive malls over the old city center, led to plans for Herzliya's Mercaz Hachadash ("new center"). The Mercaz Hachadash program headed by Morag, who also serves as personal advisor to deputy mayor Yonatan Yasur, had been on the drawing board for several years before construction began in mid-March 2006. The work is expected to be completed in another two months. A major part of the construction is being carried out on two of the city's main streets: Rehov Sokolov from Rehov Ehad HaAm to Rehov Pinsker, and the northernmost section of Rehov Ben Gurion between Rehov HaAtzmaut and Sderot Chen. The project also included remodeling the city's Ben Sheffer park and the Beit HaEzrach theater complex. Herzliya's mayor, Yael German, said of the project, "Herzliya is one of the best and leading cities in the country, but never was a city center built that is both modern and of good quality. I have no doubt that the residents of Herzliya deserve a lively and modern city center. Very soon, residents of the city will be able to enjoy a modern, attractive, good quality center of town." "We want to transform the center of town to the center of life in Herzliya. The residents are lacking an active, lively city center. We want the center of town to be a major point of attraction, for Herzliya's residents as well as outsiders," Morag said of the project's goal during an interview with Metro. This goal, says Morag, has accompanied him and his colleagues along each and every detail of the plans for the Mercaz Hachadash. But instead of being a source of excitement, pride and anticipation, the project has become a major source of discord. Storeowners on Rehov Sokolov and many city residents are extremely angry at the city council about the Mercaz Hachadash plans. "Everyone agreed that the street needed to be renovated," says Avi Zipser, head of the storeowners organization on Rehov Sokolov and proprietor of "A. Zipser," a hardware store on the street, "but the way they decided to remodel the street is horrible. The street now pushes people away instead of pulling them in." One of the major sources of conflict is the city's decision to change Rehov Sokolov, once a street with two driving lanes and a smaller parking lane in each direction, into a one-way, one-driving-lane street with a smaller parking lane on either side. "The choices were either to make a very wide road with a lot of street and little sidewalk, or a pedestrian-only street. We decided on a combination," explains Morag. "We hired companies to survey the traffic on the street and found that over 70 percent of the cars on Rehov Sokolov pass through the street to get to neighboring cities. These people can use other streets. They don't need to drive through the center of town in order to get to their destination. When people drive on Rehov Sokolov we want it to be because Rehov Sokolov is their destination." One of the stated aims of the Mercaz Hachadash project is to lessen traffic and noise on the street, while increasing the space for pedestrians to "hang out." The project's planners intended to encourage people to walk to the city center rather than bring their cars, incorporated a bicycle lane along the entire street and made all the sidewalks in the area wheelchair and stroller accessible. This idea is evident in the project's symbol: a bulls-eye. According to Morag, "the circles of the bulls-eye symbolize the circles of walking distances from the city's neighborhoods to its center." Of the city's over 90,000 residents, approximately 50,000 live on the east side of the coastal highway (where the center is), of which 12,000 live within five minutes walking distance from the center, 35,000 within a 10-minute walk and almost all 50,000 residents live within 20-25 minutes by foot, according to Morag. Yet the storeowners do not feel that this philosophy is realistic. "We've lost about 40% of our business," complained one worker at a party supplies store. "Not everyone lives close enough to want to walk. People today like to come with their cars but there is no parking. Why did the sidewalk have to be so wide, especially at the expense of parking spots?" she asked. The storeowners also complain about the other implications of the one-lane road. "It created lots of traffic and fighting. People honk at each other all day. This caused people to stop entering the street at all which means a lot fewer customers for us," says Zipser, who reported that his business, in existence since 1955, lost 50% of its customers over the past year. During the almost two hours that he spoke with Metro, only four customers made purchases from his store, two of them for NIS 25 or less. Morag says that he understands that the storeowners are undergoing a difficult period. "Without a doubt the period of serious construction hurt them," he says. He claims, however, that "what the storeowners are missing now is the old habit of people double-parking their cars in the street for a minute, grabbing what they needed and leaving. This is exactly what we want to put a stop to. They [the storeowners] have to learn that there are different ways of doing things. It's all a process. At the beginning things may be hard while the residents learn to adjust to the new situation. But it will all get much better," he confidently predicted. When the municipality saw that businesses on Rehov Sokolov were losing so much business, says Morag, it attempted to help them through the rough period. "We exempted the stores from paying an annual fee for placing signs on the street. We also asked the interior ministry for permission to give the storeowners a 50% discount on property tax in 2006, but this request was turned down. We really wanted to help them, though, so we came up with alternative ways to help. We paid for them to advertise in the local newspaper several times and organized a special deal around Pessah in which people who spent more than a certain amount in participating stores received a free coffee and pastry in one of the street's stores or an hour of free parking in a nearby parking lot. In addition we produced a coupon book including discount vouchers for almost all the stores on Rehov Sokolov, which was distributed to every apartment in the city." The storeowners say that they saw no financial improvement as a result of these perks. "My store has been in business for 60 years," said one clothing store owner who asked not to be named. "I am starting to think in the direction of leaving the business because of the situation in the city and the lack of interest from the residents to come and shop. If things continue the way that they are, I'm going to have to fire my worker. She doesn't even know it yet." Shlomo, who opened a falafel restaurant on the street only six months ago, speaks similarly. "There's a mood on the part of residents not to come to the city center. Fewer and fewer people come every day. There are more people in the center of a kibbutz than there are here," he complained, beckoning to an empty sidewalk. Yet ironically, despite the storeowners' unanimous claim of a decline in business, both Morag and Aryeh Weiss of the Weiss Real Estate Agency describe the situation differently. "Right now it's too early to know how the construction will affect store prices in the long term. But the fact is that right now there are no available stores on the street. I have people calling me every day looking for stores to rent on the street, but there simply are not any," says Weiss. While Morag notes that several stores closed during the construction period because they could not survive, "the only type of stores that closed were either small kiosks or stores whose character did not fit the street." In compliance with its vision of stores along Rehov Sokolov with a uniform style, the city is offering storeowners incentives to remodel their shop fronts. These include a free architect to design the new display window, an engineer to oversee the remodeling, NIS 5,000 toward the remodeling and a NIS 15,000 interest-free loan for 24 months. In exchange for accepting this package, the storeowners have to agree to remodel according to the uniform street design, including all-glass display windows, signs of a predestined size with protruding letters, a new awning and stone facing. Of the 160 stores on Rehov Sokolov, over 30 have already taken advantage of the offer and, according to Morag, "more and more stores keep calling me every day to accept the offer." Siamek Teherani, owner of the gift store "Nikol," was one of those who took advantage of the package offered by the city. "I wanted to change my store anyway, and this was a good opportunity," he told Metro. On the other hand, Avi Steiner, a clothing store owner on the street, says that he would like to remodel his store but "I would still need to come up with the money to pay back the loan. Business is so bad now - how will I find an extra NIS 15,000?" he asked. Zipser says that while Morag claims that remodeling according to the city's directives costs between NIS 18,000 and NIS 23,000, "once you begin the renovation there are always extra costs. Remodeling in the way that they want will really cost around NIS 30,000." Morag responded that if a store is in need of a larger loan, exceptions will be made and higher loans given. As the city center's character is slowly being redefined, storeowners are complaining that they are forbidden to place merchandise outside their stores to grab passersby's attention, a habit that was common before the remodeling began. "We cannot put anything outside, even though there is a huge sidewalk," says a gift store owner on the street. "The articles outside are what pull people into the store." Morag disagrees. "We don't want the street to look like a cheap marketplace. We want the street to be clean. Why are the storeowners complaining about not being allowed to place an ironing board on display outside the store? Do they think that an ironing board will cause people to suddenly enter their store? Besides, when none of the stores on the street place merchandise outside, all the stores can be seen much better." Before commencing the remodeling project, Morag says he and his team involved professionals in all relevant fields, as well as citizens of Herzliya and storeowners on Rehov Sokolov. "Already in October 2004, we had a 'brainstorming night' in which the whole city was invited to contribute to the planning of the Mercaz Hachadash. We brought professionals of all kinds who sat at the heads of panels according to subject. There were panels on traffic, culture, image, economics and environment. The idea was to think about different possibilities for the city center and hear what the citizens wanted to see. We came to this meeting with a list of what was permitted and prohibited to do by law, as well as the results of several surveys that we performed, including a survey on Rehov Sokolov's traffic patterns and a telephone survey about resident's feelings about the city center. A little over 120 people attended the meeting." Following that evening, a detailed plan of the Mercaz Hachadash was created and a presentation put together explaining the plans with simulated pictures of the remodeled streets. Morag showed this presentation over 60 times to groups of about 20 residents in order to receive feedback about the project. "They pointed out things that we had not though of, and we ended up changing some of the plans as a result of suggestions we received," he says. Yet, despite Morag's attempts to include the storeowners in the decision-making process, many of them feel as if their opinions were not taken into consideration. "There's a feeling among the storeowners that everything was done against us," says Zipser. As the remodeling approaches completion, many activities are planned to draw people to Herzliya's new city center. "We will hold different types of street shows, festivals and fairs on Rehov Sokolov," Morag explains. "There will be concerts twice a week at Ben Sheffer park, a new cinemateque in the area and a theater with 247 seats inside the newly-built Beit Haezrach. Both new local stores and large chains will be joining the city, such as Espresso Bar, KafeKafe, Matim Li and a large shoe store chain, although I cannot yet reveal the name. The idea is that people will come to the center of town and have everything they need: banks, health fund clinics, clothes, food, even wireless internet which is installed in the area. And it will also be enjoyable to walk around. There will be comfortable benches everywhere, a fish pond and small grassy hills for children to play on at the square on Rehov Ben Gurion, and unique artistic effects along the streets that use the structure of the land to create art," says Morag. While all these plans sound appealing, the storeowners are still not convinced. "They have lots of claims, lots of promises, but where are the results?" asked one storeowner. "People simply are not starting to come." While the storeowners remain angry, Morag remains confident in the plans. "I think the project is going very nicely," he says. "It will provide the city of Herzliya with a breakthrough and give the residents a warm city center. I think it's pretty successful so far." However, residents are split in their opinions about the Mercaz Hachadash project. One mother of a four-year-old is pleased with the remodeling. "It's very enjoyable to walk down the street with my son. Now that they made the sidewalks so wide and the traffic goes much slower, I do not have to worry about him running into the street. It makes for a much calmer time for me," she says. Yet another older lady is not as happy. "All my friends go to other places such as the mall and Ra'anana to shop. I don't know why they did the remodeling this way," she says. The storeowners claim that business is showing no improvement, rather continues to get worse each day. Yet they hope that the Mercaz Hachadash project will prove successful. Some storeowners are more optimistic than others. "I believe that the remodeling will help in the long run," says Teherani. Moshe, a clothing store owner on the street is less optimistic. "I don't think it will improve," he said, "but I sure hope I'm wrong." At this point, it seems that only time will tell what the fate will be for Herzliya's grandiose city center renovation. Some eyesores survive Many locals are asking why the city remodeled Rehov Sokolov yet left old and rundown buildings as they are. "They should have renovated the buildings along with the street itself. If the next mayor wants to fix up the buildings, it will mean everything from the beginning as far as construction goes," says Yaron Olami, an opposition member on the city council. "[The city] should have destroyed most of the buildings on the street and built them anew. I could have constructed buildings of three or four stories. Young couples would then want to move in. This alone would have doubled or tripled the street's population." Morag responded that he tried to put the buildings' owners in touch with construction companies but "I cannot force someone to remodel his own property."