How Haifaites saved their coastline

Residents band together to avert the construction of an intrusive marina.

haifa feature 88 298 (photo credit: )
haifa feature 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Haifa municipality's grandiose plans to build a marina and waterfront tower blocks on the shore of Rosh Hacarmel have been derailed by a rare example of people power. Behind this achievement is a story of community solidarity: how groups of residents, environment activists and sports enthusiasts worked together against the might of local and national governments - and succeeded. Haifa is a multifaceted city - both beautiful with its mountain forests, kilometers of sandy beaches and magnificent Bahai gardens, and an ugly mess of industry, pollution and haphazard construction. Preserving the former and preventing the latter spurred concerned Haifaites into joining forces with experts in ecology and science, commerce and economics, architecture and infrastructure to prove that the marina in its proposed location was a bad idea. The Rosh Hacarmel coastline is an open stretch of beach from the Maxim restaurant in the south to Bat Galim, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Haifa. Beyond Bat Galim is Haifa Bay, a closed area including a naval base, Rambam Hospital, the port and heavy industries. In recent years, the city's southern beaches have been attractively developed with promenades, decorative street furniture and children's playgrounds, and their popularity brought the opening of a few beach caf s and good restaurants. With folk dancing and open-air shows in good weather, residents of the Carmel make for the southern Dado beach. Sandwiched between these popular beaches and Bat Galim is a windswept rocky stretch of coast, beautiful in its wildness. Hidden from the road, alongside the modern nautical lines of the Oceanographic and Limnological Institute, is the ancient Tel Shikmona, the ruins of the Phoenician City - the origins of Haifa. Windsurfers battle the elements at the curve of the bay, where the wind and waves are fiercer. By all accounts, this is the best area in Israel for windsurfing. Over the past 12 years, a master plan emerged to build a marina that would claim 500 meters into the sea on a two-km stretch of the beach. "Since the marina itself would not be financially viable, the municipality and contractors intended to attract investment in high-rise tower blocks, with a waterfront outlook and whose back walls would completely shut off Bat Galim residents from the sea," explains Ayal Avrach, who lives in a house on the Bat Galim promenade. Says Ronit Fischer, community director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), "In 1998, in anticipation of demand to develop the coastal area, the SPNI and other nature protection organizations campaigned to protect Israel's precious 200 km of coastline. Their efforts resulted in the passage of the Coastal Law in 2004, forbidding development less than 300 meters from the coastline and declaring coastal space as public property." There are constant infringements of this law, but the marina project - that would take 500 meters from the sea itself - was the most audacious. And the response was impressive. The defeat of the marina at Bat Galim was achieved by a strong coalition of organizations. The SPNI's environmental protection division engineered this coalition by involving environmental groups, social and academic bodies, surfers and local residents, backed up by the Technion. In November, 250 marine biologists from the International Congress of Marine Biologists demanded the preservation of the site. MK Roman Bronfman joined the campaign by calling on Mayor Yona Yahav to renege his stance on the marina issue. And the citizens of Haifa turned out in the thousands at events and demonstrations held at Bat Galim, Central Carmel and other locations. More than 7,000 signatures were collected in petitions distributed at these demonstrations and through a website. "We were not opposed to a marina - but not on that site or any other that would close the beaches to the public," says Fischer. Alternatives were proposed. The most favored site was the Western Port with access to the restored German Colony and Bahai Gardens, which would not cause ecological damage. Another option was the site of the Israel Navy base, which fits in with the IDF's policy of moving out of prime locations. "We have managed to introduce a new way of thinking in Haifa's development, by finding alternatives that do not destroy our natural resources and our environment," says Nir Papay, who coordinates the SPNI's beach and coast policy. In December 2005, the National Planning Council accepted the coalition's recommendations to reject plans to build the marina at Bat Galim and create the Hecht sea park from Bat Galim toward the Carmel beaches, which will incorporate an archeological park at Shikmona. "This campaign was a meeting of ideology and science, research and engineering," says Fischer, describing the conference on November 22, 2005, sponsored by SPNI at the Technion on preserving Israel's coastline. Participants included experts from the Environment Ministry, nature protection societies, KKL-JNF, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, marine experts from the Technion and the Oceanographic Institute, windsurfers, and architects who presented blueprints for building the marina on alternative sites. During the period when Amram Mitzna was mayor (1993-2002), several unsightly building projects were implemented that encroached onto the southern beaches in what had been open land. Walking along the beach with its magnificent sweep of sand and sea, one views Mount Carmel as a backdrop. But between the sea and the mountain's lower slopes are emerging a Legoland of shopping centers, high-rise offices, small rundown factories and litter. "This is nothing compared to what is planned for that area," warns Fischer. Haifa's citizens voted for Yona Yahav in the 2002 municipal elections, and his "green" track record gave him the majority vote. But he is now sitting on the fence. He did not actively support building the marina at Bat Galim, but he also did not help the organizations and individuals campaigning against it. "There are so many examples where the municipality is shown to be green aesthetically but not in ideology," says Fischer. While Yaron Carmi, administrator of the windsurfers' participation in the campaign, agrees that community effort and the pooling of the NGOs' and scientific institutions' expertise was an unusually successful act of cooperation, he and his cohorts were disappointed at the lack of support and involvement from the government bodies whose job it is to maintain the law and preserve the environment. Carmi, a surfer and a business administrator specializing in engineering consultancy, said that as a business enterprise, the marina was not a viable idea. He brought in the experts who convinced the Haifa Economic Development Corporation that this was the case. Golan Perry, a computer specialist, designed and engineered the campaign's website (, which registered hundreds of visits. Amir Weizman, owner of the Aquazoom company specializing in aquatic photography, produced dramatic films of the demonstrations, as well as surfing scenes for the website. Tel Aviv lawyer Doron Hacham, another surfer, contacted MKs. "Bat Galim is just not the place for the marina. It's situated at the foot of the hills, and according to oceanographic experts there would have to be enormous breakwaters constructed at that point of the bay," says Carmi. "We expected much more support from the official 'green' bodies," he adds. Telephone calls and faxes to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport were unanswered, and there was little or no involvement from the Environment Ministry, he says. Yahav actively opposed the marina when Amram Mitzna was mayor and was a good friend of Shmuel Gelbart, the architect who heads the Green party in Haifa. According to the surfers, Gelbart did not want to be mayor, but through him they all supported Yahav. "Gelbart is still helping us, although it makes a lot of problems for him as a member of the municipal coalition," comments one surfer. The surfers are puzzled by the mayor's change of loyalties. "The municipality actually tried to reverse the coast law so that buildings could be constructed nearer the sea," says the surfer. Rather than encouraging water sports, the municipal budget for sea education and water sports through schools has been canceled. Avrach discovered the plans for the marina in 1992. He was looking for premises for his start-up company and came upon an advertisement for a two-km complex on the Bat Galim seafront that included waterfront tower blocks, suites and apartments. The marina was Mitzna's pet project, but it became obvious that it would not be financially worthwhile. "A marina is a parking lot for yachts, not a source of tourism," says Avrach. To make it viable, he says, the project was expanded to include an enormous building that would leave residents of Bat Galim with a view of brick walls intead of the Mediterranean Sea. Not only Bat Galim residents are wary of existing building violations. Nobody can miss what is dubbed locally "hamifletzet" (the monster) - an enormous building on Carmel Beach constructed as a hotel but is, in effect, an apartment block with some hotel rooms and facilities. The building is wider and taller than originally licensed, destroying the view and air flow for local residents. It took a great deal of community pressure to stop the building of five other similar blocks. Avrach wears several hats: water sports enthusiast, activist in the local branch of the Green party Haifa Shelanu, and a board member of Haifa SPNI. In his first round against the marina project when Mitzna was mayor, he appreciated the support of the environment ministers of that time, Yossi Sarid and the late Yehudit Naot. With the change of guard at City Hall in 2002, it was hoped that the marina had been put on a back burner; but just over a year ago, the plans were reincarnated and buzzwords such as "Haifa Riviera" were heard again. This time, many more groups were active, and they worked together efficiently. "We were ready to fight from the beginning before it became a fait accompli," says Avrach. "We cannot be sure that the project will not be resurrected again, so we have two aims: to help relocate the marina and to clean and restore Bat Galim as a beachfront for everyone. We need to repair the neglect of the past 10 years and create a Riviera without damage to the environment." Fischer, a 37-year-old mother of two who grew up in Haifa, believes that a clean environment reduces violence and crime. "We agree with the mayor that Haifa needs tourism and also needs to provide facilities for young people. But the marina will not achieve either of those aims," she concludes. Daughter of the waves At first sight, Bat Galim is reminiscent of a little seaside town. Waves lap gently up to the promenade, which is flanked by architectural gems. In other lands, these houses would be offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and on the promenade there would be little caf s and tea shops. Many residents of Bat Galim have a historical connection with this garden suburb, the brainchild of architect Ricard Kaufman, who in 1922 modeled the neighborhood on English and German seaside towns. Two- or three-story houses were built on boulevards lined with trees and flowers during the 1930s. The renowned dancer Yardena Cohen, who in her late nineties still resides and teaches in Haifa, recalls how she grew up in one of the first houses on the seafront. She and her sister walked each day to the Reali School in Hadar where her father, the biologist Pinhas Cohen, was headmaster. In 1944, Prof. Adolph Reeding presented his vision of developing Haifa's beaches for leisure. An infrastructure of roads and services already existed from the Carmel to the Rambam Hospital, which was built in 1937, and Bat Galim was the most accessible beach for the landlocked residents of Hadar and downtown. Reeding's plans included a swimming pool adjacent to the sea, coffee shops and sports facilities similar to those in seaside towns throughout the world. The casino, like the English pier, was a landmark popular with British soldiers serving in Haifa during the last years of the Mandate. This was not a suburb for the nouveau riche. Low-rise apartments and small shops sprang up along the tree-lined streets in a solid, modest neighborhood that suited Haifa's image as a workers' city. Nearly 20 years ago, the Haifa municipality renovated the promenade with attractive walkways, sculptures, rockeries and gardens. This attracted a few restaurant owners, and it looked as if Bat Galim was waking up. Not all aspects of the renovation were welcomed, however - particularly the ugly terminal building of the cable car that, as Haifaites say, goes from nowhere to nowhere. In recent years, the promenade has not been maintained, and the entire coast from Bat Galim to Shikmona is now a mess of uncollected garbage. The residents of Bat Galim are convinced that this neglect is deliberate, as a prelude to constructing the marina there.