A prophecy for the city

After a long battle, the court has ruled that the old Kinderhospital Marienstift on Rehov Hanevi’im will be developed commercially.

Kinderhospital Marienstift_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kinderhospital Marienstift_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Preservation of historical sites is a delicate issue, especially in Jerusalem, where history resides under every rock. How does one draw the line between the needs of the residents and respect for the past?
Rehov Hanevi’im was almost wiped off the map of areas to be protected in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a plan to demolish all the old structures on its east side (near Musrara and the Damascus Gate) and transform the road into a six-lane highway. Thanks to a residents’ action committee, the plan was shelved. One of the historical jewels of the street is the Kinderhospital Marienstift, the first hospital for children in the country, founded in 1872 by Dr. Max Sandreczky.
In 1994, former mayor Ehud Olmert, a champion of the development of highways and bridges all over the city, was ready to have it torn down. His deputy, architect David Cassuto, remarked at one of the city council meetings that it was worth preserving and could be turned into a visitors’ center to attract tourists. Cassuto almost lost his position, as Olmert was not particularly tolerant toward such independent stances and sarcastically asked Cassuto if he had forgotten that he was a member of the coalition.
Later, the picturesque street was saved from the planned highway, but the hospital, which closed in 1900, was still not considered important enough to warrant more than a plaque on the wall. The plot was sold to a developer, for a restaurant and coffee shops, but he agreed to restore a small part of it for the sake of the city’s history. What happened then was a simple bureaucratic failure. The developer didn’t begin construction within the regulated margin of time permitted; therefore, after more than three years, the whole file had to be brought back to the planning committee.
By then, it was 2005 and Olmert was no longer mayor. Our current deputy mayor Naomi Tsur was the head of the local branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. A few committed people – including Prof. Raphael Udassin, chief surgeon at Hadassah – decided to use the renewed procedure to promote their idea of turning the old structure into a museum for the history of medicine in Eretz Yisrael. The head of the Jerusalem branch of the National Council for Preservation of Historic Sites, Itzik Shweky, joined them, and they even obtained the support – in principle – of the Jerusalem Foundation, for the financing of maintenance of the planned museum.
But in terms of the municipality, this change meant – after compensating the developer for the site – losing the benefit of the taxes he would have paid plus the cost of restoring the site, which Tsur says would have been at least NIS 10 million. Not to mention the money the municipality would not gain, since it would become a public site and not a business.
Some people would say at this point that not everything should be calculated according to dollars and cents, but the bigger picture is more complicated.
Between 2005 and last month, the case was in court. The district court ruled 10 days ago that the property will remain in the hands of the developer and therefore the municipality does not have to pay compensation. The only condition was that two out of the four rooms must be turned into a visitors’ center.
The supporters of the museum project are disappointed by Tsur’s position. She agreed to allow the original developer to set up his business there and restore two of the four rooms of the old hospital for tourism and preservation. They feel betrayed by the one person they considered the best representative of the restoration and environment issues on the city council. Tsur feels that she has obtained the best possible solution, transforming a site designed for demolition into a tourist spot with little preservation work done.
Bottom line: We will apparently have restaurants and coffee shops and a two-room visitors’ center there. Watch this space.