Holyland still on hold

The officials expected to be indicted for their involvement in the city’s infamous construction project are not the only casualties.

Holyland still on hold 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Holyland still on hold 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Holyland affair is still making an enormous impact on planning and construction issues in the city. True, we have been treated to numerous other scandals since this affair burst onto the scene in April 2010, but residents may not be aware of its tremendous effects – apart from the arrest and probable indictment for corruption of a large number of high-profile businessmen and politicians – not to mention the financial fallout still to come. The head of the local planning and construction committee at Kikar Safra, Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon, is exercising an impressive amount of caution and has, thus far, avoided more problems. But it remains to be seen if that is enough for the long term.
The fallout from the affair started a few weeks after the affair came to light. Kahlon decided to cancel the second stage of the project, which includes five more towers than the ones already overshadowing the landscape of the city, plus the request by several developers to add more stories than had been approved by the committee. For example, instead of an approved tower of 17 stories, there were requests to approve at least 22 stories.
One of Kahlon’s first moves was exactly the opposite. He proposed that the committee reduce the number of stories from 31 to 18. And in any case, he announced at meeting of the construction and planning committee that the controversial project be frozen until all issues were clarified. One of these issues was to answer the question, “Are there building percentages left in the complex for construction after the enlargement of the part that was already built?” Kahlon and his assistants are convinced that nothing is left for building purposes. The developers’ representatives are trying to convince the committee that the opposite is true and request that until things are clarified and checked, the developers should be allowed to start to prepare the foundation for the next towers, which Kahlon is certain will not be approved.
The problem is the lawsuits the municipality might incur if none of the planned additional towers are approved. After all, the developers and the contractors have invested a lot of money in purchasing the plots, expecting to make a profit. And entrepreneurs are not always synonymous with corruption. In April 2010, Kahlon was cautious enough, as a first step, to ask the municipality’s legal adviser to see that his move was lawful and that it wouldn’t expose the municipality to legal problems. At that time the legal adviser was Yossi Havilio, who confirmed that it was lawful and acceptable.
More than a year has passed since, and the developers are getting impatient and are putting a lot of pressure on the committee and its president. Meanwhile, Havilio is not at Kikar Safra anymore, and the new legal adviser, Amnon Merhav, thinks exactly the opposite. He believes that a substantial change – especially a reduction in the size of the project – would cause such damage to the developers that it could expose the municipality to huge lawsuits that would choke its coffers. Merhav admits that the whole project is “not only ugly but problematic,” but adds that the leaders of the city should consider the consequences of freezing it at this stage.
The Holyland project remains a hot potato that has appeared time and again on the committee’s agenda, but basically no substantial change has been made.
And then last week, it came to light that one of the parties that suffered the consequences of Kahlon’s cautiousness is an important member of the mayor’s coalition, supermarket tycoon Rami Levy, who is not only a city council member but also the head of the municipal coalition.
Levy, it turns out, purchased a plot in the Holyland project to develop a luxury housing project in the compound. When the affair exploded, Levy was still in the process of buying one of the plots, where he planned not only to build a high-rise, as approved in the construction plans of the Holyland project, but also wanted to ask for an additional 40 units in the project owned by him and his partners.
For the two members of the city council opposition who are also members of the committee, the fact that a member of the coalition might one day sue the municipality for a loss in his business seems at least “strange,” says Meir Turgeman, and “absolutely problematic,” adds Pepe Allalu. And Levy? He says he is certain that ultimately the municipality will have to allow the construction, “otherwise, there will be so many lawsuits, that it will cost the city too much.”