The long road to preservation

The struggle to keep Jerusalem’s treasures – its historic buildings – from being destroyed.

Jerusalem Mea Shearim (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem Mea Shearim
Being a historic city, Jerusalem is blessed with an impressive number of buildings spanning a broad range of periods. Not all of these structures are necessarily the most beautiful; sometimes their importance is more historic than aesthetic.
In the past, people were less aware of their significance; consequently, many architectural gems in the city have been lost to development and construction plans. The situation is much improved, and today there are there are official bodies that control and supervise the work of classifying and preserving such buildings.
Awareness of the need to identify and preserve historic structures across the country gathered momentum in the early 1960s. Attention was focused on any pre-1948 construction that could have importance to Israel’s history.
What existed prior to that was an antiquities law applying to structures built before 1700. Still lacking was a law that would regulate how to handle historic buildings when framing and executing master plans for cities and neighborhoods countrywide.
In Jerusalem, in accordance with a 1990 law seeking to ensure preservation of historic buildings in cases involving construction permits, the city compiled a comprehensive list of relevant structures. Information about the structures and the rules applying to them was made public.
“We needed to accomplish this with the utmost transparency and bring it to the attention of residents, entrepreneurs and contractors in the capital, as well as to the staff issuing construction permits. This information is to be taken into account before granting permits to change, add or construct new buildings anywhere in the city,” explains Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir (Yerushalmim), who presides over the municipality’s committee for preservation.
Led by former deputy mayor Naomi Zur, extensive work on the list of classified buildings started in 2009. It included description of criteria, what was allowed (adding stories, for example) or not allowed (changing a façade). The first step was the establishment of a committee that included architects and experts on historic buildings, to conduct an exhaustive survey of relevant buildings in Jerusalem.
“That allowed us to locate all of these buildings and draw a map of what we have and where it is,” continues Nir. The survey is about 75 percent complete.
The next step delivered a surprise for Nir – and not a good one.
The law stipulates that background information about all buildings classified for preservation has to be announced publicly and be made available through the local planning and construction committee. A resident or entrepreneur who approaches the committee with a plan for construction, including an addition to an existing building, has to have – right from the beginning of the process – access to all pertinent knowledge related to a building that may eventually be classified for preservation.
The planning and construction committee can act only after plans have been approved by the preservation committee that Nir presides over.
What came as an unpleasant surprise for Nir was the negative reaction of the head of the planning and constructing committee, Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, who does not like – to put it mildly – the fact that so many buildings are classified. The two have noisily argued at preservation committee sessions, and at this point are barely even speaking to each other.
“It is true that Jerusalem has many buildings classified for preservation,” admits Nir, “and I can understand that this puts a damper on some development plans. But it is not only our future that is at stake here – it is also our heritage and our past.”
It is crucial to emphasize that the preservation rules do not harm entitlement of owners of any property that already had plans approved. For example, if one owns a building for which an enlargement has been approved, the approval will not be canceled once the building is classified as historic, “but it will of course influence the kind of added construction that will be permitted – in order to fit the character of the classified existing building,” details Nir.
That is exactly what Turgeman fears – that these rules and specifications might add burdensome obstacles to those seeking to purchase and develop the city.