Jerusalem, the city of gold and towers

Is Israeli society prepared and suited to that kind of lifestyle?

A BUILDING in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A BUILDING in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It took less than a year for the government to start building new neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, following the Six Day War. As part of the need to restore the Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus – which were cut off for 19 years from the rest of the city – the first aim was to create continuity between the Jewish neighborhoods and connect Mount Scopus with the western side of the city.
Ramat Eshkol was the first of the new contiguous neighborhoods, soon followed by French Hill, Givat Hamivtar and Ma’alot Dafna. Ramat Eshkol was also the first neighborhood, which from the outset the initial plans included buildings higher than four stories. Some few years later, its first tower was added – a ten-story building on the Eshkol Boulevard.
From the get-go, this type of construction raised opposition among quite a few Jerusalemites, who feared that in the euphoria of extending and renovating the city, the character particular to Jerusalem would be lost. Looking back at those buildings in Ramat Eshkol, today these fears might sound a bit naïve. The number of towers in Jerusalem is growing. There are buildings of 12 and 13 stories already erected, and there are plans in the works for 22- and even 24-story buildings for some parts of Jerusalem. Whether this change is inevitable or an error that should rectified before it is too late, all sides agree that the skyline of Jerusalem has changed and is changing daily.
“There were a few high buildings here and there for some years,” says Pepe Alalu, former deputy mayor under former mayor Nir Barkat, who is against the new urban policy of constructing high-rise towers all over the city. “Former city engineer Uri Shitrit was opposed to these towers everywhere,” adds Alalu, “his plan was to protect the historic city from such constructions, and to allow towers only in the periphery neighborhoods, like Neve Yaakov, Ramot or Gilo, but none of them in [the] city center, but today we are very far from that view.”
Asked how and why this changed, Alalu says that former mayor Nir Barkat was concerned that tourists wouldn’t find enough hotel rooms, and, therefore, encouraged constructing them.
“The new city engineer who replaced Shitrit, Shlomo Eshkol, had a vision that fit Barkat’s, and hotels in high buildings began to appear. What made all this possible was the fact that Jerusalem didn’t – and still doesn’t – have an approved Master Plan,” says Alalu. “The master plan submitted under former mayor Uri Lupolianski in 2003 had not been approved by then-interior minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who feared that it did not sufficiently ensure the Jewish demography of the city. So the city is operating according to a plan that does not define explicitly what can be built. Things are open to interpretation. When you add to this the urge to build more housing for young families, the road to high-rises is very short and that’s where we are now. For example, high-rises in Mahaneh Yehuda are in a very historic area and more are planned for nearby.”
ENGINEER SHITRIT, who was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in the Holyland affair during his time at Safra Square, ruled that towers will be constructed only in the periphery, except for the new Jerusalem Gateway project, at the city entrance, which he wanted to have a Western look. This was meant to be in contrast to the eastern side, which has the Old City Walls, the Western Wall and low-rise construction around it. This is the first project to include zoning for business, commercial, hotels and housing that permits 23- and 24- story buildings.
Jerusalem’s first urban tower was not a housing project but a hotel. Built in 1973, the first Hilton hotel was a 21-story building reaching 95 meters height. “Most of the first wave of high buildings built in the city were indeed hotels and not housing,” says Dr. Elan Ezrahi, and they raised the concern of many Jerusalemites.” Jerusalem-born Ezrahi and Rehavia resident wrote a book on the city’s life. He is also the nephew of Yehuda Ezrahi, writer, reporter and activist who was involved in several struggles to protect the special character of the city.
“This year we marked the century of his birth, and I am currently writing his biography, which includes his actions to save the city from some brutal planning and construction projects, which he felt would endanger the city’s character. It is also important in the context of civil action to preserve our local heritage.”
What were only sporadic attempts to enable modern construction has lately become a trend that has already changed the Jerusalem’s skyline, and could, if not reconsidered, change the character of Jerusalem even more. Ezrahi adds that no forum was ever held to create a clear policy to erect high-rise buildings, there never was a clear decision made to turn Jerusalem into a metropolis and to become the largest city in the country.
“Clearly, when you have more residents, you have to build more housing, and the easiest thing is to build high,” says Ezrahi, “I am not against towers or high buildings, I just want to prevent them from changing the character of this city, so build in the neighborhoods around, but not inside the historic city. But this is not what we are witnessing now.
“What happened till now is that high buildings were built here and there, but it didn’t create a sight like in Tel Aviv, when approaching the city you see a canyon of towers. But, we have to be very careful that this won’t happen in the future,” adds Ezrahi. “For now, the plan is to allow towers of various heights, along the path of the light rail lines. This means that in the near future we will see towers inside the historic city, which encompasses the part that existed  up until 1967 and beyond the Old City.”
MAYOR MOSHE LION declared during his election campaign that he would construct housing and office space everywhere. This decision was based on the Master Plan for Mass Transportation policy, which allows for towers along the route of the light rail lines. Asked if that position would also include raising towers inside the historic city, Lion responded that he couldn’t see any other alternative that would provide the housing and office solutions needed.
Architects in Jerusalem say that the most important thing is not the height of a building – like a rivalry among cities which one has the tallest building – but what happens in the street. A building that is from four to eight stories (like in Paris) enables real community, civic life and interactions between the residents on the street.
In contrast, towers discourage all that.
Is Israeli society prepared and suited to that kind of lifestyle? Tower living decreases natural interaction between people outdoors with neighbors from residential buildings at the street level.
Considering that Jerusalem has traditionally been a city of small neighborhoods and communities, this is a significant change and the issue hasn’t been raised and given an airing or opportunity for public discourse. At a meeting held recently on these issues, an activist from the Talpiot-Arnona neighborhood asked what the image of the city will be if towers continue to appear everywhere.
“London has parks, Washington has museums and so on.
“What will Jerusalem have to show? Towers?”