Jerusalem's construction boom

The long-expected push for transformation has arrived, but how long can Jerusalemites expect to live in a traffic-snarled and noise-filled building site?

How long can the capital’s residents expect to live in  a traffic-snarled and noise-filled construction site? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
How long can the capital’s residents expect to live in a traffic-snarled and noise-filled construction site?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With its long-anticipated construction boom, Jerusalem is experiencing a 10-year-high building rate after decades of relative economic stagnation, infrastructure deterioration and population impoverishment. This year, 10,000 new housing units were approved, along with 3,000 additional permits for construction, according to the municipality.
While Jerusalemites struggle with the fact that we live on a construction site and drilling and hammering have become the soundtrack of our lives, what can we expect in terms of the city’s future?
“The goal is to have a strong Jerusalem, to raise the socioeconomic ranking, take care of housing, employment, education and the standard of living at home,” Mayor Moshe Lion’s spokesperson told the Magazine. “We are working on several levels, every day, from morning to night, thinking about how to improve the city.”
Jerusalem is one of the poorest cities in the country. Some 45% of its inhabitants live below the poverty line, compared to 7% in Tel Aviv and 14% in Haifa. Its population mushroomed from 200,000 in 1968 to 830,000 in 2019. The city’s metropolitan area is projected to reach a population of 1.875 million by 2030, according to the Jerusalem Transport Management Team.
The construction boom
Developing infrastructure is a crucial challenge as the capital struggles to persuade economically strong sectors to remain in the city. Some 6,000 souls left Jerusalem in 2017, more than the number who moved into it (the population, however, rose by 18,700 due to natural increase). It is an enormous task to provide affordable housing while encouraging growth and attracting more affluent residents into the capital. Aware of the challenges and the urgency of the transformation, Jerusalemites are tolerating the disruptions with forbearance.
The Magazine outlines the main projects underway with their target completion dates.
All roads lead to Jerusalem
Fast trains, tunnels and new roads all figure into the transportation vision, but the price meanwhile includes construction sites, blocked roads and insufferable traffic.
• The new high-speed train from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv’s Haganah station is up and running.
• Road 16, a new entry route to Jerusalem, is now under construction. The five-kilometer road will connect Route 1 from the Motza area to Givat Mordechai through two tunnels to be constructed underneath the city’s Har Nof and Yefeh Nof neighborhoods. The estimated cost is over NIS 1 billion and its conclusion is expected in 2021, according to the municipality.
• Further moves to reduce congestion in the city include the construction of a public transportation lane along Begin Boulevard. A key thoroughfare, the boulevard will be broadened in the next 12 months, at a cost of NIS 30 million.
Upon arriving to the city one confronts the construction sites – with their attendant traffic and noise – of the flagship project: the Jerusalem Gateway.
City entrance
• Jerusalem Gateway: In July 2019, a primary route into the capital was shut for an estimated three-year period to enable work to commence on the Jerusalem Gateway. Advancing the vision of former mayor Nir Barkat to turn the capital into a business hub, the project’s 300,000 square meters includes 24 high-rise structures for housing, office and commercial facilities and underground parking for 1,300 cars.
• Bellius Compound: Between Jaffa Road and Shazar Boulevard, the Bellius Compound is rising. Approved last month, it is converting what once served as a bus parking lot into two additional buildings: a 34-floor residential building with 221 apartments and an office building, in addition to a five-story building with 36 apartments. The plan also includes a bridge over Shazar Boulevard conveniently linking Jaffa Road to the train station. It all comes at a high cost – not just monetary, but also in gridlock and general nuisance.
“Every hour of my workday I hear drilling and hammering,” said Yehezkel Levy, a Jerusalem resident who works at an office building on the corner of Jaffa Street and Shazar Boulevard. “It’s driving me crazy because it never stops and it will go on for years.”
Other building projects
Providing housing for the city’s diverse population requires high-rise construction, a practice uncommon in Jerusalem until recently. A new policy approved in 2018 paves the way for contractors to build 20- and 30-floor buildings along the light rail route, a type of construction heretofore unseen in the city.
The question of whether this kind of construction will extend to other neighborhoods, especially Orthodox ones, remains uncertain, given that Jewish law bans using elevators on Shabbat, preventing a significant haredi population from inhabiting these new structures. Furthermore, it might increase demographic segregation in a city that doesn’t necessarily need encouragement to segregate its residents. In the last decade, however, the proportion of 10-floor-high construction in Jerusalem is 20%, whereas in the country it exceeds 60%.
“Our plan is to build 5,000 housing units per year,” the mayor’s spokesperson said. “In past years, only 2,000 housing units were built, creating a great shortage in the city. We take into consideration the needs of each population and each area.”
One such project involves 400 apartments in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood, where four old buildings will give way to 13 buildings ranging from six to 16 floors. As part of the project under the umbrella of Tama 38 (National Master Plan 38), current owners of apartments there will receive a new, bigger unit. This project was initiated by the owners, who organized a committee and hired an attorney, architect and project manager; their submitted plan was approved after 30 months.
“Everybody in Jerusalem lives near a construction site,” said Noa Shalit, a Beit Hakerem resident. “There is no escape. The sites are by our houses, by our workplaces, on the way to wherever we are going in the city.”
One reason why everybody here seems to “live near a construction site” is Tama 38, which allows for construction and forgoes the requirement of submitting a “traditional”plan. As of mid-2019, there were over 700 “Tama 38” projects here in different stages, translating into more than 5,600 additional apartments (some built, others to be built).
“I am tense when I go out in the street,” said Rehavia resident Rivkah Yael Elizur. “Whether it is a tractor rushing down the street in reverse, construction material being thrown into a truck or workers breaking rocks on the sidewalk, something is always happening, from morning to evening, sometimes even late at night.”
In addition to the construction, the city is also executing a general infrastructure renovation of sidewalks and roads. Multiple streets are closed at different times, and on busy thoroughfares like Azza Street and Hebron Road, the work grinds on continuously from morning until past midnight. (By municipal law, building is allowed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., though projects may secure special permits to go past those hours.)
“There is dust and noise, and they are rebuilding the streets and planting trees where there were parking spaces,” said Yehonatan Vadai, a business owner on Azza and Mitudela streets. “The problem is that everything is done too quickly. Like the sidewalk here – they completed the work fast, but they already informed us that they will need to redo it.”
“Lion is not interested in the well-being of Jerusalem’s residents; he wants just to get things done by the next elections,” Ofer Berkovitch, head of the Hitorerut Party in the city council and a member of Jerusalem’s municipal Housing and Construction Committee, told the Magazine. “There is a better way to manage these essential projects that have been under consideration and planning for so long so the residents don’t feel ‘under attack.’ There are other areas available for building, such as Givat Hamatos and Atarot, that can help solve the problem.  The construction doesn’t need to always be in areas where people live.”
Givat Hamatos and Atarot in northern Jerusalem are under Housing Ministry consideration. Atarot, for example, has been operating as an industrial zone for years and has been deemed eligible for 11,000 housing units. As there are no simple solutions for Jerusalem’s problems, building in those neighborhoods involves significant geopolitical considerations that make the situation even harder, one of the reasons that most construction is taking place in already inhabited areas.
“We know it is hard for everyone,” said the mayor’s spokesperson, “but it is a manageable balagan [mess]. The mayor personally meets with relevant officials weekly to check the progress, fix problems that arise and shorten schedules wherever possible. It’s important that residents are aware we are doing the best we can to optimize and manage all city construction.”
Other neighborhoods further from the city center have received high investments, such as Mordot Arnona, located in the southern part of the city near Arnona and Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. Some 1,800 housing units are planned to be built in the neighborhood, including green areas.
Another significant neighborhood project is the White Ridge, also located in southern Jerusalem near Moshav Ora and Aminadav. The neighborhood is expected to hold 5,500 housing units with a commercial area, conveniently accessible by the light rail.
Environmental considerations
Expanding beyond the already constructed areas of the city, however, means diminishing green areas, cutting down reserves and creating an imbalance in the delicate ecosystem of the region, as is the case with the White Ridge.
The White Ridge is an essential component of the area’s hydrological system – springs and other water bodies, according to Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). Developing the area may reduce water seepage into the soil, which decreases the water flow and affects the entire water system. In addition, the ridge is part of the ecological corridor along Refaim River, where large mammals such as the Israeli deer reside. Even if green areas are maintained, construction disrupts the corridor and destroys the natural habitat of several species.
After three decades of battle, the construction plan was put in place in December 2018, with more than 7,000 objections filed last year by MKs, scientists and other public figures. Yet the municipality’s urban division emphasized that the ecological and hydrological landscape considerations have been incorporated into the planning of the neighborhood, claiming that the hydrological regime of the area will be protected, a scenario that the SPNI claims is absurd if building starts at all.
A state comptroller’s report from March 2019 showed that national traffic volume has increased in the past decade by 25%, making Israel one of the most congested OECD countries, with congestion on the roads three-and-a-half times above the average.
One of the ways Jerusalem is trying to ease the long-term traffic situation is through extension of the light rail. The initial Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan Team envisioned nine lines by 2030, which would create a well-connected network between the outlying neighborhoods and the city center. Such a plan has proven to be unrealistic, however, and only one line, the Red Line, is nearing completion. With a projected daily ridership of 140,000, the Red Line will be extended from Pisgat Ze’ev to Neve Yaakov and from Har Herzl to Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, at a cost of NIS 3.8 billion. The project is expected to be completed in 2022.
Also under construction is the Green Line, which will run from Mount Scopus to Gilo, passing through the residential areas of Malha and covering 22.6 km. It will have 33 stations; segments of the line are scheduled to begin running in 2023.
A national leader in construction site safety violations
Spot checks by the Labor and Welfare Ministry of construction sites in the Jerusalem district revealed a sad, though expected reality: 19 of the 24 sites were temporarily shut down under safety orders, given the deficiencies concerning the safety of their workers and bystanders. Jerusalem is the leader of construction safety violations, according to the ministry. In 2019, eight construction accidents were reported in the city with three on-site deaths. (The rating, however, is based on the number of site shut-down orders; Yavne led the country with the number of fatal accidents).
Rome wasn’t built in a day
Jerusalem’s transformation right in front of our eyes is something to be celebrated, even though it is a great source of nuisance for the short term. Questions regarding the necessity of getting it all done at once remain relevant, but every person in the city knows the urgency of solving the capital’s deep-rooted problems. One to two years is the time frame for some of the significant projects, and residents look forward to a return to relative normalcy.
“We are aware of the traffic jams on the roads, but this is a small drawback for greater advancements,” the mayor’s spokesperson declared. “In a few years, Jerusalem will be the best city in Israel in all respects.”
This is the first of a two-part story on “Jerusalem’s construction boom.” The second part will examine construction in east Jerusalem and solving the housing problem.