Big construction project angers Abu Tor residents

Locals claim $20 million project will ruin tranquility of Jerusalem neighborhood.

abu tor 88 (photo credit: )
abu tor 88
(photo credit: )
The days of the once-quiet Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, famed for its Arab houses and stunning vistas, could soon come to an end, local residents fear. The planned construction of a new cultural center on the edge of the neighborhood and adjacent to a major city promenade is being opposed by scores of neighborhood residents, who say the project will forever change the tranquility of the residential area. The planned $20 million cultural center, which is the initiative of the Gabriel Sherover Foundation, is up for state approval this week after previously receiving the go-ahead from the Jerusalem Municipality. The controversy over the building of the cultural center mirrors similar recent debates in nearby residential neighborhoods over the construction of high-rise buildings, including a planned major hotel, as the amount of land in central Jerusalem available for building is fast running out. The proposed cultural center, which is slated to be built just off Hebron Road adjacent to the mixed neighborhood's entrance to the lush Haas Promenade and the popular Taverna restaurant, will span 17,330 sq.m., and will include seven cinema halls and four coffee shops and restaurants as well as an auditorium, a library, an Internet cafe and various seminar rooms and galleries. The center, which is expected to be built within two-and-a-half years after receiving final approval, will operate seven days a week, including Saturdays. Neighborhood residents say the planned cultural center will, in fact, be no different than a small mall and will ruin the tranquility and peace of the once-borderline but now upscale Jerusalem neighborhood with its influx of traffic, noise and congestion. "The Sabbath is the most important value that Judaism has given to humanity, and is the only day when we can connect to the tranquility of the place which is why we chose to make it our home," said resident Amos Stempel. He added that a center with seven cinema halls and various eateries was not a cultural center but a mall for all intents and purposes. "A plan which will only bring intense traffic to an area with a promenade and forest on a 24-hour basis is not what Jerusalem stands for," he said. Other neighborhood residents said it was not clear why there needed to be seven cinema halls at the planned cultural center when the city's Cinematheque was just down the street and two other movie theaters were located minutes away by car. "The thrust of the municipality plan is to strengthen downtown Jerusalem, but there are no cinema halls in the city center," said resident Sue Surkes, who added that planners had failed to consult with neighborhood residents over the plan. The area in question was originally slated to be the site of a new city hotel, and the planned cultural center will be built in its stead, said Uzi Wexler, chairman of the Sherover Foundation. He said that the seven "small" cinema halls have seating for 740 people and would be used to screen quality films as well as videos. Wexler added that the site was intended to be primarily a cultural center but, like other such cultural centers in Israel and in major cities around the world, would include commercial aspects - such as coffee shops - for the benefit of visitors. Wexler has been running the Sherover Foundation since the passing of the late philanthropist Gita Sherover two-and-a-half years ago. The non-profit organization, best known for establishing the section of the city promenade adjacent to Abu Tor, was set up by Sherover in memory of her son, Gabriel. The building proposal could be approved as early as a Thursday Interior Ministry meeting in Tel Aviv. The debate is the latest in a series of back-to-back city neighborhood disputes over construction and building in the remaining open spaces in central Jerusalem. Last year, residents of the nearby Baka neighborhood protested city plans to reroute traffic through the heart of their neighborhood as part of traffic changes slated to go into effect due to the city's light rail system, while residents of the city's neighboring German Colony fought the city plan to build a high-rise hotel in their neighborhood. The burst of city construction comes as the area of remaining open space in central Jerusalem is fast disappearing.