Dramatic renovations planned for Jerusalem’s Old City

New tunnel in Jewish Quarter will lead to underground parking lot with dozens of apartments on top.

kotel plaza 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kotel plaza 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The last time someone blasted through the Old City walls was in 1898, and it’s going to stay that way, architect David Sherki told The Jerusalem Post while clarifying his plans for the proposed construction in the Old City.
Sherki’s firm is building a parking garage in the Old City, and it will have a new entrance, but not a break in the walls. Instead, the architect proposes to create a tunnel underneath the southern wall between the Zion and Dung Gates.
The tunnel is part of a larger plan that includes new public parks, dozens of apartments and a 600-space parking area underground.
Sherki’s company, Jerusalem Building Workshop, was in the media recently amid reports that it was planning to break through the Old City’s walls in order to build the new garage.
Sherki called the reports “simply untrue.”
The proposed plan, which already has the initial approval from the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee, will be one of the most drastic architectural changes to the make-up of the Jewish Quarter, and will turn the current Jewish Quarter parking lot into a residential area.
“You see [the current parking lot] and it’s not built up. It’s totally empty compared with the rest of the Jewish Quarter,” explained Sherki, in his airy office on King George Street.
“The goal of the project is to fill in the empty spaces and give more cohesiveness to the Old City from the urban standpoint. The parking garage is a by-product.”
In 1898, Ottoman authorities knocked down part of the wall near Jaffa Gate to allow Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to pass through with his imperial entourage. Today, vehicles use the opening as one of the main entrances into the Old City.
Prior to 1967, the current parking lot was an archeological dig, so researchers already have a clear picture of what they’ll find when they tear up the asphalt. Because of this, they’ve been able to design an underground parking garage that moves with the contours of the expected archeological finds, which will be two levels at some points and four levels at other points.
“We're not dogmatic – if it happens that we find more archeological sites, then we’ll have less spaces,” Sherki said with a shrug. “Our goal is 600, but if we end up with 500, no problem. The conditions of the area will dictate what’s possible.”
Building an underground parking garage in an area as archeologically rich as the Old City may seem like a recipe for disaster, but Sherki insists that other ancient cities around the world are doing the same thing.
“Now the trend is that ancient cities like Toledo, Rome, and Paris are putting in underground parking garages, in cooperation with UNESCO,” Sherki said.
“They're dealing with these problems and finding that you need to put parking even in historical places.
“There are people that say, ‘We don’t need parking here.’ But everyone understands that you can’t solve a problem by erasing it. We have to figure out how to take care of it.
“We are in favor, of course, of strengthening public transportation as much as possible, and of diluting the traffic that’s left as much as possible. We’re looking for ways to cause the least amount of private traffic. That’s the big picture.”
On June 6, the municipality banned private cars, except for vehicles belonging to Old City residents or transporting the disabled, from entering the Old City between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Disabled rights activists and the citizen groups like Movement for Jerusalem and its Residents have complained bitterly about the restriction, and are appealing to the Transportation Ministry to repeal the ban.
The cars cause more than just traffic, Sherki notes. They also cause damage to the buildings, especially Zion Gate, where larger cars often scrape the walls.
Sherki admitted that it would be impossible not to lose some archeology in the course of construction, and said it took many years for the Israel Antiquities Authority to agree with the plan because of the potential archeological losses. But he believes that because they have a good idea of what exists underneath, the construction will minimize the destruction of archeological ruins.
At its deepest point, if no significant archeological discoveries are made, the parking garage will reach a depth of about nine meters, allowing for four levels of parking. But with as little as five meters, a depth Sherki is certain they can reach without disturbing any ruins, they can have a double-tiered parking garage.
“It’s preferable to dig at a spot where there’s ruins from the Second Temple Period, of which there’s such an abundance,” he said.
“There’s two kinds of archeology,” Sherki explained.
“There's archeology that’s oneof- a-kind and archeology that’s not one-of-a-kind.
“For example, if I find a mikveh from the Second Temple period, there’s like 300 other ones that we know about. That’s not saying that it’s not important and it’s not exciting, but it’s saying that it’s well known what it looks like and what it means historically. It doesn’t give us anything more if we find another.
“But it does mean something if we find something unknown, like a Roman Street [which recently happened near Jaffa Gate while upgrading sewage pipes] or a monument of some sort. That’s a totally different story. Our strategy needs to take this into consideration.”
Sherki’s plan is not connected to the renovations at the Western Wall Plaza announced at the beginning of the week, which also call for an underground entrance, additional parking, and areas for a visitor center and auditorium.
That plan, designed by Gavriel Kertesz, got the initial approval from the municipality on Monday.
On Wednesday, Tourism Ministry director-general Noaz Bar-Nir and Jerusalem Municipality director-general Yair Maayan took a tour of the Old City to examine ways to improve tourism infrastructure in the city’s biggest tourism attraction. The municipality is coordinating a variety of aggressive renovation projects in the Old City as part of the mayor’s vision to increase tourism from three million visitors a year to 10 million by 2020.
While the parking garage will certainly help alleviate some of the difficulties faced by tourists, Sherki is also passionate about what will come on top of the parking garage – public parks and apartment buildings.
His firm has presented three different plans to the municipality, which are still under discussion. One plan calls for a large park and a massive residential unit, a second plan calls for a series of smaller parks with buildings placed in a density similar to the rest of the Jewish Quarter, and the third attempts to strike a balance between the two options.
Any construction – whether for the parking garage, tunnel, or residential units – is years away. First, all the plans must pass through a complicated and lengthy approval process from both the municipality and Interior Ministry, including multiple periods for public comment.
“Of course we're getting responses from the residents, Muslims, UNESCO,” said Sherki.
“Look at what happened when we rebuilt the Hurva synagogue and we had Arab riots. It went all the way to the United Nations. Of course you’re going to have strong reactions to anything you do in the Old City, that’s clear.”
Despite the obstacles, Sherki dismissed the notion that his project poses an insurmountable challenge.
“It’s [about] perspective,” he said. “Our perspective is that we design in the real world.
We're not in a vacuum, saying ‘this is what we want.’ In the Old City, you do the design that's possible.”