Overhauling urban planning

The government and local councils have yet to internalize the fact that urban renewal is an existential need

Urban planning organizations in Israel are practically powerless. Governments relinquish power to the politicians who sit on city and regional planning committees and whose only concern is protecting the interests of the sectors they represent. This sectorial approach often greatly harms the general public.
Planning committee demands to change and delay plans, to add tasks and to limit building rights make urban planning economically not viable. Betterment levies sometimes reach as much as half of the value of the land. As a result, when permits are given to expand existing buildings, contractors must pass on these costs when they set the prices of apartments.
Limitations imposed on Israeli urban planning do not exist anywhere else in the world. The combination of the lengthy and incomprehensible approval process of city building plans, the overly bureaucratic approval process and the high cost of attaining building permits have led to an increase in real estate prices, which, in turn, has brought about a shortage of land available for construction.
The process of attaining a building permit is also complicated by the fact that all public objections must be heard before a permit can be given. Sometimes, hundreds of objections are submitted, in which case plans can be delayed for very long periods.
An investigative judge must hear and decide on all objections, at the end of which he submits his recommendations to the regional committee. This process is extremely time consuming. As a result, everyone suffers.
If the approval process were restructured to emulate processes in Europe and the US, the current situation would be greatly improved.
National Master Plan 38 is another method used to carry out urban regeneration. The plan’s purpose is to reinforce buildings against earthquakes. To this end the legislature has allowed adding floors on existing buildings. It is extremely difficult for economic and bureaucratic reasons for tenants to carry out these changes. This is where entrepreneurs and contractors enter the picture; the latter then examine the economic and market viability of the project.
Currently, the state allows tenants to add 25 square meters to their apartments.
The entrepreneur is also permitted to add one garden apartment on the ground floor, as well as two typical sized floors and a penthouse apartment that covers half of the area of the structure.
Theoretically, this arrangement sounds logical and profitable for both parties; the tenants get what they’ve requested, and the entrepreneur benefits from an additional four floors. But what tenants desire is not always what they receive in reality: 1. Some cities, such as Tel Aviv and Givatayim, do not fully follow ordinances and only allow a limited number of floors to be added. In this case, it is not economically viable for a contractor to carry out Plan 38.
The result is that many buildings in these cities have not been reinforced to withstand earthquakes.
2. The low value of land and apartments in many cities also prevent the implementation of Plan 38. The addition of four floors to residential buildings in these areas does not allow a contractor to cover his expenses, making the project economically not viable.
Of course, this occurs more often in cities on the periphery that are far from the center and where real estate values are lower, making the reinforcement of buildings in these areas against earthquakes not worthwhile.
There are numerous scheduling difficulties – mostly due to economic concerns – which slow down the regeneration process, resulting in the constant rise of real estate prices. This is especially significant in large cities where demand for apartments is much greater than supply.
Urban renewal is an existential need of the environment in which people live.
Another area that has been neglected is transportation infrastructure. The number of cars on the road has increased tremendously over the past few years and existing roads can no longer accommodate such heavy traffic.
Israel is 65 years old. The government and local councils have yet to internalize the fact that urban renewal is an existential need.
Changing the procedures for approving building permits would allow buildings in older neighborhoods to be strengthened and reinforced.
Currently, the amount of time it takes for a plan to be approved is so long that sometimes the original plan is no longer appropriate by the time the permit is given.
Economic and urban factors, as well as locations where people choose to purchase homes are dynamic and often change during the lengthy permit approval period.
The result is that there is no correlation between the plans that are waiting for approval and government authorized urban planning. Some officials say that current policies should remain in place, and that changes should not be carried out just because the public has made demands.
There is a complete disconnect between what the public wants and what the government permits. For example, in Jaffa or south Tel Aviv if there is a demand for adding onto two or three-room apartments, but municipal building plans require a minimum addition of 90 meters per unit, the public’s needs are not satisfied. It is also important to note that urban renewal in Israel is not carried out only because buildings have aged or zoning changes were implemented. Many times, renewal is carried out for political reasons, at the behest of national or local leaders.
For example, new neighborhoods are added to existing cities in an effort to increase the percentage of Jewish residents, as happened in Upper Nazareth. The state allocated funds and created plans whose goal was to create a new city from the ground up that included a mixed population with a larger Jewish presence.
In addition, Tel Aviv and Jaffa are officially one municipality, however, in the past very few Jews lived in Jaffa.
As a result of incentives such as waving betterment levies, promoting new building starts in Jaffa, extending public structures, developing underground infrastructure, improved landscaping, many Jewish Israelis moved into the area. In addition, a number of new neighborhoods were built in Jaffa, which has made the city more attractive to Jewish residents.
The renovation and additions to existing houses in Jaffa have turned it into an attractive and desirable residential area.
Similar phenomena can be seen in the Neve Tzedek and Florentine neighborhoods.
Urban renewal has resulted in physical and demographic changes, which could possibly lead to social conflict between the new and veteran communities.
Israeli leaders would do well not to ignore this issue. Since these demographic changes have only just begun, it will take some time before we know exactly how the social dynamics in Jaffa have changed.
Another recent phenomenon that is taking place in large Israeli cities is the creation of extremely tall towers. The impetus for building such tall buildings is the high price of land. Building structures with a larger number of housing units allows contractors to maximize land usage.
The destruction of old houses and the construction of multi-story buildings in their place have changed the character of these locations. Neighborhoods, which previously sported buildings that were between two and four stories tall, are now full of high-rises.
US studies have proven that low socioeconomic populations find it difficult to maintain the costs of living in high-rise buildings. Shared fees in the building, repair costs and maintenance fees are usually extremely high. The result in the US has been that some buildings that were not well maintained turned into slums and, at some point, needed to be torn down. Since high-rise towers are also a relatively new phenomenon here, it will take some time until their social implications come to light.
In conclusion, urban renewal is a process that reflects reality. It is a tool whose aim is to fulfill the public’s needs. It is a fundamental requirement for the huge number of people who have chosen to live in cities. This process should be carried out in a controlled and intelligent manner in order to minimize damage. It is possible to delay urban renewal, but there is no way to completely block it.
My recommendation to politicians and to national and local council leaders is to accept the facts on the ground, to help Israel move forward and to actively strive to create a higher quality of life.
It would be helpful if Israeli government offices and local councils would cooperate with each other in order to bring about change. Waiting periods need to be shortened, bureaucratic demands should be canceled and more land should be made available. By doing this, urban renewal will become a national priority.
Residents’ quality of life is a direct byproduct of their high-quality physical environment, which can only be attained with the appropriate housing and infrastructure. 
Elisa Rubin is a Tel Aviv architect and town planner.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.