2020 vision

Imagine what Jerusalem might look like in the year 2020.

jerusalem bridge 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem bridge 88
(photo credit: )
Imagine what Jerusalem might look like in the year 2020. Will 40-story skyscrapers adorn the horizon, foreigners and retirees inhabiting the luxury penthouses and young sabra families residing in the apartments below? Will the city's borders have expanded westwards to Tel Aviv, as sprawl encroaches upon the surrounding peripheral "green space" to create an affordable suburbia? Such issues dealing with the direction and growth of Jerusalem were the main items on the agenda at the Second Annual Jerusalem Business Conference held this week at the International Conference Center. The classy networking event was sponsored by Globes, The Municipality of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Development Authority and The Jewish Agency, but also present were such hi-tech notables like NDS, IDT and the non-profit Jerusalem Foundation. Operating under the slogan, "Dream, Renewal and Hope," the event attracted a few thousand representatives of businesses interested in forming connections with each other and listening to government agencies and private entrepreneurs debate plans for City's future. Mayor Uri Lupolianski opened the event by expressing sorrow over the loss of two soldiers earlier this week and an entreaty that Israel's kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit be returned safely, offering a subtle reminder that despite the social atmosphere at the conference, the city's business initiatives cannot be separated from the politics of the state. If last year's conference focused on Jerusalem's transportation infrastructure, this year's conversations were dedicated to the impact that private development and other real estate initiatives have on the growth of the city and the revitalization of downtown. The issues at hand concerned available space, affordable housing and foreign investments. Participating in the opening panel, the private contractors, developers and Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack, agreed on two points: that planners must find a means of providing affordable housing to young couples, students and soldiers, and that foreign investments (already a well-established trend) are an essential component to growing Jerusalem. Conventional wisdom has rarely found these goals to be compatible with one another, however, as foreign investors often drive up the price of real estate beyond the reach of Jerusalem's lower income sectors. The panel moderated by well-known Israeli lawyer, real estate developer and and millionaire Shraga Biran, presented some choice ideas on how to reconcile the two goals. Biran argued that Jerusalem must start to see itself as an "international city similar to Paris and New York" and employ comparable planning models to capitalize on its wealth within its borders without expanding westward. "We must create the right content to turn Jerusalem into a regional and global command center," he said. Noting that Jerusalem has 123,000 square meters of space available for development within its borders - the same volume as Paris - Biran lamented the fact that Jerusalem currently fits only 180,000 individual apartment units into the space, while Paris can boast of three times the amount of available living space. Calling urban sprawl a "destructive process all over the world" he advocated inward development to tighten and strengthen the city's center while preserving the land around Jerusalem's tactical borders. Like many of the panelists, Biran praised the city for its efforts to encourage development, while faulting the Israeli government which, he claimed, has ignored Jerusalem's problems for the past 30 years. Indeed the municipality boasted at the conference of a 70 percent increase in building permit requests since 2002, almost all of which it has granted. The fear among many city planners, however, is that the million dollar plus prices for these new homes will appeal mainly to foreign investors, forcing younger couples to flee the city in search of more reasonably priced housing. Not surprisingly, mega-developer Alfred Akirov, developer of the Mamilla Project, argued that the money brought into the city from tourism in Jerusalem's five-star hotels and new apartment buildings more than contribute to the city's economy and create an important link between Jerusalem and the Diaspora. "Jerusalem is the link to the Diaspora that will determine whether Jews will come to live here," he stated. Other panelists decried the "myth of the ghost-town" created by luxury developments which mostly appeal to American buyers who employ them as second residences during the holiday seasons, leaving them empty throughout the rest of the year. "Are there any ghost towns in Miami," asked Shlomo Eisenberg rhetorically, head of Jerusalem's Technology Park. "We must create a cultural environment to encourage people in the third stage of their lives to want to live here," he said, contending that American Jewry should be convinced to move to Jerusalem rather than retirement communities in Florida. Addressing the problem of affordable housing was not entirely ignored by panel members. To much applause from the audience, the head of the Contractors' Building and Infrastructure Association head, Yair Biton called for an immediate solution to the predicament. Citing figures which show that Jerusalem's population will reach one million by the year 2020, Biton predicted a major housing shortage upwards of 3,500 units a year under the current pace of development. Arguing that luxury development should continue in the center of the city in tandem to western expansion, Biton maintained that a "robust Jerusalem doesn't have to come at the expense of a broad Jerusalem." That debates over Jerusalem's expansion are taking place after the major economic downturn during the intifada is a good thing and was widely acknowledged by conference participants. Nevertheless, any future direction in Jerusalem's growth will have to be decided by a broader panel of representation that can offer more than the views of Jerusalem's anxious developers.