Cityfront: Breathing new life into Jerusalem

The capital's first municipal master plan since '59 envisions a network of parks and 150,000 new jobs.

Jerusalem Walls 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem Walls 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A green belt surrounding the city with picnic areas, hiking trails and a lake, 43 kilometers of bicycle paths, green construction, revamped infrastructure in east Jerusalem, a massive tourist drive, boutique hotels in Lifta, tens of thousands of new jobs in hi-tech and biotech. That will be the face of the capital in a few years' time, according to an ambitious new master plan submitted by the municipality last week. Judging by the municipality's press release, one might think the master plan was a totally new achievement of the current administration. The truth is, however, that this plan is the result of years of work, starting in the latter years of former mayor Ehud Olmert, first approved by his successor Uri Lupolianski - with the then city engineer, architect Uri Shetreet - and now finally submitted by Mayor Nir Barkat, once substantial changes according to his vision have been introduced. Yet in one way it is a "premiere." Upon assuming his role as mayor, Barkat and his deputy Naomi Tsur, in charge of environmental planning, asked the District Committee to freeze all work on the master plan submitted by Lupolianski. The reason? "This plan was conceived with the Safdie Plan for the construction of thousands of housing units in the green areas west of the city, which we opposed, and was ultimately canceled by the District Committee," explains Tsur. She adds that in addition to her team, she worked like mad with the mayor's support to present a revised plan, though still based on the original of 2003. "The results are much closer to what this new administration had in mind in that anything sustainable in nature is promoted, as we believe that a sustainable natural environment means sustainable life for humans as well. In other words, if the gazelles in the Valley of the Gazelles can breathe the air in the city, then we humans can breathe it too," says Tsur. About eight years of work by a team of some 25 experts in their respective fields have produced a comprehensive master plan for the largest and most complex city in Israel - a capital, a holy city and a place scrutinized by the entire world, of which the late Teddy Kollek once said, "In Jerusalem, even planting a tree can sometimes become an explosive international issue." Barkat's revised plan - the first to be submitted since 1959 - tries to accommodate his vision and his ideas: supporting business and economic development; promoting affordable housing; and placing special emphasis on anything that could promote his dream of drawing tourists to the capital. It is no secret that Barkat aims to bring in millions of tourists. "It is the least this city deserves," he said often during his campaign. Barkat also believes that the Old City in general and the area surrounding what is called the "holy basin" (with the City of David in the center) should be the central focus of the appeal of the city proposed to the millions of tourists - Jews and gentiles alike. Since Barkat doesn't support (to put it mildly) any plans for dividing the city, his vision includes all the locations in east Jerusalem which, according to people and organizations who believe that partition is the only solution to obtain peace in the region, should not be under Israeli control. Organizations working for a partition solution, as well as the residents of east Jerusalem, are rather suspicious of Barkat's intentions regarding the Old City, especially as far as the neighborhood of Silwan is concerned. Barkat has never hidden his opinion that this is precisely the part of the city that should be developed in terms of historical and religious tourism. For a while now, word of his plans, including some ambitious ideas, has been spread, but so far nothing has come of them. And if the mayor is harboring some particular plan, there is no evidence for the moment that any specific steps are being taken. Or as officials at the Prime Minister's Office put it recently: "East Jerusalem development policy remains the same," at least for the moment. Regarding the demolition of illegal houses in Silwan, according to high-level sources at Kikar Safra, the issue is no longer in the municipality's hands. Says municipality chief of staff Michal Shalem, "It is in the hands of the court and the Interior Ministry," despite the fact that most of those structures are considered by experts to be very unstable and dangerous in the event of heavy rain or flooding. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Barkat's municipal master plan for the next 20 years is also the first to propose a serious, detailed and budgeted plan for the benefit of the Arab residents. The plan includes some 13,550 housing units made available (i.e., granting construction permits for the first time in 40 years) and another 10,000 units to be constructed by 2030. Most of these units will be in the neighborhoods of A-Tur, Beit Hanina-Shuafat, Jebl Mukaber and in east Jerusalem outside the wall. The plan also includes an upgrade of infrastructure in the Arab neighborhoods, with special attention to the historical sites. At a recent meeting with members of his staff, Barkat announced his position regarding east Jerusalem. He stressed his desire to come with "clean hands," thus putting an end to the discrimination experienced by the city's Arab population in terms of maintenance, sidewalks, roads, public buildings and open spaces. Besides this delicate matter of the development of the Old City, the new master plan has a few additional typically Barkat insights: focus on economic and business development; open spaces; and a significant focus on green issues. In fact, according to the plan Jerusalem might become the first leading city in the country to implement green construction - including widespread use of solar panels on the rooftops of buildings, water recycling and green roofs. These will also be suggested to residents of existing buildings, including financial support for installation. A special team will be created at the municipality to coordinate with relevant organizations here and abroad. Another issue that has received more emphasis than in the original plan is that of open spaces. While in the plan presented by Lupolianski there was a basis for the creation of large parks throughout the city, in the revised plan Barkat is presenting five metropolitan parks that will surround the city. They will form a green belt allowing for leisure and recreational activities, such as extreme sports, picnic areas, hiking trails - and a lake! The plan also includes 43 kilometers of bicycle paths. As for the open spaces, they are divided into five types: metropolitan parks, municipal parks, park squares, neighborhood parks and neighborhood gardens. Explains Tsur, "When we saw the plan submitted by the former administration, we felt as if we were being asked to officially recognize a child we had never met before and hadn't raised ourselves." But after Barkat and his administration obtained three months in which to add their input to the plan, which includes special attention to green spaces, Tsur says she now feels "as close as possible to what an urban nature city should be." In regard to preservation and restoration, for the first time Jerusalem will have an official list of landmark buildings and structures to be preserved. Itzik Shweiki, the director of the Council for the Preservation of Sites in Jerusalem, is presenting the list to the public this week. According to the revised master plan, the first step will be to delineate the historical parts of the city, which will include neighborhoods and buildings built until 1948, in order to define the parameters of the tourist areas and to preserve their particular character and features. Tourism - and all industry associated with it - has received special attention, as expected from a mayor whose vision includes bringing in some 10 million tourists by the end of his term. The plan pinpoints the specific tourist areas. Besides the Old City and the holy basin, these include a few locations in the western part, such as the city center, with a plan to enlarge the pedestrian malls; the Ein Kerem neighborhood; the Haas Promenade and its surroundings (Armon Hanatziv ridge); and a newcomer, the Lifta neighborhood, which will undergo major development. At a special meeting of the Tourism Committee held a few weeks ago, one of the suggestions made its way to the plan. The opening of several boutique hotels will be encouraged. Like the Harmony Hotel in Nahalat Shiva, they will offer first-class amenities in an elegant, intimate environment and allow tourists to discover the sites and attractions of the city that are within walking distance. What's more, the revised plan facilitates solutions for the creation of 150,000 jobs in hi-tech, higher education, biotech and more, spread among four new industrial zones. In Givat Shaul, the plan will allow for the creation of a technical college and job training centers for the haredi community living there. The next step is for the plan to be submitted to the public for 90 days so they may render their comments and reactions. If it passes that hurdle, implementation can begin.