Cityfront: Life in the fast lane

The plan to transform Jaffa Road into a pedestrian mall gets moving.

'Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people, it has to be beautiful," says Reuven Malka, whose store Malka Carpets is located on the corner of Rehov Strauss and Jaffa Road. Malka is one of many merchants whose businesses will more than likely be relocated due to the construction of the light rail and the subsequent transformation of Jaffa Road from a traffic-filled thoroughfare into a quaint pedestrian mall stretching from Kikar Davidka to Rehov Cheshin. Indeed, this past week, City-Pass, the consortium building the light rail, began laying tracks along this section of Jaffa Road. As work progresses, some of the bus stops there will be transplanted to nearby streets, including Rehov Hanevi'im. Throughout the construction process, however, Jaffa Road will remain open to public transportation, albeit with fewer lanes, and access to area businesses, residences and services will be preserved. But in Kikar Safra and on the streets, the definition of "beautiful" doesn't seem to be one and the same. City planners, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the municipality have their ideas about what is going to return Jerusalem to the Midrashic status of a city possessing nine-tenths of the world's beauty, but it comes as no surprise that reactions to the new developments run the gamut from hopeful appreciation to downright recalcitrance. Planning Department head Osnat Post made the municipality's vision quite clear: "Jerusalem does not have to look like a shuk." One of the buildings being torn down to make way for a new aesthetic is the 80-plus-year-old landmark on Rehov Yoel Solomon next to Kikar Zion. Aside from a money-changer known as Kent on the corner, the rest of the building is boarded up and vacant, its windows dirty and taped. Just a few months ago, this stretch of real estate was thriving as the former address of the Underground and Old Friend Rock Bar nightclubs, as well as Holy Bagel, Steimatzky and Coffee Time. But since the end of April it has been sitting empty. According to Post, the commercial developers are still in the process of finalizing the proper documentation to destroy the building. When asked if the building would become a high-class residential complex, the mayor's office released a statement saying that "in a meeting arranged with the city planner in regard to the corner building of Kikar Zion, the intent to build business space and offices was presented and made clear, and the developers received full support of the city planner in this matter. It was made clear that the plans would be accepted only for the use of offices, trade and hotels." But not everyone is pleased with the changes. Nehemia, a staff manager at Holy Bagel, didn't appreciate having to move. "Obviously, we didn't want to move, but we didn't have a choice." Employees of the Old Friend Rock Bar were disappointed that the bar had to relocate to a much smaller venue up the road where this isn't enough space for live music shows. Chino, a bartender, is wary of the changes the development plans pose to the area's character. "This area is the third neighborhood that was built outside the Old City of Jerusalem. The municipality is destroying the buildings and replacing them with well-planned and well-designed boxes of architecture," he says. "Look!" he yells, pointing out the window of Scream, a new bar on Rehov Shlomo Hamelech, toward new buildings being constructed in the area. "How does this fit in with the character of the city? Instead of nice old buildings that have been here for years, there will be another box." Malka agrees:"They have to leave at least a portion of the city's appearance with a sense of the past." Still, Malka is more optimistic than Chino about the projected developments. "Right now, this is an ugly area. If they're going to build it nicely, make a square here and add fountains, it could be very good, very interesting and very nice. But most of the owners here in the area bought their stores under key money, so the city and the developers have to give them new stores or pay them well to leave," he says. "According to the plans I saw at the municipality, that's what they want to do. But the questions are when are they going to do it, and if it's serious." It's serious, all right. The municipal Planning Department is busy with projected changes to the city center as delineated by a city model in its offices, representing 5.6 square kilometers. One plan on the horizon is to return the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design from Mount Scopus to downtown, specifically to the Russian Compound. "The historic building [on Rehov Shmuel Hanagid] does not have enough space for Bezalel, which is why they moved to Mount Scopus," says Post. "But we said it has to be in the city center. I believe a branch of Bezalel will continue to operate from the historic building." Other additions to the Russian Compound are to be built over the existing parking lot and prison. The project will consist of residential areas, parking lots, hotels and coffee shops with a view of the Mount of Olives. More plans include the planting of 3,000 trees and the building of the Museum of Tolerance and the District Court at the border of Nahalat Shiva and Independence Park. Regarding the pedestrian mall, a statement released by the mayor's office said: "The municipality of Jerusalem is making great efforts to bring the city center [including the area of Kikar Zion] chances to develop in commercial and business aspects." Post adds: "These developments are bringing the opportunity to combine culture and commercial activity when people come to visit the city. We want to bring luxury items and haute couture to be sold here." Still, some locals are skeptical about the plans' benefit to area businesses. "Demolishing the old buildings would obviously affect all the businesses around because nobody likes to eat or drink in the middle of a construction site unless you're a worker and you have a lunch break," says Chino. When asked, three of five people either owning a business or employed on Rehov Ben-Hillel said they thought that a pedestrian mall along Jaffa Road would be a deterrent to existing businesses even after construction was completed. "Business was better before the midrahov [pedestrian mall] was built," one said. The other two interviewed didn't work on Rehov Ben-Hillel until after the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall was built in 1983. Also in question is how these plans will affect downtown nightlife. "They are going to be amputating part of the nightlife of Jerusalem that's been there since the beginning of modern Israel, and obviously they are going to get away with that because they already have a deal. It's just sad to see," says Chino. A source wishing to remain anonymous disclosed that in a meeting with downtown business owners, Mayor Uri Lupolianski voiced his intention to move the Jerusalem nightlife scene away from the city center, and toward Talpiot or the Central Bus Station. When asked about this, the mayor's office did not comment. The same source informed In Jerusalem that other buildings in the area which house bars and restaurants, including Mike's Place, are also slated for destruction. Asked what he thought about the situation, Mike's Place owner, Asaf, says: "Not much. Our landlord, who recently bought the place, said we have at least over a year, so we're definitely not worried. They've been talking about destroying this place since I was in high school and that was a while ago, so I'm sure it's going to take a few more years than our landlord thinks. But this is our fourth location, and if we have to move again, we'll move again."