Colonial character

Debate continues on what to do with the huge, empty Omariya Compound and how it will affect the neighboring German Colony.

palace hotel 298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
palace hotel 298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
On a particularly chilly Jerusalem evening last week, dozens of people struggled to squeeze into a room on the ground floor of the International Cultural Center for Youth on Rehov Emek Refaim. Instead of taking in a salsa show or kids' karate demonstration, the crowd, mostly middle-aged, had come to discuss the impending construction that threatens their neighborhood and to strategize their opposition campaign. The contest over the Omariya Compound, the area that sits at the intersection of the German Colony, Talbiyeh, and the old railway station, is not a new one. Developers have eyed the lot since the 1970s, envisioning high-rise hotels and office buildings, and most recently, an extensive promenade, tracts of private homes and a commercial center. All the while, local residents have stood guard, wary of the transformation the construction will bring to the neighborhood's character. Monday night's meeting focused on the previously-approved building plan for a seven-story Four Seasons Hotel on the northern area of the lot, formerly a playground, and the rumor that the developers are scheming for approval to expand the building parameters to 13 floors to make room for a series of luxury suites. When area residents got word of the purported changes, they formed an ad-hoc Action Committee, enlisted the expertise of Assaf Shaked, a planner with the local Ginot Ha'ir Neighborhood Administration and retained the legal counsel of Benji Hyman, an urban planner and lawyer who specializes in planning and building law. Two weeks ago, the committee decided it was important to better orient area residents about the planning details of the Four Seasons Hotel, in order to create an informed opposition. They invited the hotel's architect to present the plan and advertised the event by pasting posters throughout the neighborhood. From there, word quickly spread on its own, even making its way onto several local e-mail lists. At the last minute, the architect canceled. Committee members, however, felt the meeting was too important and decided to run it on their own. Shaked opened the meeting with a description of the construction plan, the blueprints hanging behind him. As he spoke, he struggled to compete for attention with the flow of latecomers who, finding neither seating nor standing room, trailed out the door. Seated attendees wriggled in their chairs, struggling to hear and see over the haphazard fence of those standing. Flyers with diagrams and a summary of the proposed construction circulated. Soon after, volunteers passed clipboards around the room, to compile an attendance roster and gather signatures for a petition against the hotel's expansion. A woman in the audience cut Shaked's presentation short. "But why was the plan approved? That is the point!" she declared. Ehud Halevy, a member of the Action Committee and a local architect, reassured her that the amended plan had yet to be approved. He redirected the meeting back to the content of the proposed changes, which, he emphasized, were much more than mere technicalities. "We are talking here of not just building high, but of building in volume… an uncivilized action… with considerable impact on residents," he said. A man from the audience recalled a similar public protest years ago over the Laromme Hotel (now the Inbal), which succeeded in trimming that plan from 14 to seven stories. Halevy continued, explaining that the proposed additions to the Four Seasons Hotel are meant for the construction of a series of residences. He described these residences as timeshares, because the buyers are mostly wealthy Jews from abroad and the homes will remain empty most of the year. "At last the street will live up to its name 'Valley of the ghosts,'" a woman quipped. Hyman took the stage next. "The struggle begins with securing an interim order [to stall construction on the already approved plan]," he said. "If we want to succeed, we have to exploit all mediums, including the legal route." Hyman predicted that the amended plan would be submitted in a couple of months, at which point, he said, the essential stage of the struggle would take place. After that, the residents will have 60 days to persuade the District Planning Committee. In addition to objections to the sheer volume of the project, Hyman explained, the arguments against the plan will focus on the proposed construction's "incompatibility with the colony's character." He concluded by highlighting the significance of this particular struggle. Success or failure will serve as a reference for future building plans. Yosef "Pepe" Alalu, member of the city council (Meretz) and the Local Planning Committee, offered that, "What can be of influence is pressure on the developers - they don't want noise." He reminded the audience that Rehavia residents have been successful in preserving historical areas in their neighborhood. "The absurdity in all of this," Alalu added, "is that a month ago, the Local Planning Committee was discussing that there are too many hotel rooms in the center of town." "We're not against development as a matter of principle," Shaked said, "Rather we are talking here about moderation." "It's important to involve people who reside beyond the German Colony's borders as well," a woman called out, "to make aware as many people as possible of this megalomaniac's plan!" Ninety minutes later, as the audience began to thin, Josh Levinson, another committee member, urged the attendees to get involved - by offering their time, money or professional assistance. "The most important thing is for our voices to be heard, not for each one of us to return home and wait until it's too late," he warned. Rivka, a German Colony resident of 36 years, said that overall, she was satisfied with the meeting, but felt it was more important to organize than to make noise. Her friend Shulamit observed that they were caught in "the chicken-and-egg problem. We need to raise money to protest, but also to organize in order to raise money." In the meantime, she added, "There is little we can do but write letters, attend meetings, and make noise, but there is hope." Levinson, the last to leave the room, said he was pleased with the turnout, but noted, "We have to decide on a strategy that attends to the public, political, and professional elements involved. To answer the question, 'How do we coordinate the battle's various levels?' and then direct people accordingly." Regarding the proposed plan, he concluded, "A wall of stone closing off the Moshava?! Tourists might enjoy it, but not the residents."