Compounded problems

Is Schneller plan to deal with haredi housing shortage going to become yet another luxury project?

schneller (photo credit: Itzik Shweky)
(photo credit: Itzik Shweky)
For most Jerusalemites, the Schneller Compound is just another old building. But for those who served there during its more than 60 years as an army base, it is a source of poignant memories. Some soldiers recall the many incidents that caused tension between the military authorities and local haredi residents on issues concerning Shabbat and mode of dress (especially of the female soldiers). "We were asked not to step outside the base holding a cigarette or a cell-phone on Shabbat. We understood why, but sometimes some of us forgot and it was kind of stressful, though nothing ever happened, at least to me personally. But the general feeling was that we were not in our 'normal' surroundings," says one woman soldier who served there recently. On the other hand,"For many soldiers it was the perfect place to serve. It was inside the city, a duty that included many perks, such as going to the movies or a pub after duty. It had all the amenities that a big city could offer a young soldier," recalls Yonatan, who served at the Geula army base in the early 1980s. Another well-known facility was its medical clinic. Anyone who has obtained "gimelim" (permission for at least three days of bed rest due to illness) - at least in the Seventies and Eighties - will be familiar with Schneller's clinic. There were also at least 10 beds available for soldiers who were sick but not ill enough to be sent to the hospital. Doctors and nurses doing their army service were in charge of the clinic, and many who served in the IDF during the two decades following the Six Day War remember it well. Another story regarding the Schneller base was the famous secret bunker. According to those "in the know," a secret bunker, from the German period before the British took over the place, had been constructed and sealed under the main building. It was rumored that among its contents was a treasury of gold and important documents. Of course, no one had ever seen that bunker or could even locate it, but the story sustained itself for years. When the news began to circulate that the IDF was moving out of Schneller, the bunker story resurfaced. The fact that a fence was erected right after the army left, with 24-hour guards, added to the drama. But so far no secret bunker has been found, and the only treasures are probably the magnificent buildings of the compound, a last testament to a period gone forever in the history of the city. But two months ago, when the army moved out of the former Lutheran orphanage, a new phase in its history began. The process of turning the compound into a much-needed residential project for local haredim began 10 years ago, but it seems that despite the fact that a tender will soon be released for the construction plan, the haredi community, or at least its leaders, are far from satisfied. The NIS 50 million it cost to move the army out of the compound will have to be paid for somehow - most likely by building luxury housing instead of affordable residential buildings (see "Decision time"). The venture is further complicated by the involvement of environmental groups that are concerned about how the preservation process will be carried out. "I KNOW that quite a few developers in the city are interested," says former deputy mayor Haim Miller, a Gur Hassid who has been closely involved in the project from the beginning. "But alas, I can see how this will become just another luxury apartment project, one we certainly don't need here. Clearly, no one can afford the cost of restoring the old buildings requested by the government and, at the same time, build low-cost units." Miller chairs the Movement for the Sake of Jerusalem and Its Residents, which is very involved in various projects to provide housing solutions for young haredi families, who are forced to leave the city for lack of affordable apartments. "We all expected at least an opportunity to build affordable apartments for our young couples and families, but it seems that we are going to get just another expensive luxury housing project that will remain empty most of the year, while our people are forced into exile out of Jerusalem," he says bitterly. "All kinds of machers [movers and shakers] are perhaps interested in this project," says Yanki Pashkuss, private consultant and assistant of former head of the municipal Planning and Construction Committee, Yehoshua Pollack. "But on the haredi street, it's a non-story. They don't talk about it. I am not even sure people are aware of its progress inside the committees and what is at stake. The truth is that housing has become such a difficult issue in Jerusalem, that frankly I don't think that the Schneller project - whether it will end up with luxury apartments or affordable housing - will change very much. We don't have construction plots in the city - that's the truth, and nothing can change this situation." The new chairman of the municipal planning committee, Kobi Kahlon, believes the solution lies in the wise use of the plot and the buildings for preservation. "Today, private interests can be matched by public interests; it's just a matter of a wiser application. For example, if we combine public and practical use such as a health fund branch - which means public interest and also some income - then it will work. Kindergartens, for example, won't work because there is no income to allow it." In regard to the plan to build a boutique hotel in the compound (a suggestion raised recently by members of the municipal tourism committee), Kahlon says he is not optimistic. "You have to take into consideration the location. Boutique hotels are a good way to enhance quality tourism to the city, but you cannot put them just anywhere; you have to position them where they have a fair chance of being requested." "We are not against the preservation of historic buildings," says Miller, "but you have to understand what it means in this specific case. We're talking about a very large part of the plot: It's eight buildings, and it leaves us with a very narrow margin for construction. The result cannot be anything but luxury apartments, otherwise no contractor will be interested in building here; but luxury apartments are exactly what we don't need here." According to Pashkuss the current situation will prevail, and even if a tender is presented soon, construction will not begin for a long time. In fact, he is not sure the public construction will take place at all, leaving the huge and historic compound empty in the midst of the haredi neighborhood for a long time to come. THE DECISION to preserve the Schneller Compound is the result of 12 years of struggle led by the Jerusalem district of the Society for Preservation of Heritage Sites and its director, Itzik Shweky, and the architect specialized in preservation, Gil Gordon, then still a PhD student. After the first municipal plan for the location ignored their requests, the two presented their opposition to the Planning and Housing Committee, which then accepted them, and the project ended up in what is known as Plan 2447 G, which includes all the eight buildings to be preserved. It stipulates that no changes may be made to the appearance of the exterior, as well as some restrictions regarding the interior. But even after Shweky and Gordon succeeded in including the preservation of the eight historic buildings in the official planning of the neighborhood (tokhnit banyan arim), nothing is mentioned in that plan regarding whose responsibility it is to provide funding for the renovation of the compound. At its peak, the compound was 600 dunams, but today the eight buildings preserved take up about 80 dunams (not including the open spaces between them). The preservation law doesn't say anything about what organization should take care of the buildings declared preserved. "In the past, many historic buildings that have been declared as such were saved from demolition, but within a short time they fell into the hands of squatters or vandals. They were ultimately demolished and the land was sold to developers once there was nothing more to preserve," says Shweky. Even this time, though the municipality has taken responsibility and fenced off the compound, nobody knows where the money needed for the restoration of the buildings will come from. "The newly created committee for preserved buildings at the municipality will have to deal with this matter and find some solutions before it is too late for the Schneller Compound as well," says Shweky. The municipality is making a survey and preparing a catalog of the buildings that warrant preservation. "I still don't sleep calmly at night as far as the Schneller Compound is concerned," says Shweky. "I was certain that once the army left, the compound would be abandoned and pretty soon vandalized as has happened in other locations in the city. I must say that this time the rapid action taken by the municipality has been a very nice surprise. The compound has been totally fenced off, including 24-hour guards, and in that respect I am more than satisfied." Still, according to Shweky, the issue of desecration or vandalism is only one aspect of the Schneller Compound's fate. "Frankly, I would be glad if the whole plan of the project were changed. In my opinion, this could be the only way to save it and to bring it to life, but I am not optimistic, not to mention that any changes in the planning could turn out to be even more problematic. Who can guarantee that the haredi community wouldn't be able, in that case, to obtain much more constructing percentage in the plot than it has now? So despite all the positive aspects until now - the evacuation of the army from the compound, the ruling to preserve the historic building and the guards provided - I am not optimistic. In any case, I am quite certain that construction won't start any time soon." Shweky, however, does support the idea of turning one of the historic buildings into a boutique hotel and strongly advocates a grand plan - still far from being realistic - to transform the entire neighborhood, including Rehov Hanevi'im, into a tourist and historic site. "It's the best thing that could happen to this neighborhood and to the city in terms of preservation and promoting tourism," he says. But Pashkuss believes that the real issue at stake is not the Schneller Compound but the lack of land available for residential construction. "The state could make a bold decision: to decide once and for all that Jerusalem's future is important, important enough to dramatically reduce the price of the land for construction. Lowering the price will encourage developers to build for young couples - haredi and secular alike. I can't see any other solution. And in this context, the Schneller Compound project is just a drop in the ocean."