Conflicted construction

Three decades after the first protest, construction is progressing rapidly at the Omariya Compound.

construction 298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
construction 298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Thirty years after they first appeared, the construction cranes have returned to the Omariya Compound, and this time, they mean business. Named after the Christian Arab Omariya family who lived in the area in their stately home until 1948, the area sits at the intersection of the German Colony, Talbieh, and the old railway station compound. Close to the watershed, it is bounded by Derech Beit Lehem and King David Street to the east, Rehov Jabotinsky to the north, and Rehov Yitzhak Elhanan to the west. The construction of roads and bypasses, which began several months ago, is visible to anyone who passes along Elhanan or Emek Refaim streets. Even more significantly, the first tenders for the construction of dozens of high-rise, high-price upscale housing on six luxury lots were completed earlier this month. Even as it proceeds, the plan remains controversial, and that's after the countless revisions, several of which were introduced even after the plan was approved in the year 2000. In its current incarnation, the plan calls for a 200 x 25-meter promenade to stretch from Liberty Bell Park ("Gan Hapa'amon") to the Jerusalem Theater; a series of new luxury hotels; plots of private homes; and a commercial center including galleries and coffee houses. As reported in In Jerusalem (May 13), developers have had their sights on the Omariya Compound for decades. In the 1970s, they planned two high-rise hotels and eight high-rise buildings for the area. Public protest - one of the first of its kind in Israel - led to substantial changes. The Laromme Hotel (now the Inbal) was cut down from 14 to seven stories and its plan was changed to suit both the architecture of the area and the Jerusalem skyline. Seven of the eight high-rise apartment buildings were canceled, leaving only the one on the corner of Pinsker and Elhanan streets. The Liberty Bell Park was also added to the plan, in response to the protest. There's been protest this time, too, but it hasn't been as successful. Moriah, the Jerusalem Development Corporation, was the first to begin this round of construction, preparing the infrastructure for the Israel Lands Administration, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Ministry of Transportation. The government-affiliated construction company is also completing the infrastructure for the new roads. According to the plans, the existing Rehov Graetz Street will become a cul-de-sac and two new one-way streets - which some of the locals refer to as "Graetz Yored" (Lower Graetz) and Graetz Illit (Upper Graetz) will replace it. A huge new traffic circle will connect these two new roads with Yitzhak Elhanan and Dubnov streets. As complicated as they may seem, these traffic arrangements represent a definite improvement over the original ones. Two years ago, when the first set of traffic plans became known to the public, German Colony residents galvanized to protest and they established the (non-profit) Association for the Omariya Compound. According to the association's head, Joshua Levinson, the original plans had called for two new two-way streets to cut across the Omariya Compound, for King David Street to be cut off to public traffic, and for Yitzhak Elhanan to be expanded into four lanes. "The original plan was outrageous and wouldn't have solved any existing traffic problems, but instead would have created new ones," says Levinson, who lobbied city politicians and officials, including councilman Nir Barkat (Jerusalem Will Succeed) and City Engineer Uri Shetrit. Led by Levinson, the association gathered more than 200 signatures to a petition against the development and launched a fierce advertising campaign to raise awareness among residents and to attract public attention. "As it is, the new roads will cut a scar across the Omariya field, isolate the German Colony from the direction of the Old City, and drastically change the visual landscape," they warned. Although the association was not able to completely block the plan, they did get the city to create the two new one-way streets - with parking! - and to keep King David Street open. They also convinced the city to expand by another lane the area where King David Street connects to Derech Beit Lehem, east of Liberty Bell Park. "It was really good to see residents taking action, even though the city plan was approved already and the tractors were already in the place," Levinson says. "And it worked. The city changed the plans," recalls Assaf Shaked, the sympathetic neighborhood planner for the German Colony, Yemin Moshe, Baka and Talbieh, whose office is located in the International Cultural Center for Youth on Rehov Emek Refaim. If only the problems with Omariya ended with traffic. Although ground has yet to be broken on the construction of buildings, the new reality loomed closer than ever on November 13, when the ILA published the first six tenders. Concentrated in the southern area of the development, bordered by the existing Rehov Graetz, the lots - each measuring between 577 and 821 square meters - are designed for the construction of private dwellings, or buildings no higher than six floors. Each lot will be developed privately, after Gadish - a second government-affiliated construction company - has finished putting the infrastructure for the buildings in place. The lots sold for between NIS 6,720,360 and NIS 13,060,872, with five out of the six going to buyers from abroad. Eli Tepperberg, who along with his wife Chava runs a successful real-estate agency in the German Colony, is not surprised by the huge price tags. The land at Omariya is extremely valuable, he says, for a few reasons. First, the new buyers are free to build in whatever style they like, and are not bound by preservation laws normally imposed on buildings in the historic colony. "It's an opportunity to build from scratch on an empty lot," he says, explaining that if a buyer wants to make any changes to the facade of an existing house, they need to use a specific type of stone. More importantly, he says, there is a high demand for the very few available properties in the neighborhood. "I don't know if you can find more than one or two freestanding houses for sale in the German Colony," he observes. According to Tepperberg, whose company has been in operation for the last 20 years, property values in the German Colony are at a record high, running an average of $5,000 to $6,000 per square meter, and, in some cases, going up as high as $12,000 per square meter. "In the last year and a half there has been a real upswing in property values," says Tepperberg, who suggests that the market shift has to do with an increase in interest among buyers from overseas, who now seem to feel safer in Jerusalem, probably due to the dip in terror attacks over the past year. Shaked adds another possible reason for the increase in real-estate purchases by buyers from abroad: "When there is anti-Semitism abroad, people think they should buy an apartment in Jerusalem, just in case." Shaked is less than pleased with the influx of foreigners, whom he calls "holiday buyers." To start with, few local Israelis can compete to purchase at such prices. "I think the plots at Omariya are the most expensive in Israel, outside of Caesarea," he says. "Most Israelis can't afford to buy there." Tepperberg concurs. "Eventually, local people will not be able to purchase properties - or even bid on properties - in the area," he says, noting that currently about 8 percent of his clientele are Jews from overseas. "As it is," he says, "you hear more English and French on the streets of the German Colony than Hebrew." But Shaked's primary bone of contention is not with the increasing population of foreigners who reside in the neighborhood - it's with the increasing population of foreigners who don't reside in the neighborhood. "Most of the people who bought properties in other similar development areas don't live in Jerusalem, and they shouldn't buy where they don't intend to live," he says, explaining that their absence in community life is felt throughout the neighborhood. "Residents of the neighborhood want to live in a neighborhood with people, full schools, busy cafes - and life going on around them," he contends. Shaked's fear is that Omariya will end up like David's Village (Kfar David) in Mamilla, which he calls "a ghost neighborhood" - an expensive development that remains largely empty except during Succot and the High Holy Days. He is so adamant about it that Shaked is in the midst of planning a protest campaign, which he anticipates will take form in the next few weeks. Levinson will not join that fight. "If people want to buy a house and not live there, that's up to them," he says. "It may create a bit of a strange atmosphere, but there are no grounds for legal objection." Levinson is holding his fire for the publication of anticipated depositions on the Four Seasons Hotel and the Templer building, a supposedly protected building that once housed the Fibers Institute, which is rumored to be slated for redevelopment. Plans for high-rise developments at the northern end of Omariya - including the All Suites Hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel, and the Jerusalem Condo - are the development's single most problematic issue. According to Shaked, in its original state, the current city plan restricted all buildings in the area to a maximum of six floors. But after the plan was approved, Arthur Spectar's office - which is drawing up plans for the Four Seasons Hotel - allegedly submitted several requests to the city to push that maximum to a rumored 14 to 16 stories. Despite In Jerusalem's repeated attempts to confirm with both Spectar and the municipality, it is still unclear whether those requests were approved. Another unconfirmed, but persistent, rumor contends that developers pay the city for each square meter above the city plan an additional 50% of market value. If true, it certainly does add fuel to the other suspicions. "Their economic interests are clear: a six-story hotel is probably not as economically viable as a 14-story one," says Levinson. "But it is totally out of proportion with this area of the city. It just doesn't fit here... If they build big, huge hotels here it will change the German Colony radically - and not for the better. Maybe it will be good for tourists, but that raises the question - who are you planning for? "Besides, does Jerusalem really need more hotels?" he challenges. According to Yonathan Shiloni, of Joelle and Yonathan Shiloni Architects, Omariya's master planner, the original design does not accommodate high rises. The only high-rise building in the area is the 15-story Omariya Tower, built in the 1970s. And even then, Shiloni says, "I had to design around it in order to lower its problematic skyline. Shiloni reveals that he intends to place the tallest of the new buildings - the condo and hotels - next to the tower "in order to lower the tower's impression in the area." The development will be highlighted by the traffic circle, from where Shiloni says you will be able to see the Old City. To be named after the poet Yehuda Amichai, the circle will serve as the main junction between the Jerusalem and Khan theaters, making the new development Shiloni's own "cultural kilometer," which he claims is modeled after the "cultural mile" in Edinburgh, Scotland. It will also connect to the restaurants, pubs and theaters developing along Hebron Road, as reported in IJ last week ("Southern culture). "The concept of the 'cultural kilometer' is a good one," comments Shaked. "I'm sure it will be beautiful. I am not opposed to development, it's just a matter of how it is done." Some are less optimistic. "I think the concept of the plan itself is catastrophic," says Levinson.