Dealing with the data

The Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem's most recent report argues that the Safdie Plan is unnecessary.

The meeting of the National Council for Planning, which was scheduled to make a final decision regarding the controversial "Safdie Plan" for the development of western Jerusalem, has been postponed indefinitely. A multi-partisan coalition of MK's and Knesset lobby groups has called on the Council to reject the plan and Interior Minister Ronny Bar-On has also reaffirmed his previous opposition to the plan. Yet despite what they view as a favorable trend, the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem, an ad-hoc coalition of environmental organizations, continues to mobilize against the plan. Last month, Uri Bar-Shishat, strategic advisor to the Coalition for a Sustaianable Jerusalem, and Yael Hamerman, architect for the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, issued a report which, they say, refutes the arguments presented by the municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), the Israel Lands Authority, and the Offices of the Regional Planner in support of the plan. "The data prove that the plan is misguided and a threat to the future of Jerusalem as a successful, thriving city," says Bar-Shishat. "But somehow the plan seems to keep on moving forward. The Safdie Plan seems to have its own momentum and it is supported by powerful economic and political forces." Bar-Shishat, who was formerly director of the Department for Policy and Planning in the municipality of Jerusalem and acting director for the Jerusalem District Planning offices in the Interior Ministry, says he hopes that, "the data will convince the decision-makers to reconsider their position." The rationale for the Safdie Plan for the development of west Jerusalem - officially known as Plan 37/1 - is based on a report regarding the maximization of the potential for housing within Jerusalem, prepared by the JDA in 2002. According to this report, the JDA found that the city of Jerusalem does not possess enough land reserves for future construction and will not be able to meet the city's needs for natural growth and immigration. As a result, the report said, it is crucial to develop additional land reserves, particularly to the west. The JDA report further noted that development within Jerusalem is notoriously difficult, since much of the potential land is privately held or legally unavailable and due to national and municipal bureaucratic obstacles. Concerned about what they view as the Safdie Plan's potential harm to the environment and to the future development of Jerusalem within its existing boundaries, the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem prepared a report in 2005, indicating that, contrary to the JDA's contention, there is land in Jerusalem for the construction of at least 100,000 housing units, of which at least 60,000 could be easily actualized, despite the difficulties that the JDA report mentions. "I agree that it is difficult to build in Jerusalem," Bar-Shishat acknowledges. "For that reason, we have used the same standard that the municipality used in planning the master plan. Our data is reliable and quite conservative." Furthermore, he says, efforts must be made to enable developers to build more efficiently within the city limits. "Otherwise, even if the Safdie plan goes through, in another twenty years, the developers will say that they have to build somewhere else, because they still can't develop within the city proper." In this newest report, Bar-Shishat explains, he and Hamerman have "considered the data that the municipality, JDA, the Lands Authority and the Regional Planning Office published. We cross-referenced, compared and contrasted the data and found numerous errors and internal contradictions. According to their own data, and not only according to ours, the Safdie program is unnecessary, at the very least." Bar-Shishat and Hamerman, for example, cite information provided in July 2005 by Uri Shetrit, who at that time served as Jerusalem's municipal engineer. According to Shetrit, who has been a fervent supporter of the Safdie plan, the city has plans for construction of an additional 186,000 housing units (not including east Jerusalem.) But the municipal master plan, currently in its final stages and intended to take Jerusalem well into the future, is predicated on the construction of 91,000 new housing units. "So where did Shetrit find an additional 95,000 housing units?" Bar-Shishat quipped rhetorically. Bar-Shishat and Hamerman further note that the municipal master plan includes construction of some 8,800 housing units in the Ramat Rahel area. In contrast, in their testimony before the National Council, municipal representatives insisted that the area would not be developed before 2020. "Which is it?" Bar-Shishat challenges. "Their answers are filled with internal contradictions and errors." So why, despite the 16,000 public objections, a Knesset lobby and ostensibly irrefutable evidence, do the authorities continue to promote the Safdie plan? Bar-Shishat does not believe that his and Hamerman's data is faulty in any way. Nor does he accuse the authorities of maliciousness or corruption. Rather, he contends, "The origins of the Safdie plan date back to 1991, and the authorities have been arguing and planning ever since then. They have invested years of effort and enormous sums of money. It would be very difficult for them to admit they were wrong. "But inertia, pride and bureaucracy can't be the motivations that will determine the future of Jerusalem," he warns. The Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem has distributed the report to all of the relevant government ministries and offices and municipal departments. However, neither the JDA nor the Israel Lands Authority responded to In Jerusalem's questions regarding this issue. Bar-Shishat further argues that the authorities' "over-emphasis" on housing units is misguided. "Yes, of course people need affordable housing in this city," says Bar-Shishat. "But housing alone isn't enough. Unless national policies are changed, Jerusalem will never be able to compete with the discounts and benefits offered in Modi'in, Ma'ale Adumim and the surround areas. "Moreover, educated, middle and upper-middle class people will not stay in Jerusalem unless the quality of life improves, even if there is affordable housing. And part of the quality of life includes the city center, which will be destroyed if Jerusalem massively develops to the west." The Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem is calling on the authorities to establish a "Special Office for the Development of Jerusalem," to be composed of experts, professionals and representatives of the municipality and the Prime Minister's Office. This Office will coordinate the multi-disciplinary attention needed to "make Jerusalem the thriving city that it really can be," Bar-Shishat concludes.