Dormitory town

Will proposed student dorms revitalize downtown?

student88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Damned if you do and damned if you don't. That's how some officials at Kikar Safra must feel with regard to their efforts to bring students back into town to help revitalize Jerusalem's downtown area. First it was the partial opposition by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) to the return of Bezalel to the Sergei Courtyard, a historic 19th-century hostel for Russian pilgrims that houses the SPNI's headquarters, as reported in In Jerusalem ("Not in our courtyard," April 7). And now it is opposition to the construction of a student dormitory on Rehov Ben-Sira, in the Nahalat Shiva area. For at least a decade and a half, the issue of revitalization of Jerusalem's downtown area has been discussed and debated. In the meantime, the area has continued to decline, due in part to the siphoning off of shopping and entertainment to suburban malls, the switch from residential to business use which turned large areas into a ghost town at night and, more recently, the terror. One of the ideas consistently bandied about was bringing students back to live in the center of town to breathe new life into what had once been the hub of the city. Once, there was talk that the Hebrew University would convert a commercial building on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall into a 100-bed student dormitory. But with the building of the new student village on Mount Scopus, this plan has been put on hold. Now, the Eden Company (a subsidiary of the city-owned corporation, the Jerusalem Development Authority), which was set up to rehabilitate the downtown area, is spearheading efforts to build a six-story, 150-room dorm on Rehov Ben-Sira. The 6,000-square-meter, $12 million project, which will include a commercial area on the ground floor, is to be financed by funds raised by the Jerusalem Foundation. The project is located adjacent to Beit Agron, home of the Jerusalem Journalists Association and the Government Press Office and across from the Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance, the $150 million project of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Frank O. Gehry, the construction of which is currently embroiled in controversy due to the discovery of Muslim gravesites. "One of our important aims is to bring back young people to downtown," states Asaf Vitman, deputy and acting CEO of the Jerusalem Development Authority and CEO of the Eden Company. "The importance of students in the center of town goes beyond their economic contribution to the area. Students create a certain atmosphere and bring life to a place. One hundred and fifty students living in this dorm will have a significant impact on the whole Nahalat Shiva area." Vitman continues, "Since dorms, at least in Israel, are not economically viable, they therefore have to be built on public and not private land. Therefore, the city has allocated municipal land for this purpose." No one is disputing Vitman's contention. But the site of the planned dorm has brought it into conflict with the Jerusalem Journalists Association, representatives of the museum and the architect of Beit Agron, 1995 Israel Prize winner, David Reznik. The three filed opposition to the project with the District Planning and Building Committee of the Interior Ministry. And while this opposition was rejected in the December 2005 meeting of the committee (clearing the way for building of the dorm), attorney Naomi Weil, representing the Journalists Association, still intends to try to appeal to the National Planning and Building Council. The dorm project comes just as the Journalists Association has made plans for the Beit Agron building. "A year ago, the Journalists Association decided to create a journalists club, something that every major news center has, but Jerusalem doesn't," explains Vered Berman, co-chair of the Jerusalem Journalists Association. "We felt that since we are in the same building as the Government Press Office and some foreign press organizations, we could have a club that would be for both Israeli and foreign journalists. Today, most foreign journalists hang out at the bar in the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem. They get their contacts and background information mainly from Palestinians. This influences how they cover the story here. If there were a journalists club in Beit Agron, they would be sitting with Israelis and getting contacts and information from them, which might add more balance to foreign coverage." The Journalists Association prepared an architect's plan for the club that includes the area of the current restaurant in Beit Agron and the terrace and even started to raise money. But then, the association found out that the dorms are slated for the terrace area. "Beit Agron will be facing the back of the dormitory," Berman continues. "We will be staring at the students' laundry lines. No one will come to sit in a club with this kind of view. In addition, the dorm project is not only being planned without any parking, it will eliminate some of the existing parking. It is already difficult to park in this area. What will happen when press conferences are held in Beit Agron? "We are not against improvements and revival of downtown but we feel they can be carried out without exacerbating the existing parking situation or killing our project. The dorm project will chase away the few journalists and journalist organizations still in downtown. This is the wrong place for this student dormitory." The Museum of Tolerance has objected to the proposed height of the student dorm, claiming it would hide the museum building. In addition, construction of the dorm will alter the look of the entire area. Representatives for Frank Gehry note that the famous architect always "relates to the dialog of his works vis-a-vis their environs and that every change in space impinges on his overall concept." Much the same sentiment was expressed by David Reznik. In the early 70s, Reznik designed both Beit Agron (named for Jerusalem Post founder and former Jerusalem mayor Gershon Agron) as a center for journalists in the city, and its next-door neighbor, Beit Hamehandes (the Engineers' House), as a center for engineers. He envisioned the project as comprising a civic street in downtown. He had also planned a third building for the teachers' union but it was never built. Beit Agron and Beit Hamehandes were the first public buildings in Jerusalem outside Kiryat Hamemshala (the Government Center), designed with architectural, rather than just functional value. They are generally considered as expressing a period in Jerusalem of quality planning of public buildings. "I am not against this new dorm project just because I designed Beit Agron and Beit Hamehandes," Reznik tells IJ, "but because the two buildings represent a direction in Jerusalem urban development that has to be preserved. There are many places in the city where student dorms can be built, not just this spot. "This new project will ruin the complex of Beit Agron and Beit Hamehandes, destroying the architectural concept," Resnik continues. "It will block the view from Beit Agron of Independence Park, and also block the entrance plaza. Jerusalem has to be concerned with preserving its culture and values. I hope this project will not be built and the original concept [of Beit Agron] will be preserved." While not entitled to automatically appeal to the National Planning and Building Council, Weil has filed a request with the district committee chair for permission to do so. She hopes such a request will be granted, but she says that if such permission is not granted, she is prepared to the go to the High Court of Justice if necessary to press on with her clients objections to the project. The Eden Company estimates that construction will begin on the dorm in 2007.