Downtown upturns and downturns

New businesses buck the trend of city center closures.

art gallery 311 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
art gallery 311
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
While downtown Jaffa Road looks like a train wreck thanks to the ongoing work on the light rail, which is five years behind schedule, there are a few visionary businesspeople who are wagering on the transit line’s long-delayed opening date now slated for April 7, 2011.
Yonah Mishaan and Gani Medad opened Hagov/The Lion’s Den in time for the Winter Olympics. The sports bar is located on Rehov Yoel Salomon in the former premises of Goldy’s, which closed after New Year’s Eve.
“This is a dream come true, to have a high-end sports bar and kosher grill in Jerusalem,” says Mishaan, the Savannah-born co-owner of the new watering hole.
“Since I came to Israel in 1984, I’ve been very involved in the sports scene in Jerusalem. I play flag and tackle football and coach Israel’s women’s national flag football team. Until now, there’s been nowhere to go after the game to celebrate. We have eight screens and the ability to show eight different sporting events all at the same time.”
With the World Cup kick-off in South Africa slated for June 11, Mishaan has signed a contract with the international soccer tournament’s sponsor, Coca-Cola. “We’re going to be giving away hats, T-shirts and different kinds of drinks.”
The sports bar also plans to show NFL, NHL, NBA, pro baseball, and European and Israeli League soccer and basketball matches.
“We believe that more and more, downtown Jerusalem is coming back to life; and we hope that with more of these types of businesses, we’ll see more tourists and Israelis coming downtown to spend their money,” says Mishaan.
Many of the new establishments are located on streets that the municipality has either made pedestrian-only or widened the sidewalks by narrowing the roadways and eliminating parking. One such about-to-open establishment is a branch of Katzrin’s Golan Brewery on Rehov Hillel in the entertainment district, where the microbrewery will distribute its gourmet suds. Another is Tel Aviv Kitchen and Bar, which recently opened a second premises on Rehov Rivlin following the success of its original bar on Shimon Ben-Shetah.
These bars compete with existing and new all-night variety stores that sell liquor, such as Pina 24 at the corner of Shamai and Herbert Samuel.
Impecunious tipplers prefer to consume cheap booze from these outlets before continuing their revelry at area bars. But proposed regulations limiting the hours of liquor sales could end that habit, which is seen as leading to public drunkenness.
Leon Shwartz, who opened Glen Bar on Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka last winter, is intimately familiar with that sort of competition. The Mamilla 24 Market, which opened across the street from his bar, wasn’t even designed with a door or shutters, indicative of the proprietor’s intention of never closing.
“I already survived a year,” shrugs Shwartz.
APART FROM bars, several new galleries have opened downtown in recent months.
The Art & Soul gallery opened several months ago at the corner of Shlomzion Hamalka and Ben-Shetah in a high-traffic site that had stood empty for decades. Another new gallery is Israel Modern Art, situated amidst a cluster of boutiques on Yoel Salomon. Owner Dan Groover sells both his own pop art and the work of local artists, with prices ranging from $200 for lithograph prints to $5,000 for original oil paintings.
“I’m trying to hang in there and develop a connection with artists and clients,” says Groover, who returned to Israel after decades in Paris and Martinique. “The process is a long one. It’s hard to sell art. In the summer, you sell more. In the winter, nothing. When there are tourists, there is business.”
Groover was disappointed to learn that the Daana Gallery on Rehov Shatz was advertising a going-out-of-business sale after being open for only half a year.
Besides bars and galleries, food venues remain another popular type of new enterprise. Three such establishments are a branch of Roladin Bakery and Café Rehov on Hillel near the eponymous Café Hillel, Grill Off Tzarfati Rotisserie on Shamai and Dona Fresca boutique pizza on Shlomzion Hamalka.
Lior Shabbat, who produces Hotmap Jerusalem 2010, the first edition of which debuted in January, reports: “There’s a profit, thank God.” Like similar entertainment guides to Tel Aviv and Eilat, Shabbat’s glossy two-sided map is almost all in English. “It’s history,” he smiles. “It is the first 24/7 guide to Jerusalem in 3,000 years.”
The optimism of Shabbat and the new business owners stands in contrast to the rash of empty stores that pockmark downtown. Together with the graffiti, garbage-strewn streets and dog feces, the “For rent” signs leave an indelible impression of dowdiness, poverty and neglect.
Tellingly, Cassou Seban & Co., a realtor on the Ben-Shetah pedestrian promenade catering to wealthy French buyers, closed some months ago.
The Jerusalem of Gold luxury condominium on Rehov Rabbi Akiva, which used to advertise occupancy December 2009, now lamely boasts immediate occupancy. The hoarding around its construction site began to be taken down at the beginning of March but many windows remain to be installed. Phase II, a 25-story tower, would be the tallest building in the city center – if ever built.
Jerusalem of Gold’s Web site states laconically, “In the future, a luxury residential block will be erected.” Buyers at the Nevi’im Court on Monbaz Street in the Russian Compound recently had their deposits refunded by Africa-Israel. The abandoned site remains a huge excavation pit.
The closure of two iconic Mandate-era banks on Jaffa Road – Bank Leumi, originally the Anglo-Palestine Bank designed by Erich Mendelsohn; and Bank Mizrachi Tefahot, originally Banco di Roma – attest to the demise of downtown Jerusalem as a central business district.
A number of major city center projects are in doubt because of the global economic crisis and the consequent difficulty in raising donations, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Independence Park. In addition, the neighboring Courthouse and Government Center may never be built due to a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The luxury Mamilla project has proven successful, even if it is still under construction more than four decades after it began, but its residential sales are lagging. Similarly, the 996-apartment Holyland project, though six km. from downtown, is also suffering poor sales and has been unable to meet its sales target, according to the economic daily Globes.
Slightly to the north and west of swank Mamilla, the historic Armenian block of Jaffa Road facing Kikar Safra remains a commercial dead zone, with many abandoned storefronts advertised for sale on a key money (leasehold) basis. The Pearl Hotel in Kikar Tzahal facing the Old City stands mothballed, as does the Eyal Hotel on Rehov Shamai. A three-meter-high copper repousse relief that decorated the outside entrance to the Eyal was stolen some months ago.
Some businesses like Diesenhaus Unitours have downsized to smaller, less expensive premises. The travel agency recently vacated its prime street-level location on Hillel to relocate nearby on the second floor. Similarly, The Eighth Note DVD store moved to a basement around the corner from its original Shamai location.
After seven years of operating Gili’s Skateshop on Shamai and a second store on Ma’alot Nahalat Shiva, which closed after a break-in, owner Gil Levi has a long-range perspective on business downtown. “The situation here is getting worse for several reasons,” he begins.
“First, the light rail construction is preventing people from coming downtown. Second, there’s nowhere to park. People are going to Mamilla, where there’s a huge underground parking lot that’s free for three hours. It leaves no competition for downtown.
“The third reason is that downtown just isn’t interesting. City Hallisn’t investing enough. A concert now and then draws people, butdowntown should be happening all the time. And finally, there’s theeconomic recession. Rent is too high. The infrastructure work on RehovShamai killed 50 percent of our business during the 20 months it tookto complete 270 meters. Even in a Third World country it doesn’t takethat long.”
Is there light at the end of the light rail tunnel?
CityPass spokesman Gil Singer explains the testing of the light rail’s46 carriages is now under way. After binding arbitration between theconsortium and the Transportation Ministry, the light rail will beginoperating in April 2011, he says.
Until then, Jerusalem’s long-suffering downtown storekeepers, shoppers and commuters will just have to grin and bear it.