High and mighty?

German colony residents act against plans for new hotels.

Fut.Emek hotels 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Fut.Emek hotels 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Three decades after the first protest, construction is progressing rapidly at the Omariya Compound, as reported in In Jerusalem ("Conflicted construction," December 16). The residents of the German Colony, however, who vehemently oppose the proposed building of two luxury hotels at the neighborhood's entrance, have other plans. The overcrowded neighborhood held a meeting late last year organized by a small group of area residents to educate citizens about the building plans, in the hopes of creating an informed opposition. The Omariya Compound sits at the intersection of the German Colony, Talbiyeh and the old railway station. At stake, local residents say, is the transformation the construction poses to the neighborhood's character. "We're not talking here about what is commonly called NIMBY [Not in my backyard]," insists Josh Levinson, a German Colony resident and member of the campaign's ad-hoc Action Committee. "This goes way beyond that. We're concerned about the German Colony's unique characteristics." Already approved is a seven-story Four Seasons Hotel on the northern area of the lot, along Rehov Emek Refaim, extending from the corner of Rehov Graetz to within 12 meters of Liberty Bell Park. Levinson concedes that he has come to terms with this plan, which was approved in 2001. "Even though I have my objections to the seven-story plan, I've learned to live with the idea. I think it could be done in such a manner that it wouldn't constitute a drastic change in the nature of the German Colony. It's the greedy desire to double when we start having problems." In April an amended plan was proposed, seeking to expand the building parameters to 14 floors (most structures in the German Colony rise between two and four stories) to make room for luxury residences. "If they were to build the original plan," Levinson continues, "I would remove my objections. We don't object to the development of the area in and of itself." Developers are also seeking approval for a 12-story Colony Hotel, to be built across the street, on the grounds of the former Fiber Institute and the Templar Council House (a conservation site). "Instead of trees, two 50-meter walls will lead into the neighborhood," warns Marik Stern, physical and community coordinator for the local Ginot Ha'ir Neighborhood Administration. "The challenge," Stern says, "is preserving the entrance aesthetically and functionally." After the success of the last neighborhood meeting, the administration won the Action Committee's approval for assuming promotion of the struggle. "Ginot Ha'ir suggested taking over the campaign as far as providing organization and structure because of in-house counsel and connections, and obviously because of overlapping interest," explains Levinson. "They are more or less spearheading the campaign and we are combining our resources." On board are a team of experts, including a strategy adviser, architect, preservation consultant, neighborhood planner, physical coordinator and legal adviser. The cost of the coordinated effort will reach an estimated $40,000, which Ginot Ha'ir and the Action Committee are working to secure from donations and grants. The significance of this particular struggle, Stern emphasizes, is the precedent at risk: success or failure will serve as a reference for future building plans. If developers are granted the extension to 14 stories of the Four Seasons Hotel, Stern explains, it is likely that the Colony Hotel plan will also be authorized. The Action Committee, guided by Stern, has been maintaining the campaign's momentum primarily through its email list, which serves as a bulletin board for updates, news clippings and upcoming meetings and events. "All the time people call to join. It's rare to speak with someone who isn't horrified [by the building plans]," says Stern. May was a particularly active month for the campaign. The committee met with visiting Templar descendants, who, Levinson says, were shocked to learn of the building scheme on their heritage site. "They were tremendously upset and we hope to get their support in objecting to the plan from a preservation point of view," says Levinson. Later in May, the committee organized a march from the Jerusalem Pool along Rehov Emek Refaim to the Templar House, where it had planned to hoist 50-meter balloons to help people visualize the magnitude of a 14-storey structure. In the end, strong winds kept the balloons from rising. The committee met greater success a week later, when it set up a petition booth during the Shavuot Festival staged on Rehov Emek Refaim. "The people's response was immediate and very generous," recalls Levinson. "It wasn't difficult at all to engage them and show them some of the ramifications of the plans." The committee came away with some 2,000 signatories of the objection to the plans. The next scheduled event is a panel discussion that will host planning experts (including the plans' developers) to explain the nuts and bolts of the building plans, and local cultural personalities to talk about the history and character of the German Colony. In addition to "getting more people aware and involved," Levinson says, the campaign is focused on "preparing the professional side of our objections" to the amended plan for the Four Seasons Hotel. The date for the presentation of written and spoken public objections to the District Planning Committee is set for July 6. "It's nice to have the 2,000-3,000 names, but when you have an architect or urban planner making an informed presentation, I think it carries more weight," Levinson reflects. "People have criticized us for being too nice, going through channels too much," Levinson says. "They tell us we need people out on the street, burning tires in order to get attention. "I guess we have more faith in the system, which means we are more willing to work within the system."