If you build it, they will come

The city has an elaborate plan for reviving its center, but will people really return from the suburbs?

jerusalem city center 29 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jerusalem city center 29
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One p.m. at the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. A choir of Chinese Christians serenely sings hymns as a bearded man hocks tefillin to passersby. Just meters away, a self-declared prophet preaches redemption and a steady stream of shoppers stroll by without taking note. Welcome to Jerusalem's city center. The golden triangle of Ben-Yehuda, Jaffa and King George streets has been the focal point of the city since the British Mandate. Home to coffee shops and restaurants, it was once generously populated by intellectuals, tourists and dignitaries. "The city center used to be literally the center of everything. People would come from all over the place to buy things, for entertainment or just to stroll around," says Azriel Nadav, who has worked in the city center for the past 30 years as the owner of Pick Jewelry and Art on the midrehov (Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall). The town center has suffered the ups and downs of history including wars, sieges and, more recently, terrorism, but it has always survived. Recently, however, there has been a major shift. "About five years ago things changed," says Nadav. "Because of the intifada, people avoided coming to the city center, and the Jerusalem Mall and other shopping centers took people away from here." Reflecting that Israelis are not shopping in the city center as much as they used to, he says that 75 percent of revenue at his store used to come from Israelis and 25% from tourists, but now the situation is reversed as 65% comes from tourists and 35% from Israelis. It's a precarious situation because the regional instability affects tourism. But now, with renewed energy and focus, city planners are determined to buck the trend of recent years and make the city center flourish once again. A host of new infrastructure, transportation and cultural projects are already under way, and the new policies are already reaping tangible results. During the past two years the city center has experienced a 20% increase in foot traffic to more than 100,000 people a day, according to a study commissioned by the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA). The study, conducted by Chimansky Ben-Shachar, a local business consultancy, attributed the increase to the relatively recent presence of service-oriented businesses, such as banks and post offices, which attract a lot of activity. The arrival of more brand name stores has also brought more shoppers. The study noted an increase in traffic in all areas of the triangle, except for the King George-Jaffa intersection, where a decrease of 13% was documented. The decrease in traffic in that area, according to the study, is a result of the type of stores that operate there. There are more boutiques in the area as opposed to service-oriented businesses, and thus less foot traffic. The revival of downtown Jerusalem is not just academic. "We've definitely felt it both in the store and in the streets," says Nadav. Spearheading this resurgence is Asaf Vitman, CEO of Eden, a sub-group of the JDA focused completely on the renewal of the city center. Sitting in front of an aerial map of the city, Vitman confidently states, "The policy of the JDA, the municipality and the government of Israel is to renew the city center of Jerusalem." The JDA is an independent entity formed in 1988 by both the municipality of Jerusalem and the government of Israel. Both the JDA and Eden receive funding from government sources and charitable donations through the Jerusalem Foundation. The Jerusalem Foundation of Canada recently kicked off a $2 million fund-raising campaign earmarked for the renewal of the city center. The monies raised in Canada will be directed to the rejuvenation of Zion Square, including the installation of a contemporary sculpture by artist Ron Arad, and community outreach programs focused on young inhabitants of the area. The foundation works in consultation with city planners. WHILE TERRORISM has played a significant role in the decline of the city center, Vitman is quick to note that there were other factors at play. "In the last generation all over the world populations have moved away from the city center; this has also happened in Jerusalem. It's not as simple as just terrorism; it was issues with infrastructure and a general social trend which caused the decline." Dr. Daniel Felsenstein, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Studies at the Hebrew University, explains that during the 1970s and 1980s Western cities developed in a sprawling trend, where the centers of town declined and the suburbs flourished. This pattern began to change in the 1990s and the focus shifted to city centers. An urban planning ideology developed, which rejected the notion that suburbs must grow and centers decline; rather growth in both areas became a viable and reasonable goal. "This is the reality in Jerusalem: The hi-tech industry is outside the city, and communities and shopping are outside the city center so the economic activity has moved out too. Basically the perimeter is expanding but the center is also making a comeback, like in many US cities," says Felsenstein. "There is a worldwide trend to create an environment that attracts a creative class, artists, students, musicians and professionals who focus on creativity, as opposed to production or services," he explains. "Cities that have this core of creativity are making a comeback. It's almost become a magic remedy spurring resurgence in city cores. It's not the creative class that creates the comeback necessarily; rather it's a symbol of openness and a tolerant attitude of a city, which then fosters growth in other areas and creates more activity." Felsenstein thinks that Jerusalem fits this mold. "There is a lot of planning to make the center more attractive to this class of people; what is happening in Jerusalem now seems to reflect this world wide trend." One of Vitman's guiding visions is the notion that the city center is a product, and "like in the private sector when competing with other products, you need to make the better product in order to succeed and then the demand for the product, in this case the city center, will grow." The question is, he says, "even if you make the city center accessible, does the demand exist?" He says the average Jerusalemite living in a suburb will not come to the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall to shop for household goods. The challenge is to bring services to the center that will both attract the suburbanites and cater to the transient cohorts of students and tourists. "Is that a long-term, sustainable solution? It depends on whether tourism can weather the often volatile political situation," he says. Vitman too is sensitive to the challenge of appealing to both tourists and locals. "We must appeal to both groups; tourists want to be around locals and want to be in a vibrant area." THE MOST obvious part of the city's plan to revive downtown, says Vitman, are changes to the transportation infrastructure to improve accessibility to the city center. "One of the reasons for the decline of city centers worldwide over the past few decades was the lack of public transportation and a focus on private transportation," he explains. The most significant project in this regard is the construction of the light rail system. "We want everyone in the city to be able to reach the center quickly. The center is the biggest place of commerce and work, so it must be easily accessible in order to grow," he says. New parking lots and improved traffic patterns are also part of the plan. Felsenstein also insists on the importance of revamping the transportation system. "In Jerusalem it was clear that the transportation infrastructure was hampering life in the center; the new light rail train will drastically improve the situation." However, he notes the natural limitations of Jerusalem: "The topography of Jerusalem is not ideal to modern transportation infrastructures." Mazal Nadav, Azriel Nadav's wife and co-owner of Pick Jewelry and Art, thinks the train will attract more people to the city center, but "even if the transportation is better and there is more parking, there needs to be something here to attract them to the area." Although the benefits of improving the infrastructure are clear, there are still years of work to go. The growing pains from the projects are felt by business owners and consumers alike. "I think there are fewer people on the streets because of the construction. People have nowhere to park, there are fewer buses," says Liad Dromi, a shopkeeper on Ben-Yehuda. "But I think when the train is finished there will be more customers." Some Jerusalemites view the construction with skepticism and frustration. "I think this is all a waste, it will never be finished; they've been talking about this train for years. It's always just talk. I just want to be able to get on the bus without sitting in traffic," says Rebecca Cohen, a university student and resident of downtown Jerusalem. City officials are confident that the rail system will be completed and recognize the fact that with any major project there will be frustration and delays, but that cannot cloud the ultimate goal of improving accessibility. A face-lift in the public domain is the next element of the plan. "My vision is to create a more attractive city center," says Vitman. According to him, the city has already planted 3,000 new trees, installed new lights and has started work on new gardens and parks. "We recognize the importance of leisure time for young people and want to create an environment that is conducive to that, [and] new parks and other outdoor recreational areas are a part," he explains. An example can be seen on Rehov Hillel, where construction of a new pedestrian mall has recently been completed. The city has also initiated a rent-subsidy program for students living in the city center, implicitly speaking to the notion of attracting a creative class to the city's core. Vitman recounts the success of the program: "As a result of the rent-subsidy program the number of students living in the city center has increased from approximately 150 to over 1,000 since 2004." The subsidy program offers a $100 monthly rent stipend for students living in the center of Jerusalem. Raheli C., who works in a bookstore on Ben-Yehuda, says she used to live outside of the city but because of the grant program she moved to the center. "I wouldn't be living here if it weren't for the grants. There are so many more students living downtown - there's a real community developing," she says. The city's vision extends beyond the downtown area. In the cultural realm, the city is planning to open a new hall at the International Convention Center, which will seat 1,800, and to revamp local museums, adding an art museum to the existing Museum of Underground Prisoners. Additionally, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design will return to the city center from its current location on Mount Scopus. Changes to the city's zoning are also vital. "We have increased the zoning to allow for 1.2 million sq.m. of new commercial, residential, and public sector development," says Vitman. "The new zoning plans create the opportunity for development." The changes in zoning, in addition to a grant program for developments in the city center, have already spurred major new projects, most notably the Mamilla development near the Old City, which will house some of the biggest brands in Israel. Other major projects include multiple luxury condominiums. The majority of the purchasers of these developments are foreigners, creating what is commonly referred to as "ghost towns" because of the absenteeism of the owners. This trend is something Vitman is aware might limit local residency and counter the city's goals of resurgence in the area. However, he notes that "we don't encourage luxury development, but we can't stop it in a free market; if the economics are there to support it, it will happen." He adds that there are more benefits than a simple increase in tax revenues for city coffers from these projects. "I think it's important for Jews from all over the world that they own property here and come here, it's important for the state and the capital to be connected with the Diaspora in such a strong way." ALTHOUGH THE city's plan is comprehensive and data show that it is succeeding in bringing more people downtown, many residents and business owners still feel much is lacking from the area. Shai Kopel, an owner of a restaurant on Jaffa Road, laments that the German Colony, Malha and the old train station area have taken many customers away from the city center. "The only people who remain downtown are tourists and teenagers, what's missing is the more mature Israeli crowd," he complains. "We need new restaurants and lounges and just to change the feeling in the area." A recurring theme when discussing life in the center is the lack of variety in restaurants and bars. "The nightlife needs major improvement. There are a lot of students looking for things to do and there just aren't enough places to go, everywhere is packed," says Marnina Harow, a student and city center resident. Tal Lichtman, a resident of a Jerusalem suburb, says she never thinks of going out at night in Jerusalem anymore. "I've been to every place here, so now when I go out, I go to Tel Aviv," she explains. Harow also says she feels that officials are overly focused on attracting tourists from abroad while overlooking local tourism. "Israelis who grow up outside Jerusalem barely come here. They are dissuaded by the perception that it's a religious environment. The city needs to attract Israeli tourism too. Downtown should be thriving with culture and shows and activities that make everyone excited to be in the center of the holiest city in the world." There's still a lot of work to be done, Kopel admits, but business owners and residents are optimistic."We don't just call this area downtown, it's called the city center and it's becoming the center again," he says. "There's a lot of work to do but it's happening."