Last Resort?: Four Seasons Hotel kicks up a storm

Debate rages on over the building of the Four Seasons Hotel.

elon 88 (photo credit: )
elon 88
(photo credit: )
More than 100 concerned citizens packed what was supposed to be the decisive meeting of the Jerusalem District Planning Commission's sub-committee for objections Tuesday to express their antipathy to the Four Seasons Hotel - an ambitious mixed hotel and condominium project proposed for the beginning of Rehov Emek Refaim in the German Colony. The heated but polite meeting, held at the Reich Hotel in Beit Hakerem, capped a half-year public campaign against Plan 6817 which, contrary to zoning laws permitting a seven-story hotel, would double the height and density by adding 80 luxury apartment suites to be marketed to nonresidents, as well as a commercial arcade. The sub-committee was adjourned after eight hours without having completed presentations from the initiators. No date was set to complete the hearing. By statute, opponents of the project will have an opportunity to respond to the initiators' final submission. Many of the opposition speakers at the meeting reflected on the controversial nature of the complex project, which was designed by a team of both local and overseas architects. For example, since the proposed building is situated on a sloping site, the number of floors above grade varies. By the opponents' interpretation, there would be 16 floors; the initiators - the Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels, Inc. - argued the figure is 11 floors. Similarly varying estimates of the cost of the luxury project were bandied about. Many of the speakers addressing the Interior Ministry's five-man panel, including architects, engineers and lawyers, emphasized that the massing of the proposed 49-meter-high building was inappropriate given the low-rise district's charming character. Founded in the late 19th century by members of the Lutheran pietist Tempelgesellschaft (Temple Society) from Wurttemberg, the German Colony and adjoining Greek Colony today constitute a quaint neighborhood of mostly two- and three-story buildings set amid narrow streets and lush vegetation. "I'm in favor of the hotel but not the apartments," said Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum of the Hebrew University's geography department. "They're two totally different projects. The developers just want to make a fast buck." Speaking in Hebrew but switching to English for sarcastic effect, Ellenblum rued that wealthy foreign Jews would say, "I have a flat in Jerusalem with a view of the Old City." Opposition to the proposed luxury suites - which likely would sit empty most of the year - was a common motif among the speakers. A Hebrew language banner punned "Lo refaim Be'emek Refaim" (No to ghost [apartments] in the Valley of the Ghosts). The valley, mentioned in Joshua and the Second Book of Samuel, probably was named in biblical times after a legendary race of phantom-like giants. "If [poet] Yehuda Amihai were still alive, he would have been here to oppose this project. He loved Jerusalem. He loved the German Colony," said Lyliane Altman, a resident of the historic neighborhood. Not all the opponents came from the area and neighboring Baka. Jerusalem lawyer Benjamin Hyman, the legal adviser to the opposition movement, noted that his group - which maintains a Web site, - submitted 5,000 objections collected from across the country. From the perspective of five years, a lot has changed, he declared, adding that the project no longer serves the public interest. Hyman sniped that while the city center planning model at Kikar Safra has been revised to show the proposed Four Seasons complex, his group had to prepare at their own expense the 3-D model on display so laymen could understand the scale of the 12,000-square-meter project. No tender was held for the valuable 10-dunam lot, he noted. Acting municipal engineer Osnat Post called the plan "insensitive," adding that a grove of mature pine trees would have to be cut down for the hotel. Without the residential component, the hotel alone would be a "white elephant," warned lawyer Yuval Galon. Interviewed at his office in the Knesset, MK Benny Elon (National Union) - who served two terms as Israel's Tourism Minister, between 2001-2002 and again between 2003-2004 - told In Jerusalem that he was opposed to the increasingly common practice of developers in Israel combining a new hotel with luxury condominium suites. "In most places this has been a fiction," he said of real estate deals masquerading as tourism development. "The Four Seasons project should not get any special zoning variance at the expense of the city. "The seasons change but Jerusalem remains," he quipped. Four Seasons spokesman Tami Sheinkman said, "The time has come that planners and City Hall staff understand the importance of promoting tourism in the city. The committee will need to choose between a project whose investment will benefit thousands of residents of the city and will provide employment for hundreds of workers, and between advancing the narrow interests of the opponents." Opponents are cautiously optimistic that the planners set a precedent last month when they ruled against the proposed Colony Hotel - which would have been built across from the Four Seasons beside the original Templar church on Bethlehem Road on the site of the Fiber Institute. Four Seasons Hotels, Inc. is a high-end luxury hotel and resort chain. According to Travel and Leisure magazine, it is considered among the best luxury inn chains in the world. The publicly traded corporation was founded by Isadore ("Issy") Sharp in 1960, who that year opened the Four Seasons motel on Toronto's Jarvis Street, in the city's notorious red light district. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has a substantial holding in the company along with Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. On November 6, 2006, Gates, through his holding company Cascades Investment LLC, and the sheikh made a $3.4 billion offer to take over the company.