Mastering the master plan

Amid controversy over construction in Jewish neighborhoods beyond Green Line, planning committee chair Kobi Kahlon insists political considerations do not influence granting of permits.

Kobi Kahlon 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Kobi Kahlon 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Following the police recommendation to indict the people involved in the Holyland scandal, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, the spotlight is focused on the local planning and construction committee, where this infamous project was approved a few years ago. Headed by Lupolianski for 10 years, followed by Yehoshua Pollak for six, this powerful committee is now chaired by Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon.
Kahlon, 52, was born in Givat Olga to Libyan immigrants.He has two sisters and five brothers, including Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon (Likud).
After completing a master’s degree in law and business management, he married a woman from Jerusalem, moved to the city and founded a construction company (now closed), which his wife managed.They have three sons.
As an expert in law and business management, he has a clear agenda that puts the residents at center stage, and believes that everyone should be treated equally as mandated by law.
In the following interview, Kahlon is very careful not to say anything about his predecessors on the committee, but he emphasizes the very different attitude he has. He doesn’t see himself as someone who merely grants construction permits. Kahlon has an expansive yet detailed vision of how this city should look and function.
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 And he is very active in promoting this vision which, not surprisingly, matches the mayor’s vision to a large extent: development, economics, tourism – modernity and commerce, with a little less focus on historical and religious issues. He stresses that he is a well-to-do man (who doesn’t need bribes) and is not involved in political games (though he is a member of Likud and manages his brother’s campaigns).
His opponent, city council opposition member Meir Turgeman, claims that Kahlon is not fit for the job and does not control the committee. And judging by the tone that Kahlon and municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio use with each other during committee meetings, the relationship between the two of them is not the best.
Yet Kahlon has managed to freeze the second phase of the Holyland project (the six pending towers will not be built, at least not in the near future), and the plan for the controversial tower to be built on Rehov Agrippas and Jaffa Road, near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, has also been canceled on his watch. Kahlon admits that he is opposed to having high-rise buildings in the city center because of its historical value.
As a long-standing friend of the mayor, Barkat had asked Kahlon to leave everything behind and support him in his plans. Kahlon agreed and, as a result, he has the full backing of the mayor, which is an important asset in heading such a significant committee. Kahlon also serves as a replacement for the mayor when Barkat is away.
Can you assure the residents of Jerusalem that there will never be another Holyland affair in this city?
You mean on my watch? Well, the only way to achieve that is to simply act according to the rules that determine how high, where and what kind of construction the municipality can approve. We have to remain within the parameters of the rules, of the plan – and that is certainly good for democracy. We have to check ourselves all the time. We are now building a comprehensive structure of regulations so that we can act in accordance with these rules.
But didn’t we have those rules all along? And look what happened anyway.
I’m talking about working in accordance with the new master plan. Until now, we’ve been working on the basis of a master plan that was appropriate for the time it was drawn up – the early 1950s. Things have changed since the British Mandate norms, which allowed building up to only 25 percent of a plot – like one house on one dunam. That is ridiculous. It can’t meet the demands of the city today. As a result, we had to deal with requests for changes, requests to add more building sites and to change the purpose and the assignment of construction projects to adapt them to the present needs.
And therein lies the catch – all the changes you have to introduce and approve.
That’s the problem we’re facing. But this, of course, will not happen anymore once we work according to the new master plan.
But the new master plan is still being held up at the Interior Ministry.
That’s correct. At the moment, we are working according to a master plan that hasn’t yet been approved or presented to the public. We can do that because we have the authority, and we know what’s in the new plan. But the master plan is a matter of law, and until it is completely approved, we on the committee base our work according to what we know of it.
Let’s get back to the Holyland.
All right. You know that rights for construction or adding areas of existing construction are granted by the [Interior Ministry’s] district committee [for planning and construction], not by us. We only give recommendations; the district committee decides.
So what ultimately makes the difference is the kind of people who sit on the district committee, not the laws.
Not only. But because there was no master plan that you could rely on or submit changes in reference to, any architect or developer could come and convince the committee that a tower of so many stories in a particular place was okay. Or a fourstory building there was better – anything. These entrepreneurs bring the best in their fields – the best architects, the best attorneys – and on the other side, the committee gave in. I hope we’re done with that.
As chairman of the committee, is the Holyland affair a kind of nightmare for you?
Not really. In a way, it even makes my life easier. Since the public has rejected it so vehemently, it serves as a warning. I don’t even have to say anything – it’s obvious now. You know, it all comes from the public’s attitude.
Like 20 years ago, people started to say, ‘Hey, we don’t accept that people don’t pay their taxes.’ It’s the same here. Once, people would have said, ‘So this guy enclosed a balcony or added a room without a permit, so what?’ But it doesn’t work like that anymore.
Today if someone carries out illegal construction, the neighbors will say, ‘Hey, mister, you have done me wrong; you have infringed on my rights here – it affects all of us.’ If someone builds something that will have a negative impact on his surroundings, it doesn’t work anymore.
Okay. If it’s so important, why has the master plan not been approved yet?
This plan provides a realistic division – onethird to the Arab population, two-thirds to the Jewish population. There was a lot of criticism, and I understand it: The plan gave too much area to the Arab population. You know why? Because the character of construction within the Arab population is quite different.
It is a cultural issue, not a political one. They don’t live in high-rise buildings. You don’t see 12- or 14- or 18-story buildings in their neighborhoods, so naturally their housing requires more land. And that additional land was at the expense of green space. Where would we take the land from? But in Beit Hanina there is plenty of land, and there we know who owns each plot, something that doesn’t exist, for example, in the areas close to the Holy Basin. We give permits for building high, and it works. Or in the new Arab neighborhood we are planning, Arab a-Sawahreh [between Jebl Mukaber and Sur Bahir], we plan to build 2,500 to 5,000 housing units. In this particular case, since there is no clear ownership of the land, the municipality is the developer and, for the first time, we will build on the basis of open spaces, public structures, roads and green spaces – everything.
Let’s talk about east Jerusalem. Is there a construction freeze there today?
For Jews or for Arabs?
For both.
There is no freeze at all.
That doesn’t correspond with what we know.
It’s very simple. People have rights. You cannot prevent a resident from building on a property that he can prove is his.
Are you talking about Jewish or Arab residents? Because, as far as I know, Arab residents don’t submit requests for permits, since they don’t obtain permits.
Says who? Do you have any idea how many requests for construction permits we receive every month, every week, even every day? There is no comparison between the number of permit requests submitted by Arab residents today and how many there were before.
Are these private people or contractors?
Mostly private people, residents. We don’t have an agenda to check one resident against another. Thanks to this policy, today Arab residents complain about illegal construction by their own neighbors. They understand that it’s worthwhile to respect the law – that when your neighbor builds on a plot designated to serve as a road or a playground for children, they are the ones who suffer, not me. So that is what they expect of us, the committee – to see that the law is respected, to uphold their rights. Today, they realize that illegal construction is not aimed against us, the municipality, but against them and the residents around them.
How significant is the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office in the committee’s plans and decisions?
A municipality is not subordinate to the government.
Sure, but we are all aware of the current sensitive circumstances.
Only the district committee can be subordinate. But as a representative of the municipality, my duty is to approve or not approve a construction. If someone is entitled to a construction permit, it is my duty to grant that permit. It is my obligation; I cannot refuse it.
But aren’t there cases where you approve a project, and on the district committee some political considerations might alter the decision?
That’s not my business at all.
Still, we all remember what happened when the construction project at Ramat Shlomo was approved exactly on the day US Vice President Joe Biden visited here. You can’t pretend that you are not aware of the consequences.
Listen, here is how it works: We have a local planning and construction committee, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the district committee at the Interior Ministry. We deal with plans for adding construction to existing structures, and we deal with licenses. If a resident has rights and he applies for a license, I have to approve it. I cannot say no to him. If the people at the Prime Minister’s Office tell me not to approve it, I will tell them I can’t oblige them. According to the law, I can’t.
Okay. That’s when we’re talking about an Arab resident who wants to build where he has the right to. That, of course, shouldn’t concern anybody in Washington. But what if we’re talking about Silwan and the resident’s name is Moshe Zucher?
If the plot is his property, I cannot refuse him. I’m telling you, I cannot do that!
So where does politics intervene? Only in Ramat Shlomo or Gilo?
Let me explain again. Suppose you bought a three-room apartment and, according to the municipal plan, you could add one room. There is no way I can prevent you from doing so. It’s a basic right of yours as a resident. We deal here with rights of planning, that’s all. You know, in the first months here, I didn’t even want to know the names of the applicants – I only asked for the plans.
Still, there were cases when you made some decisions that had some political context. Like in Pisgat Ze’ev a few months ago.
Yes, I have a few prerogatives as chairman of the committee, and sometimes I use them. If I know that the prime minister is on his way to Washington and I realize that a particular plan submitted at that particular time is a provocation and I know that my chance of explaining it to the media, here and abroad, is nil, I stop everything and I return to it later on.
Of course, I take the circumstances into consideration. If I see that it might drag us into a contentious situation, if I know that I am facing a provocation and I know that my voice won’t be heard among all the noise around, then yes, I postpone the session on that particular project for one week, two weeks, and then I get back to it. Nothing harmful happened as a result. Why should I stir up trouble?
So you don’t think that large construction plans are going to be stopped?
It is totally out of the question that they should stop. I don’t want to go into it, but just [last week] Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor admitted on the radio that on the Jewish side, it is clear that nothing is frozen. Pisgat Ze’ev will never be dismantled; it’s a closed issue. Perhaps somebody would say, ‘Let’s argue here to save something elsewhere,’ but all the locations that are mentioned in the new master plan of Jerusalem are locations that will clearly remain in our hands, and this is accepted by all parties. I really think this whole issue is irrelevant and we should focus on what we should do for the city.
How will the city look according to your plans?
I am against tall buildings in the city center. That is a huge mistake promoted by the opponents of the Safdie plan. I am against ruining good things in order to repair bad initiatives. If the Safdie plan was a bad idea, don’t fix it by destroying this city. I don’t think it is a good idea to transform the special character of the city center with high-rises. The heart of the city, the historical part (not the Old City), has to remain intact. We have to show respect, and we can’t just turn the city center into a huge building site.
You can’t take a neighborhood like Rehavia and add two stories to all the structures there. If I need to increase the city’s housing capacity, I shouldn’t do it by destroying a neighborhood like Nahlaot. I don’t want to hurt Rehavia, I don’t want to hurt Nahalat Ahim.
But on the outskirts of a neighborhood – like the Wolfson Towers – that’s okay. That’s a fair solution. But that’s not enough. How do you solve the lack of housing and office space without harming the historical city? You must have something in mind.
Of course, I have a solution – the western entrance to the city: That’s where we can do big things. There we have the [future] train station, the light rail, the Bridge of Strings and the Central Bus Station. There we will build one million square meters of offices, hotels, commercial and entertainment facilities. We will add two towers beside Binyenei Ha’uma, halls, two 24-story towers for all the national district offices, all in one place. I’m talking about a project that will be ready within five years, while the towers for the district offices will be ready within three years.
What we are planning is a modern, lively, attractive and accessible new part of this city, which will give us everything we need in terms of development without touching the historical center of this city. Thus we will have a new city, a historical city, an old holy city and an ancient city, the City of David.
The huge change will be felt when the railway begins to operate. Until now, what we had in Jerusalem were tourists who would go to the Old City, buy some red thread for NIS 1 and spend another NIS 3 and go back home, out of Jerusalem. I say enough of this. We can make the change. It is all based on a different concept – economics. Tourism, business. No more of the situation we have now, where people come here for a day at most and then leave as quickly as possible.
How do you explain this change?
This city has been in a coma for 16 years, but the residents don’t want that anymore. The public has given us an opportunity, and we are working hard to deliver.
People will be able to reach Jerusalem within 28 minutes by train, and I want them to do business here, work, study and enjoy entertainment and leisure here, to allow tourists to spend more than one night in hotels – that’s more than enough.
We want to give the city back to its residents, to the people. The city’s properties have been sold to foreign interests. Take, for example, the Jerusalem Theater parking lot. It is public property. What does it mean that it is sold to private investors? It’s unbelievable that a parking lot is sold to a private party. Visitors and residents deserve respect – sidewalks, roads, parking.
Everything that is public property!