Not in our courtyard

SPNI and the Jerusalem Development Authority clash over plans for the Sergei Courtyard.

Russian compound 88 (photo credit: )
Russian compound 88
(photo credit: )
In its 116 years of existence, the Sergei Courtyard, located in the Russian Compound, has provided housing for Russian aristocrats, offices for the British army and, during the War of Independence, water for local residents. Since the late 1960s, the facility has been home to the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which in recent years has gained government support for plans to expand into portions of the courtyard which now lie vacant. Or so the organization thought. Beginning in the mid-Eighties, SPNI made a series of investments intended to beautify the complex and draw more environmentally-minded members of the public into downtown Jerusalem. Located about five minutes by foot from Kikar Zion, the Sergei Courtyard features gardens paid for by SPNI, which continues to secure approximately $300,000 annually from an American donor family committed to their upkeep. Last fall, the organization opened a new lecture hall and library, which together cost roughly a quarter-million dollars and substantially increased the number of visitors to the facility. The library, information center and courtyard are all open to the public, SPNI officials note, with the organization also providing free weekly tours of different parts of Jerusalem as part of its public offerings. But while SPNI officials speak eagerly about recent upgrades to their facility, they express growing frustration over another part of the Sergei Courtyard - the complex's eastern wing, which today stands empty and which, they say, was promised to them by the city as part of a large-scale renovation and expansion of SPNI's Jerusalem facilities. Years after discussions began about the future of the eastern wing, SPNI still hasn't received the go-ahead to move into the area, causing unease among organization officials over what the city has planned for the building. "Nature abhors a vacuum," says Naomi Tsur, head of SPNI's Jerusalem branch and the organization's national coordinator for community development. "It's a gross neglect of the city center to prevent a positive force from moving into an area that's currently sitting empty." Of particular concern to SPNI is the second floor of the eastern wing, which until a few years ago housed offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, and which also occupies the southern and western wings of the Sergei Courtyard. Several years ago, an electrical fire broke out in the ministry's eastern wing offices, and though the blaze was spotted and reported by participants in an SPNI-sponsored activity outside, the ministry's offices were gutted by the fire. The ministry has no plans to move back into the area, and the offices have remained vacant in the intervening years. The empty area of the courtyard seemed to provide an opportunity for SPNI to realize plans it began developing a decade ago to create what Tsur calls a "green cultural center" - an expanded facility that would broaden SPNI's environmental agenda in downtown Jerusalem and bring more visitors to the heart of the city. Following the fire, SPNI members met with city and government officials, as well as planners in the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), the body responsible for deciding the fate of the courtyard's eastern wing. Government ministers including Ofer Paz-Pines and Matan Vilna'i endorsed SPNI's proposed green campus, and organization officials say they were promised the newly vacated section of the facility. According to Pazit Schweid, SPNI's director of Sergei Courtyard Development, the group had a contract with the city in which the municipality pledged its support for the expansion plans. (The contract was never signed.) As recently as last year, the realization of SPNI's plans looked sufficiently likely that the Jerusalem Foundation, a private group established by former mayor Teddy Kollek, named the project as one of six for which it would raise funds in Europe. At the same time SPNI was beginning to raise funds, however, JDA planners were also meeting with representatives of Bezalel, the renowned Jerusalem art academy celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In what many considered a major loss for downtown Jerusalem, the school had transferred the majority of its departments to a new Mount Scopus campus in 1990, and JDA officials were now looking for a way to move Bezalel back into the center of town. Specifically, the JDA envisioned a revitalized Bezalel campus based in the Russian compound - including portions of the Sergei Courtyard. SPNI representatives are quick to emphasize their support for Bezalel's move into the Russian Compound, with Tsur describing Bezalel as an "ally" and calling the school's proposed move a "wonderful idea" for the city. At the same time, however, the fact that the JDA engaged in separate conversations about the future of the Sergei Courtyard without informing SPNI "activated our antennae," Tsur says, raising concerns about the city's true plans for areas of the courtyard promised to the environmental organization. There is, at the moment, no conflict between Bezalel and SPNI's ambitions in the courtyard. Bezalel has been promised the southern and western wings of the courtyard, which are currently occupied by the Agriculture Ministry and play no role in SPNI's planned expansion. SPNI's main concern remains the courtyard's eastern wing, whose fate has not yet officially been decided by the JDA. Bezalel spokeswoman Nava Levy noted that the school "sees in SPNI a good and important neighbor," and said that it plans to hold an international competition starting next month for the design of its Russian Compound campus. But even as Bezalel makes initial preparations for its move back into downtown Jerusalem, SPNI representatives say they feel stymied and "pushed aside" by the JDA. JDA officials ignored multiple e-mails and telephone requests for comment before Tami Sheinkman, a spokeswoman for the group, agreed to speak briefly with In Jerusalem. Sheinkman declined to comment on the JDA's plans for the vacant area of the Sergei Courtyard, saying only that SPNI has "nothing to worry about." She deflected a question about why the JDA hadn't approved SPNI's expansion and what it has planned for the courtyard's empty eastern wing. SPNI, meanwhile, is waiting for the formation of the new Knesset so it can raise the issue of the empty eastern wing with the new minister responsible for Jerusalem affairs. The group has likely allies in Vilna'i and Paz-Pines, as well as Tzahi Hanegbi, the minister for Jerusalem in the last government. The organization insists it should be allowed to move forward with its plans, which include the creation of more classrooms and the potential establishment of a "green caf ," which it says will help its fund-raising efforts and attract more visitors to the heart of the city. SPNI points to its long presence and continued financial investments in the Sergei Courtyard as reasons it should be able to pursue its vision. Tsur and Schweid note pointedly that, at the height of the intifada, when other organizations and businesses were moving away from downtown, SPNI was increasing its programming and working to draw more visitors to the abandoned city center. In the immediate future, Tsur says, SPNI is most concerned with getting "clarification that the authorities still support our dream." The organization is continuing fund-raising efforts for its expansion plans. "We can move in tomorrow if we're given the go-ahead," she says.