Other plans

The construction of a 'multi-focal city center' could improve the quality of life for all Jerusalemites.

walkingjerusalemAJ29888 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"But where is the city center?" asked my friend, resting after a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem. "There's no simple answer…" I started to say. Prior to 1967 there was a simple answer. In those days you could find a good lawyer, a fashionable shoe store, a European style cafe and a theater showing the latest American films - all within or adjacent to the same triangular block defined by Jaffa Road, King George Avenue and Ben-Yehuda Street. And you went to the bank, bought toys, attended lectures or looked for a moving van in that same area, too. The central bus station was in a back lot off Jaffa Road between Harav Kook and Strauss Street. Prosperous citizens still lived in the upper floors of buildings along King George. As teenagers, we hung out at the Allenby Cafe, on the first block of King George Avenue, between Jaffa and Agrippas. In later years, it became a sewing machine outlet. And today? My son hangs out at the Jerusalem Mall in Malha. Major rival business centers have sprung up in Malha, Talpiot, Givat Shaul and Emek Refaim. These now serve many of the functions formerly served by the traditional center. Yet some locals, and some planners, still view "The Triangle" as the city center. Large sums of money are being invested in renovating its infrastructure - even repaving streets with granite imported from China. All these efforts are intended to achieve the noble aim of "Revitalizing the City Center," a project that is intimately tied with the much-anticipated Jerusalem Light Rail system. However, even given the most successful outcome, the Triangle will never functionally return to being the city center. The reason is simple and prosaic: the area is just too small for the increased population of the Jerusalem metropolitan area and for the much larger volume of commercial activity that we as individuals and consumers now generate. We must ask ourselves, are we not attempting to lock the stable doors long after the horses have bolted? Yet, in addition to the peripheral business centers, there are also some seven inner-city satellite centers close-by. Given certain initiatives and developments, these could become parts of a "multi-focal" city center. These "Seven Dwarfs" include: The Triangle itself; the haredi business district centering on Kikar Shabbat, but flowing westwards along Strauss Street, where the fabric and sewing stores start; the Mahaneh Yehuda market; the city's northern gateway and the central bus station; the Arab business district centering on Damascus Gate; the Old City markets; and the Mamilla business district west of the Jaffa Gate - still an unknown quantity after thirty five years in planning. These various and very different districts stretch over an area nearly three kilometers in length and six hundred meters in width - comparable to something like the Tel-Aviv Promenade from the Hilton Beach to Neve Tzedek and inland out to Dizengoff Center. It's not a unpleasant walk - if you're on level ground, that is. The plan currently underway is centered on Jaffa Road, starting at the Old City gates and encompassing the area of the Triangle, the Mahaneh Yehuda Market and parts of the city's northern gateway. This plan focuses on three elements: the light rail transport and pedestrian development in Jaffa Road; upgrading hidden infrastructure (sewage, electricity etc.); and upgrading the surface elements of public space (paving, lighting, benches, etc.). Hopefully, these and other improvements will attract quality businesses and well-off residents to Jerusalem's center. But it is important to note that these plans are seriously flawed. First of all, they do not include the haredi and Arab centers nor do they deal with how these centers will connect with other urban focuses. It seems that no one has considered what kind of a walk you'll have as you stroll between the Damascus Gate and Kikar Zahal. Second, upgrading surface quality will not promote enhanced spatial quality along the 2 km. stretch from Jaffa Gate to the Mahaneh Yehuda Market. In other words, the plan has focused on making paths, but not on spaces such as squares, piazzas, and gardens. An examination of successful townscapes shows that it's important to have one of these elements every 300 or 400 meters. Third, Jerusalem, as we all know, is hilly, and the plans do not deal with the detrimental effect of radical level changes within the greater center area. In other words, there are no escalators, elevators or people conveyors. Level changes make things seem much further away from each other than they are on the map. And what about another central issue, one of the main reasons that many people prefer shopping malls to traditional shopping centers - free and ample parking. And that is even more critical here, since our traditional center is encumbered with cruel level changes. Will well-off residents be so attracted as to forsake everyday use of their cars? Finally, the project seems to be suffering from a particularly pernicious and vicious combination of the "Mamilla-Blaumilch Effect." The "Mamilla Effect," named after the Mamilla Project, occurs when work drags on forever. It may include, as it does in our city, the closing of the city's largest parking structure on Shabbat, just when the thousands of out-of-towners need it. The "Blaumilch Effect," named after Ephraim Kishon's film, "The Blaumilch Canal," occurs in a living urban area when public works are conducted in such a way as to offset all benefits that the works are meant to bring. The "Blaumilch Effect" can usually be detected when three policemen clocking expensive overtime stand with their hands in their pockets next to a traffic jam. The writer is an architect.