Park 'n' Save

Three weeks ago, the municipal Commission for Planning and Construction authorized a significant change in the YMCA project, relieving the developers from their commitment to build two public buildings as part of the project. These two buildings were intended to serve, among other things, as a community center with kindergarten classrooms, a library, and a public sports center. The decision contradicts a 1999 agreement between Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem's former mayor, and the developers, according to which the municipality agreed to waive the land betterment property tax usually imposed on such projects in return for a commitment to build the public facilities. Subsequent to its approval, the State Comptroller severely criticized that agreement, although at the time, neither the opponents nor the supporters of the agreements could prove that the sum the municipality had renounced - nearly NIS 50 million - was equivalent to the cost of those public facilities. Nevertheless, the mayor did succeed in convincing the coalition to support the agreement. The agreement was subsequently taken to court by public-interest groups, and while the court disapproved of the agreement, it would not nullify it. The court did, however, rule that in the future, municipal taxes cannot be waived in exchange for benefits for the public. In the municipal council, the fight over the agreement was bitter, but, says councilman Pepe Allalu (Meretz), who was also a councilman at the time, "At least we hoped that when those public facilities would be ready, the children of Jerusalem could make some good use of it." Speaking with In Jerusalem this week, Allalu said that he felt "very concerned" that neither he nor the other members of the council had been fully informed before this new decision. "Now that I know that each apartment in this project is selling for at least US $1 million, it's obvious why the promoters would like to add apartments and build less public facilities," Allalu says. The request was presented to the Commission a few weeks ago. In response to IJ's questions, the Commission's head, Vice Mayor Rabbi Yehoshua Pollack (Unified Torah), said that he had no knowledge of the comptroller's critical report. "They (the developers) have proposed to create in place of the two public buildings a beautiful park," Pollack says. "I see this as no less of a public utility than some community center, so I didn't see any reason to oppose their request." The issue is not if the park is good for the community or not," says city council and commission member Meir Tourjeman (Jerusalem Will Succeed). "It's just that this is not what had been agreed upon, apart from the fact that even what has been forced on the city by the previous mayor is in total contradiction to the citizens and the public interest. "We gave up NIS 50 million," Tourjeman continues, "and it was not in order to get a park from the promoters, but to receive classrooms and other facilities for the children of this city. I don't understand who gave them the right to change it now. Just because they found out that they can make a huge profit with these luxurious apartments and they want to have more, should we accept that they make this profit on our account?" Shuki Levanon, Spokesman of the Movement for Quality in Government, says that, "Now that mask that hid the true face of this project has been torn away, we can see that it's all about the real-estate sharks - and the public interest is last and least for them." Levanon repeats that the municipality had waived the huge sum of money in order to promote some public benefits. "But now, what's left of it is only the promoters' benefits." Citing the court ruling, Levanon questions whether the decision is even legal, and says that his movement intends to study the decision carefully before they decide how to deal with it on a judicial level. Senior professionals in the municipality acknowledge that they were "surprised" to learn about the Commission's decision, adding that they will ask for additional explanations before they take any further steps. But they have made it clear that, as far as they are concerned, the issue is not over. In a written response to IJ, Gidi Schmerling, Municipal Spokesman, said that "the issue has recently been examined by the department of land betterment taxes and by the legal department, and the municipality is currently assessing its position on this topic."