Planned agreements

Although legal, agreements between community councils and developers raise social and political dilemmas

har nof 88 (photo credit: )
har nof 88
(photo credit: )
In a six-hour marathon meeting on March 16, 2006, the Ministry of the Interior's District Planning and Building Committee discussed Green Park Har Nof, a controversial residential building project on Hai Taib Street. As reported in In Jerusalem (January 14, 2005 and June 2005), more than 1,700 neighborhood residents oppose the plan, as do numerous "green" groups, including Shomera, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Jewish National Fund and the Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din). Both opponents and supporters of the program were scheduled to present their arguments to the committee. But due to the long list of opponents, the meeting was adjourned before the supporters had their say. The hearings are expected to continue in early May. At least until then, the fate of the Green Park Har Nof project remains unclear. Yet whatever the final decision, this project does highlight a growing trend in Jerusalem, of which the public is little aware. In numerous instances throughout the city, neighborhood administrations ("minhalim kehillati'im" - see box) have signed agreements with developers, agreeing to support or not oppose building projects in exchange for public land development or money for community use. And while legal, these agreements do raise questions about the influence that developers wield over the planning approval process and the objectivity of the city's councils. Har Nof is a community of some 25,000 residents, two-thirds of whom identify themselves as haredim and one-third as "national religious." The community was designed nearly 30 years ago as a mixed secular/religious neighborhood. Fort his reason, inadequate space was allocated for public institutions to serve the religious needs of the community, such as synagogues, ritual baths, separate schools for boys and girls, and so forth. Over the years, these institutions have taken over much of the green space in the neighborhood. Furthermore, the community has aged, resulting in a decline in the number of young families with small children. The Green Park project is a $40 million, three-building residential project planned for a slope where Har Nof meets the Jerusalem Forest. Designed by architect Shlomo Eshkol, Green Park is being developed by two Chicago investors, Jack Rajchenbach, head of the medical services holding company Itex and the J&J real estate development firm, and Yisrael Gluck, whose real estate firm, American Landmark Properties, manages more than a billion square meters of property, including the controlling interest in Chicago's Sears Tower. Valimer International Inc. is their Israeli development company. As currently proposed, the project includes 111 residential units in three buildings, each of which will reach a maximum of eight stories. Parts of each of the three buildings will be built on the side of the hill, below street level; the remainder will rise to heights of three, four, and five stories above street level. Har Nof residents and green groups claim that the project will block the neighborhood's only window into the forest, interfere with access to the planned new promenade to be built along the forest's edge and impinge on the quality of life in this already densely populated neighborhood. In addition, opponents contend that the land is currently zoned for public building, while Green Park is a private, residential project. Finally, they note that in 2001 a prior plan to build an old-age home, which was much smaller in scope, was rejected by the district committee because it was considered too big. At that time, the local committee had demanded that the project be reduced to a height of one and a half stories above street level. Arguing for the benefits of the Green Park project, the developers and supporters have stressed that they will better the community by developing green areas and aiding the neighborhood administration in its work, and that the large numbers of residential units will encourage young families to remain in the neighborhood. According to the agreement signed between the Har Nof Neighborhood Administration and Valimer International, the council agrees to "drop its objections [to the Green Park project]." In exchange, the developer agrees "to provide land and money, to be used by the council in the framework of its activity among neighborhood residents." The agreement is specific. The developer pledges to spend US$ 50,000 to develop green areas in the neighborhood and will contribute another US$ 175,000 for public projects in the community. Payment of these sums is contingent upon final approval of the project, in a configuration of between 95 to 120 apartments in three buildings, totaling more than 14,664 square meters of built-up area. If the project is approved in a lesser configuration, the sum given to the neighborhood administration will be reduced proportionately. The reductions are detailed in the agreement. Furthermore, the developer will provide the council with NIS 20,000 for ads and a public information campaign to convince residents to support the project. Rabbi Eliezer Rauchberger, who sits on the council's 11-member board and was one of the three negotiators and signatories to the Green Park agreement, is pleased. Initially, he states, the plan was "grandiose [and] densely packed, including four buildings, seven stories above street level. "The neighborhood administration opposed the plan, and, through negotiations, the developer agreed to the current plan and to providing a dunam of green space where the fourth building would have been." Rauchberger also told IJ that the agreement serves the needs of the community. "We are an aging community that needs to rejuvenate by attracting younger families." The project, he says, will do just this. Yet the agreement presents both procedural and substantive issues. This agreement has been in process for over a year. Back in January 2005, Rabbi Arie Fuchsbrumer, chairman of the council, was already able to tell IJ that the developers had promised to contribute $175,000 to the council. Yet the agreement only became public on March 7, 2006. Some members of the board of the neighborhood administration have yet to see the signed version. Avraham Grossbaum, a vocal opponent of the agreement, says he still has not received a copy, despite repeated requests to the chair. Grossbaum declined IJ's offer of a copy, preferring "to wait for official notification." Furthermore, the final agreement was not voted on and approved by the neighborhood administration or even presented for final approval, according to Grossbaum and Zahava Fischer, also a member of the board and one of three members who opposed negotiating with the developers. Says Fischer, "We voted to give the three members [of the neighborhood administration] the power to negotiate to reach a deal. We were given oral information on the progress but nothing written. We voted in October 2004 without having anything on the table. I only received a copy a year later. The board claims we gave them carte blanche." Adds Naomi Weil, attorney for 34 of the residents opposing the project, "The neighborhood administration should have held a meeting and presented the agreement to the residents, not just sign it." Rauchberger counters that, "The agreement is not a secret. We never published the actual wording but we did publish the 'spirit' of it in the local newspaper and in flyers." Both Daniel Peled, legal adviser for the council, who helped hammer out the agreement, and Yuli Ben-Lavi, deputy director-general of the Jerusalem Association of Community Centers and Councils, Ltd., which oversees the council, point out that the councils have no statutory authority in the approval process. In fact, the local and regional committees are not obliged to even take the council's position into account. Yet, Ben-Lavi acknowledges, "Over the past 10 years, there has hardly been a case where the local or district building committees have approved a building project which the council opposed." In fact, the municipality often views the council's agreement to a project as proof of public participation in the planning process. At a February 20 meeting of the local planning and construction committee, which convened to recommend that the district committee approve the modified plan, deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack, who holds the municipal building and planning portfolio, publicly chided local opponents of Green Park, claiming that they had no right to complain "since their elected neighborhood administration had approved the project." Says Peled, "I don't see any problem with such an agreement. Everything was transparent… The council approved the project and now is getting something in return for the residents… I think it is quite an achievement that representatives of the community can negotiate with developers and reach such an agreement." Fischer says that she does not categorically oppose the Green Park project, but that she would prefer to see the project approved "on a much smaller scale that would result in less crowding and less damage to the planned promenade." But the nature of the agreement signed between the council and the developer does not leave much of an incentive for the council to approve the project on a smaller scale - since the public allocations are tied proportionally to the project's size. Rauchberger defends this clause saying, "The developer said he wantsto give in proportion to what he receives." But Fischer says that "the agreement torpedoed the council's ability to look at this project objectively." Shlomo Hasson, deputy director of the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Research and a professor of geography at Hebrew University says that, overall, he is not critical of these agreements between the neighborhood administrations and the developers. "In general, in these situations, I tell people not to bang their heads against the wall and to find a compromise. In most cases, continuing to battle it out to the bitter end results in losing everything. There are very few cases where opposition succeeds." However, he notes, the community is always at a disadvantage. "The developers always have more money than the residents…. There is a basic inequality at work here." Some neighborhood administration members feel that the reality of development in Jerusalem leaves them with little choice other than to approve such agreements. Fisher pointed out at the district meeting (and was not contradicted by any of the other council board members present at the March 16 meeting), that the Har Nof Neighborhood Administration operates at a loss of NIS 1,000 a day or some NIS 360,000 annually. "The city and the Jerusalem Association of Neighborhood Administrations have cut their support. We have had to cut positions and reduce salaries. This situation makes us ripe for developers. We have to look for what we can get." Council Chairman Fuchsbrumer agrees that the neighborhood administrations are in a bind. "If we want parks and other community services, we have to work with investors - we have to let them build and in return they will help us with development." He points to a similar agreement signed in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. Even though Ramat Shlomo is a much newer neighborhood than Har Nof, he states, "They are about to open a community center, something Har Nof still does not have. Why? Because Ramat Shlomo let developers build in return for a community center." Concurs Naomi Tsur, director of the Jerusalem Branch of the SPNI, "The neighborhood administrations are poor and do not receive adequate funding from the city to do what they are empowered to do. This is sad and wrong. "It is ironic but some people have even stated that such agreements between developers and neighborhood administrations are 'progress,'" she continues. "At least, the supporters of these agreements claim, the developers now feel that they have to donate something to the community and not just tread on it." Tsur would like to change "the rules of the game in order for residents to have a greater impact on the planning process. Green groups have shown that massive public objection can stop some plans. We at the SPNI are also engaging in positive research - showing that there are alternative sites for building as we did in the Jerusalem Forest or in drawing up our own plans as we did in the Gazelle Valley. "I hope the voice of reason will prevail, but there are powerful forces at work here that are hard to counter."