Rising tension

The municipality's plan to upgrade the Katamonim neighborhood is drawing mixed reactions from residents.

In a stormy meeting, some 200 Katamonim residents recently gathered at the Keshet School to discuss the municipality's preliminary plan for renewal in their neighborhood.
The plan, which calls for infrastructure upgrading, more green areas and increased urban density - adding two to four stories on residential building in this neighborhood of mainly two-story homes - is a linchpin in the municipality's master plan for continued growth in a city plagued by lack of land for building affordable housing.
"We will be subjected to years of building without knowing what will be in the end," said Kimi Kaplan, neighborhood activist and chair of the Committee for Hamesila Park. "When the municipality says 'better land utilization,' it really means higher arnona and other taxes."
Since the shelving of the Western Jerusalem Plan (known as the Safdie Plan) for building 20,000 housing units in the hills west of the city, the municipality has come up with an alternative plan for future growth. It is generally agreed that the city will require 35,000 to 45,000 new units within the next decade.
Precluded by political constraints from building eastward toward Ma'aleh Adumim in the area known as E1, the municipality has opted for increased urban density. This involves building high-rises on the periphery of existing neighborhoods and in new neighborhoods. It also involves urban renewal in low-density, low socioeconomic neighborhoods such as Katamonim, Ir Ganim and Kiryat Menahem. The Katamonim urban renewal is the first to begin moving forward.
The Katamonim have some 3,000 households, secular and religious, in southern Jerusalem. The small homes of two to four units were built in the 1960s and populated mainly by immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
For years, the residents have felt neglected by the municipality. There is no public park, some streets lack proper sidewalks, and the infrastructure needs major upgrading.
The municipality's preliminary plan involves increasing the number of housing units by enabling building/apartment owners to add floors (up to six stories) onto their property. At the same time, the municipality will improve the quality of life in the Katamonim by developing green areas, adding educational and religious facilities and more parking, improving traffic flow and upgrading infrastructure.
The meeting to discuss the plan, sponsored by the South Community Council, included the representatives of the municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Housing Ministry, as well as community council board members and neighborhood activists and residents.
The urban renewal plan, which will fundamentally transform the Katamonim, came under criticism from residents, many of them the more veteran residents.
"I moved here from Ramot Eshkol precisely because there are no large buildings," said Yitzhak Coca. "I found a large apartment in a two-story building with a yard, where I have lemon and orange trees and grow mint and parsley. The beauty of this neighborhood is that it is not densely populated with a lot of noise. I have my space and my yard where I can be with my grandchildren. Once there are large apartment buildings all around, all this will be gone."
"I don't want to live out the rest of my life in a building site," remarked Hannah.
Despite repeated assurances that no one will be forced out of his or her home, many residents equate urban renewal with resident removal and/or are afraid that the municipality will force them to build even if they don't want to.
"You have nothing to fear," council chairman Carmi Avraham reiterated. "No one is going to evict you, and you won't be forced to build anything if you don't want to."
"This project will only happen if we do it together," Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, long a vocal proponent of citizen participation in the building process, told residents. "We [the municipality] are not going to do this project without your cooperation. We will work together to improve your neighborhood. This project can be a blessing for the Katamonim. The municipality will be creating Hamesila Park [along the old railway track] with pedestrian and bike paths and Katamonim Park. All the important decisions will come from you."
City engineer Shlomo Eshkol stated that existing land parcels will remain as they are - there will be no uniting or dividing them. All building will be voluntary. In order to build, all residents of a building will have to agree to the additions. But they will not require the consent of neighbors in adjacent buildings. A survey of residents will be carried out by an independent company to ascertain what they want from the project, and the results will be incorporated into the plan.
Nevertheless, residents continue to voice concerns. They are demanding that the infrastructure upgrade and work on green areas and parking be done before embarking on building enlargement. They also want guarantees that the results of the residents' survey will be taken into account and that the eventual plan will be reviewed by outside professionals and that the residents can see it and amend it. They want the municipality to appoint a special liaison between city hall and residents.
Traffic congestion was another problem mentioned. One resident on a fixed income expressed his fear that after the project is completed, the municipality would raise property taxes, making the neighborhood unaffordable for its low-income residents.
But other residents appealed for cooperation with city hall. "If we continue to grumble and not get involved, we'll be in the same boat we've been in for the last 50 years," said community council board member and neighborhood activist Yossi Saidov. "This is our chance to present a plan to the municipality and take part in the renewal of our neighborhood."
Perhaps the most telling remark, and the reason for much of the fears and opposition, was made by a veteran resident who said, "The problem is that we don't trust the municipality. For years, it has promised us things and then not done them."