Rising tension

In a stormy meeting, some 200 Katamonim residentsrecently gathered at the Keshet School to discuss the municipality'spreliminary plan for renewal in their neighborhood.

Theplan, which calls for infrastructure upgrading, more green areas andincreased urban density - adding two to four stories on residentialbuilding in this neighborhood of mainly two-story homes - is a linchpinin the municipality's master plan for continued growth in a cityplagued by lack of land for building affordable housing.

"We will be subjected to years of building without knowing whatwill be in the end," said Kimi Kaplan, neighborhood activist and chairof the Committee for Hamesila Park. "When the municipality says 'betterland utilization,' it really means higher arnona and other taxes."

Since the shelving of the Western Jerusalem Plan (known as theSafdie Plan) for building 20,000 housing units in the hills west of thecity, the municipality has come up with an alternative plan for futuregrowth. It is generally agreed that the city will require 35,000 to45,000 new units within the next decade.

Precluded by political constraints from buildingeastward toward Ma'aleh Adumim in the area known as E1, themunicipality has opted for increased urban density. This involvesbuilding high-rises on the periphery of existing neighborhoods and innew neighborhoods. It also involves urban renewal in low-density, lowsocioeconomic neighborhoods such as Katamonim, Ir Ganim and KiryatMenahem. The Katamonim urban renewal is the first to begin movingforward.

The Katamonim have some 3,000 households, secular andreligious, in southern Jerusalem. The small homes of two to four unitswere built in the 1960s and populated mainly by immigrants from NorthAfrica and the Middle East.

Foryears, the residents have felt neglected by the municipality. There isno public park, some streets lack proper sidewalks, and theinfrastructure needs major upgrading.

The municipality's preliminary plan involves increasing thenumber of housing units by enabling building/apartment owners to addfloors (up to six stories) onto their property. At the same time, themunicipality will improve the quality of life in the Katamonim bydeveloping green areas, adding educational and religious facilities andmore parking, improving traffic flow and upgrading infrastructure.

The meeting to discuss the plan, sponsored by theSouth Community Council, included the representatives of themunicipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the HousingMinistry, as well as community council board members and neighborhoodactivists and residents.

The urban renewal plan, which will fundamentally transform theKatamonim, came under criticism from residents, many of them the moreveteran residents.

"I moved here from Ramot Eshkol precisely because there are nolarge buildings," said Yitzhak Coca. "I found a large apartment in atwo-story building with a yard, where I have lemon and orange trees andgrow mint and parsley. The beauty of this neighborhood is that it isnot densely populated with a lot of noise. I have my space and my yardwhere I can be with my grandchildren. Once there are large apartmentbuildings 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 ofhis or her home, many residents equate urban renewal with residentremoval and/or are afraid that the municipality will force them tobuild even if they don't want to.

"You have nothing to fear," council chairman Carmi Avrahamreiterated. "No one is going to evict you, and you won't be forced tobuild anything if you don't want to."

"This project will only happen if we do it together," DeputyMayor Naomi Tsur, long a vocal proponent of citizen participation inthe building process, told residents. "We [the municipality] are notgoing to do this project without your cooperation. We will worktogether to improve your neighborhood. This project can be a blessingfor the Katamonim. The municipality will be creating Hamesila Park[along the old railway track] with pedestrian and bike paths andKatamonim Park. All the important decisions will come from you."

City engineer Shlomo Eshkol stated that existing land parcelswill remain as they are - there will be no uniting or dividing them.All building will be voluntary. In order to build, all residents of abuilding will have to agree to the additions. But they will not requirethe consent of neighbors in adjacent buildings. A survey of residentswill be carried out by an independent company to ascertain what theywant from the project, and the results will be incorporated into theplan.

Nevertheless, residents continue to voice concerns. They aredemanding that the infrastructure upgrade and work on green areas andparking be done before embarking on building enlargement. They alsowant guarantees that the results of the residents' survey will be takeninto account and that the eventual plan will be reviewed by outsideprofessionals and that the residents can see it and amend it. They wantthe municipality to appoint a special liaison between city hall andresidents.

Traffic congestion was another problem mentioned. One residenton a fixed income expressed his fear that after the project iscompleted, the municipality would raise property taxes, making theneighborhood 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 sameboat we've been in for the last 50 years," said community council boardmember and neighborhood activist Yossi Saidov. "This is our chance topresent a plan to the municipality and take part in the renewal of ourneighborhood."

Perhaps the most telling remark, and the reason for much of thefears and opposition, was made by a veteran resident who said, "Theproblem is that we don't trust the municipality. For years, it haspromised us things and then not done them."