Study: J'lem must expand east, not west

Zionist Council found that expanding westward would weaken the capital.

issawiya 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
issawiya 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A controversial building plan which will expand Jerusalem westward is detrimental to the development of the city and will only serve to irrevocably weaken the capital, a public study on the future of the city released Monday found. The study, which was carried out by the Zionist Council in Israel and included some of the city's senior researchers and demographers, called on the government to carry out the politically-sensitive eastward expansion of Jerusalem in its stead. The group's unanimous conclusions against the westward expansion project, known as the Safdie plan, came amid widespread opposition by environmentalists who said that the project will irrevocably damage the Jerusalem landscape. The collaboration of green groups known as the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition pointed to a study they commissioned that indicated that at least 60,000 housing units could be built in Jerusalem over the next two decades. The coalition argued that the expansion of Jerusalem westward was unnecessary and would only lead to the neglect of the city itself. The much-debated plan, named after the internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie who designed the original proposal, would see the construction of nearly 20,000 housing units on more than 26 square kilometers of natural woodlands and forests west of Jerusalem in one of the largest construction projects ever proposed in Israel. "Any attempt to transfer the crux of the development of the city westward... will end up hurting Jerusalem," the study found. "The [Safdie] plan will draw the stronger population of the city westward and as such will end up weakening the city and hasten the fading city center," it added. "If the Safdie plan is approved, it will massively weaken Jerusalem," said ZCI member Professor Shlomo Hasson, Assistant Director and Senior Researcher at The Floresheimer Institute for Policy Studies. The proposal, which has been on the drawing boards for much of the last decade and which has the backing of the Jerusalem Municipality, is pending final approval by the Interior Ministry's national planning and building committee. The committee is tentatively set to take up the issue again at its meeting next month, after putting off a decision on the issue at a meeting in early December. The director-general of the Zionist Council in Israel, Moshe Ben-Atar, said Monday that his group is pressuring the government to delay such a "pivotal" decision until after the elections. The plan had gathered force in the wake of the government's recent decision to freeze an alternative, decades-old proposal to expand Jerusalem eastward to the nearby West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. That politically-sensitive eastward expansion plan, commonly known as E1, was frozen earlier this year in the wake of American pressure not to build in the West Bank. But members of the study, which included Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, unanimously backed the eastern expansion of the city over the Safdie plan. "Preference should be given to building within Jerusalem the city, and to its east, south, and north. The west can wait," the report concluded. No city officials were present at the study's release during a Jerusalem press conference Monday even though they had been invited - indicative of their opposing views on the issue and the harsh criticism the report leveled on the state of the city. According to Hasson, the westward expansion of Jerusalem was a "severe blow" to "metropolitan Jerusalem." He noted that eastward expansion was within the "national consensus" since Ma'aleh Adumim, Israel's biggest settlement with 32,000 residents, was considered to be one of the major settlement blocs Israel will maintain as part of any final peace treaty with the Palestinians. The Safdie plan gathered steam last month after an external consultant appointed by the ministry to study the proposal gave his approval to the plan. The government's decision to indefinitely freeze the E1 plan led the consultant to endorse Safdie in its stead as part of an ongoing effort to buttress the dwindling Jewish population of Jerusalem. Proponents of the Safdie plan, including Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, argued that it was essential for the natural growth of Jerusalem, what with its notoriously high real estate prices and continuing Jewish emigration. "There is a general sense that the city is slipping through our fingers," said Yisrael Kimchi, director of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, pointing to the ongoing "brain drain" and emigration of young Israelis from the capital. Both Kimchi and senior institute demographer Dr. Maya Choshen, who were part of the ZCI study, supported the expansion of Jerusalem towards Ma'aleh Adumim in spite of their think tank's liberal leanings.