Taking it to the streets of Baka

The protest over proposed traffic patterns in the south Jerusalem neighborhood escalates.

baka protest 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
baka protest 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
More than 600 Baka residents and storeowners have signed a petition calling on the municipality to reconsider new traffic patterns being proposed for Derech Beit Lehem and adjoining streets. They have been joined in their struggle by a separate petition signed by some 60 leading academics, architects and urban planners. Moreover, city councilor Pepe Alalu (Meretz) plans to put the issue on the agenda of the next city council meeting on November 30. Today, residents and storeowners are planning a protest march under the auspices of the Greater Baka Community Administration, which represents Baka, Abu Tor, Talpiot, Arnona, Beit Lazarus and Mekor Haim. Enraged over what they see as a plan by the municipality to turn Derech Beit Lehem, a narrow two-lane street that is the neighborhood's commercial heart, into the main thoroughfare for private cars traveling from southeast Jerusalem to downtown and Rehavia, residents have formed the ad hoc Save Baka Committee to protect the safety and quality of life of the community. The committee has set up a Web site (savebaka.blogspot.com) to keep the public informed and to enable visitors to sign an online petition against the proposed traffic plan. The municipality is currently completing work on the Blue Line bus lane on Derech Hebron, the main north-south artery in the area. When this work is completed, private cars traveling north along Derech Hebron will no longer be able to make a left turn at Navon Square towards the Khan Theater and downtown. This traffic will be diverted to Derech Beit Lehem. In addition, the municipality intends to change the direction of several streets intersecting Derech Beit Lehem. Rehov Yehuda, between Derech Beit Lehem and Derech Hebron, will go from one-way in the direction of Derech Hebron to one-way toward Derech Beit Lehem. Esther Hamalka will become one-way from Derech Beit Lehem to Derech Hebron. Rehov Miriam Hahashmonait will remain two-way. The municipality also plans to install four traffic lights on Derech Beit Lehem between Rehov Yehuda and Emek Refaim (Liberty Bell Garden) to expedite traffic flow. "This plan will seriously harm the quality of life along Derech Beit Lehem," said Alalu. "This quiet, friendly street will be turned into an autostrada. The municipality was not thinking about the residents when it came up with this proposal, only about traffic flow." "We can't let these changes go into effect," said noted architect and neighborhood resident David Guggenheim. "We will end up with a continuous, heavy flow of traffic through Derech Beit Lehem that will also spill over into the side streets. We don't want more cars and fast traffic flow. We want to enjoy the street and its sidewalk cafes. Public areas are for people, not for cars." Guggenheim is one of a group of distinguished professionals who signed a petition against the plan, citing Derech Beit Lehem as "one of the few places in Jerusalem in which the quality of urban life is still maintained." "This is the kind of place that is nurtured all over the world. But the Jerusalem municipality has decided to turn this street into a main thoroughfare. This decision will destroy the delicate urban fabric of the street," he adds. Other petition signers include Professor Shlomo Hasson, chair of the Planners Forum for Jerusalem; Professor Daniel Felsenstein, director of the Hebrew University's Institute for Urban Studies; Professor Zippi Efrat, head of Bezalel's architecture department; and Dr.Martin Weil, former head of the Israel Museum and current director of the Bracha Fund. "In a city that claims it wants to strengthen its middle class, this will be the nail in the coffin of Baka as a middle-class neighborhood," said local resident Itay Fischhendler, who holds a doctorate in environmental planning and is one of the organizers of neighborhood opposition. Fischhendler is also concerned about the safety issues the plan raises. "The four traffic lights are not being installed to help pedestrians cross the street, but to enable the swift flow of large amounts of traffic. A good deal of this traffic will be channeled onto Rehov Yehuda," he notes. "There are three schools in that area - Geulim, Efrata and Pelech. As it is now, it is difficult for children on their way to school in the morning to cross the street. With the proposed changes, it will be impossible. The municipality has totally not considered the safety of our children. And, ultimately, what is more important than this?" Residents have come up with a number of counterproposals for traffic flow in southeastern Jerusalem in the wake of the Blue Line bus lane. A number of years ago, a plan was drawn up for a road which would run between the government printing press and the old railroad freight yards on Derech Hebron to Rehov Emek Refaim. This road plan was canceled, but residents would like it to be reinstated. Another alternative involves keeping Rehov Yehuda one-way from Derech Hebron to Derech Beit Lehem and rerouting traffic only from Miriam Hahashmonait. This would eliminate the heavy flow of traffic along the very heart of Derech Beit Lehem, confining it to the street's northern end, which is less heavily populated. Still another proposal is to have the Blue Line bus lane from Rehov Naomi to Navon Square operate only during rush hours, thus enabling the left turn to the Khan during non-peak hours. Such arrangements currently exist on some streets in Tel Aviv. "We are willing to compromise." Fischhendler admitted. "We recognize the importance of the bus lane but we do not feel it should be at the expense of Baka residents. But, so far, the city has not responded or responded negatively to our suggestions." Alalu feels there is a larger issue here. "The main problem is that the municipality needs to be responsive to its citizens. The city needs to hear their concerns. Changes have to be coordinated with residents. In this case, residents were not asked what they thought." The city, he claimed, communicated only with the community administration. "And the community administration wasn't given the means or the tools to evaluate the plans the city presented to it. It should have been able to consult independent professionals. The community administration's half-time physical planner found herself lined up opposite a battery of city experts," said Alalu. "The municipality can't expect community administrations to be really involved and effective if everything is half-time positions and volunteers. There needs to be more money and tools for our community administrations." Shalom Kwaller, head of the Greater Baka Community Administration's board of directors, echoed this sentiment. "For about a year and a half we have known about a plan for traffic changes. We told the city the one thing we did not want was to have the special character of the neighborhood harmed. We want Derech Beit Lehem to remain a quiet street, mainly for internal traffic. We are not traffic professionals. The problem was presented to us but we were not able to fully evaluate it at first." But the new traffic arrangements would also affect additional neighborhoods in southeastern Jerusalem, and the Greater Baka Community Administration represents them, too. Philip Yakar, a member of the Greater Baka board of directors, elected from Arnona, urged the community administration to look at the total picture. "We are already suffering in Arnona from serious traffic problems on Rehov Ein Gedi and at the Bank Junction. What is good for one neighborhood is not necessarily good for another. At the same time, I am totally in favor of the preservation of the nature and character of Baka. I just would like to know what these changes are and how they impinge on others." Jerusalem municipal spokesman Gidi Schmerling responded, "The Jerusalem Municipality has upgraded Derech Hebron for use by both public and private transportation. As part of the work carried out, it was also decided to upgrade public areas on Derech Beit Lehem and improve traffic arrangements. Everything is being done in full cooperation with the Greater Baka Community Administration and the plans were presented to representatives several times before any decisions were made. The work is intended to improve the quality of life for the benefit of the residents." The municipality says that it is not only making new traffic flow arrangements but also installing new infrastructure (lighting, drainage, traffic lights), making parking arrangements, widening sidewalks and adding new street furnishings as part of a total renovation of public areas. "When the work is completed," Schmerling added, "the public areas will be significantly upgraded both with respect to traffic and as a public zone. If residents have any questions or objections, they are welcome to present them through the community center." The Greater Baka Community Administration requested an urgent meeting with municipal authorities. One was scheduled for November 22 but canceled when city planners said they could not make it. So far, no new date has been set. The November 24 protest is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. in front of Cafe Calo on Derech Beit Lehem near Rehov Esther Hamalka and will proceed to the Bank Junction to express solidarity with Arnona residents.