The fight for the hills

The controversial Safdie Plan for west Jerusalem just came one step closer to becoming a reality.

safdie plan 88 (photo credit: )
safdie plan 88
(photo credit: )
Special independent investigator Attorney Gideon Vitkon has approved most of the provisions of the controversial "Safdie Plan" for the development of west Jerusalem, In Jerusalem has learned. Vitkon's report, expected to be released next Tuesday, was commissioned by the National Planning Council of the Interior Ministry, in response to the thousands of public objections registered by environmental groups, academics and politicians against the Safdie Plan. Although the National Planning Council is not bound to accept its recommendations, it is clear that Vitkon's report is a significant achievement for the plan's supporters. The Safdie Plan, designed by renowned international architect and urban planner Moshe Safdie, is formally known as Development Plan 37 and is one of the largest development plans ever undertaken in Israel. It calls for the construction of approximately 20,000 housing units and about half a million square meters of industrial and commercial space, infrastructure, roads and bridges over 26 square kilometers of natural woodland and forests in the western part of the city. This would create at least three new development zones - in Mt. Heret, next to Mevasseret Zion; in the hilly and forested areas near Hadassah Medical Center; and to the south of Moshav Ora and Moshe Aminadav, on the Lavan Range. The Safdie Plan has the support of the municipality, including Mayor Uri Lupolianski and City Engineer Uri Shetrit; Finance Minister and former Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Ulmert and experts such as Professor Arie Schachar from the Hebrew University, in addition to real estate developers and construction companies. Opposition to the plan comes from an ad hoc coalition of environmental organizations, the Coalition for the Preservation of the Jerusalem Hills, as well as academics, scientists and politicians, including Environment Minister Shalom Simhon, Deputy Minister Michael Melchior (Meimad) and MKs Yuri Stern (Yisrael Beiteinu), Omri Sharon (Kadima) and Roni Bar-On (Kadima). Led by the coalition, opponents to the plan submitted nearly 90 different oppositions, signed by more than 16,000 lay citizens and experts to the Planning Council. It was because of this opposition that the Interior Minister appointed Vitkon, a former head of the Israel Lands Administration, to investigate the objections, as stipulated by Israeli law. Vitkon's report includes nine general recommendations, most of which support the overall plan, In Jerusalem has learned. However, Uri Bar-Shishat, an urban planner and strategic advisor to the Coalition for the Preservation of the Jerusalem Hills, points to what he views as troublesome ambivalence in the report. While most of the text would seem to support the opponents' contentions, the actual recommendations do the opposite. In summing up what he views as a "disjuncture," Bar-Shishat leans on a Biblical phrase: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22)." He points to several examples. The extent of the city's existing reserves for residential building was one of the most controversial aspects of the plan. Both supporters and opponents of the plan agree that Jerusalem must develop additional housing, at least some of it up-scale, in order to stop the exodus of educated young families out of the city and to maintain a demographic ratio in the city. The question is where these housing units should be built. The Safdie Plan is predicated on an assessment by the Jerusalem Development Authority that there are land reserves available only for approximately 20,000 more housing units in Jerusalem's current central areas, and therefore the city must move beyond its current confines. Since moving to the east, north or south would be politically complicated, the city would have to build to the west, the supporters claim. Opponents to the plan, based on an examination of housing reserves conducted by Bar-Shishat, contend that land reserves for nearly 70,000 housing units could be made available immediately, while land reserves for a total of 105,000 could be potentially available. This is more than merely a discrepancy in numbers. Opponents to the plan contend that by moving westward, the Safdie Plan creates near-contiguity with Tel Aviv and abandons Jerusalem's already-neglected and run-down center. In his report, Vitkon did agree that a thorough examination of the city's existing reserves should be made before the plan moves forward, including examining the possibilities of building to the east (the so-called E-1 plan) and the north instead of the west. And in somewhat dramatic language, he said that should the opponents' predictions come true, it would be "devastating" for the city. But then his recommendations call for conducting yet another study of the housing reserves - as if two, conflicting studies had not already been conducted. "And who exactly is supposed to perform the next study?" Bar-Shishat asks rhetorically. "The municipality? The Jerusalem Development Authority? They've already had their say, and their position is well-known." Furthermore, notes Bar-Shishat, the recommendations do not include clear criteria for determining what "enough" reserves are, or what would justify the destruction of the open spaces and natural habitats that the plan will entail. The lack of an overall impact study is another topic of dissent. Opponents to the plan contend that without a comprehensive impact study, it is not possible to determine the geographical, sociopolitical, or environmental effects the plan will have. Thus, not only is it impossible to accept or reject the overall plan; no less significantly, it is impossible to plan the stages of the execution of the plan appropriately. But the recommendations call for preparing an impact study before each stage of the project - which Bar-Shishat views as "nothing less than ridiculous." Representatives of the Coalition to Preserve the Jerusalem Hills intend to attend next week's meeting and have requested permission to appear before the National Planning Council. At the very least, he noted, the Coalition will call for the establishment of an independent team of experts to assess Vitkon's report and to perform the recommended studies, should the report be accepted by the National Planning Council. "To our great disappointment," concluded Bar-Shishat, "this report does not solve any of the problems and does not resolve any of the issues. We will have to consider how to continue our struggle." He also notes that "the planning process has to be changed." The situation that exists today, in which new plans are presented to the public only at a late stage, when much of the planning process has already taken place, is "simply not acceptable." Neither Vitkon nor any representative from the National Planning Council were available for comment before the official release of the report next week.