To build or not to build...

Jerusalem's officials make no connection between development and preservation.

jaffa road building 88 (photo credit: )
jaffa road building 88
(photo credit: )
Jerusalem is at a critical juncture and much is at stake: In one direction, the city's extraordinary cultural richness, largely expressed in its buildings and neighborhoods. In the other direction, the on-going pressure toward development and construction promoted by business interests. In the middle, a municipality burdened by multiple demographic problems, a poor population and lack of adequate funds. Media coverage has recently drawn attention to a dozen historic buildings or compounds that are either falling apart or threatened by destruction to make room for new construction. These reports are important. But in Jerusalem, with its many hundreds of sites listed for preservation, it is also necessary to define the key issues that shape preservation activity. The conditions that lead to the destruction or preservation of a given site may seem random, but they are not. They are systemic. Despite its wealth of history and meaning, Jerusalem doesn't even have a list of buildings slated for preservation. Tel Aviv has long since gone public with its list. And Jerusalem started out earlier, in 1968, with a pioneering classification effort. But the list was never made public. "In the absence of an approved list anchored in municipal master plans, the majority of sites designated for preservation in the city have been [left] without statutory [legally binding] protection," warned Israel's state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, in a report last December. As a case in point, he referred to the Rehavia neighborhood. Although a new master plan for Rehavia is in preparation, it has not prevented the tearing down of historic buildings to make room for new, much larger - and much more profitable - ones. In the absence of statutory protection, the destruction was carried out under permit, since there were no legal or planning grounds to prevent it. Veteran planner Israel Kimhi, who heads the Jerusalem Committee of the Council for Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel, recalls the card index of 1,033 sites (including trees) that was put together in 1968. "At the time, the city fathers had respect for the list, even though it wasn't statutory," he says. In 1994, officials asked Kimhi to update the card index. It was then that he became aware of "the degree of destruction" that had already taken place in Jerusalem. Original houses have literally disappeared. Others have virtually disappeared, left unrecognizable under massive building additions and expansions. How many sites should be slated for preservation? The answer depends upon whom you ask. Osnat Post, currently Jerusalem's acting city engineer, speaks broadly of "an estimated 3,000 sites worthy of preservation, including dozens of neighborhoods." Itzik Shweky, Jerusalem director for the Preservation Council, asserts that 1,500 sites have been listed on the unofficial list, adding that some comprise more that one building. A walking encyclopedia and tenacious advocate for the city, Shweky maintains that Jerusalem contains more than half of all the 6,000 sites nationwide that should be preserved. When numbers this large, and discrepancies this big, are bandied about, it becomes obvious that there is a need for an official list. For those in the know, a listing of sites can be accessed on the Internet - but not on the municipality's site. "This is no way to run public business," says Dalia Zomer, a representative of Shinui and member of the opposition in the municipal council. "The list should be available to everyone, buyer, builder, anyone interested, in accordance with the comptroller's report." A blue-ribbon citizens' group, in a document submitted to the municipality in August 2005, observed that national law requires the municipality to publish such a list. The group, including well-known planners, architects and lawyers, held a series of meetings at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies to formulate a response to Master Plan 2000, a principal design tool for the city. They pointed out that the municipality, by its own decision, can add or remove items on the list. It is therefore "unclear why the city does not agree to publish it, as other cities have indeed done." Nor is there any particular unit or department in Jerusalem charged with preservation. Such a unit should be placed within the city engineer's division, the panel says. "Jerusalem lags years behind Tel Aviv," says Kimhi. While Tel Aviv has a unit of six persons dedicated to this task, Jerusalem has only "one poor worker... and she has been given a hard time in every way." The citizens' group maintains that "preservation policy cannot be implemented in the absence of a professional unit assigned to this task. Without it, the Jerusalem Municipality will not be able to justify its status and authority, in Israel and overseas." But Zomer doubts that this is likely to happen. "The municipality is supposed to reduce its employee roll by 700 workers," she points out. "Making this proposal is a joke." Serving on the Preservation Committee, Zomer also refers to a lack of working rules. For example, a permit was issued to tear down a listed building. It turned out that it had been removed from the list. How? By whom? Based on what? "There are no written rules," Zomer responds. "We don't know how it works. In such a complex field, procedure must be spelled out." Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack (UTJ) holds the municipal Planning and Construction portfolio. As such, he is required by law to head the preservation sub-committee and he is thus the key elected official in this sphere. But in an interview with In Jerusalem, he offers little encouragement that the advocates' demands, with regard to either the publication of a formal list or the formation of a dedicated unit, will ever materialize. Pollack says that he has acquired a broad perspective on planning and construction - and he applies that same perspective to preservation, he continues. A list, he says, would serve as an internal tool, merely a notification which comes up when a listed building is discussed in a planning context. And the city engineer's division, Pollack says, has the professional capacity to assess the building's value and propose ways of handling it. He promises that despite the municipal cutbacks, two additional workers will be assigned to the engineer's office, but no new unit will be established. "I had no idea of preservation when I came to this two and a half years ago," he admits, "but I've become very sensitive. Some say I'm more radical than others in voting." Preservation, he says, is a component in development and compromise is necessary in order to allow for new construction. He cites the historic Bukharan Quarter, where, he says, activists are challenging a current development proposal. "I tell them, get 90 percent rather than the zero [you'll get] if the buildings remain in their current condition," Pollack states. Pollack doesn't seem to see any conflict of interest between the two roles - head of planning and construction and head of preservation - that he fills. But others certainly do. Speaking of his guardian role, Shweky says, "I am in a very tough spot. Pollack wears all hats." He does describe Pollack as approachable, and acknowledges that some of the committee's decisions do promote preservation and that the city has reversed a previously destructive trend. Zomer agrees that Pollack can be reasoned with, but argues that Pollack allows politics to determine his decisions. "When it comes to a project that is dear to the city's haredi leadership, of which he is part, he acts like a missile, and nothing will deter him," she accuses. Kimhi is overtly critical of Pollack and refers to the committee he heads as the "committee for destruction." Those close to Pollack stand to gain, he says. Others argue that the municipality lacks genuine understanding and has failed to develop what might be called a "culture of preservation." And according to Zomer, they simply aren't interested. She wishes, she says, that the municipality would place less emphasis on what is "beautiful, big, new" and would show a greater appreciation of the delicate nature of historic compounds and their cultural legacy. "Preservation is an asset, not a liability," the expert citizens committee has asserted. "Every development plan must integrate the city's built-up heritage." They are critical of the current proposed master plan, which, they accuse, relates to preservation as "a forced task, a hindrance to development rather than a lever for renewal that it can provide." And they accuse Jerusalem officials of caving in to developers' avaricious demands. The profit motive, Kimhi says, exists everywhere, "but in Europe a developer would not dare touch a historic building. In this city, talk about protecting a site prompts the builder to tear it down." Kimhi says that the large multi-story building currently rising up at 9 Rehov Arlozorov, Rehavia, is an example. The modest, architecturally meaningful building which had stood there previously was torn down overnight - literally. The citizens' group report sums up, "Since there is no clear, distinct statement (in the master plan) about the principles and goals of preservation, there is an absence of procedures and tools to carry it out." And in the end, of course, preservation requires money. To effect a change in policy, and to keep more buildings, the municipal and national budgets must allocate funds. The expert committee refers to the betterment tax (hetel hashbacha) levied on owners and builders, since development almost inevitably leads to a rise in value. The income is diverted to the city's operating budget and not even a shekel of this tax goes toward preservation. It is clear that the city's officials make no connection between physical development and physical preservation. The Schneller compound in the heart of the Mea She'arim neighborhood is yet another case in point. This 70-dunam tract, a unique element in the city's history dating to the 19th and 20th centuries, has been used as an army base for decades. The IDF is supposed to move out within a year and planning for a major development project with 650 new dwelling units has already been completed. Within the compound, eight buildings, all part of the great undertaking started by Johann Ludwig Schneller 150 years ago outside the city walls, are listed for preservation. They suffer from various degrees of dilapidation, especially the imposing central structure known at the time as the "Syrian Orphanage." The listed buildings are supposed to be incorporated into the new project as public facilities, hopefully paving the way for quality - and costly - restoration. The developers stand to reap great profits from the project - but what will the public receive? "The rise in real estate values from this project amounts to billions of shekels. Take the tax and restore the old buildings, endow them with new life and contemporary use," demands Kimhi. But no such mechanism currently exists in the municipality to make this happen.