Trouble developing

Commerce and culture blur as Abu Tor residents fight a center planned for the Sherover Promenade.

sherover promenade plans (photo credit: Courtesty photo)
sherover promenade plans
(photo credit: Courtesty photo)
What is urban plan 4099D? Is it a cultural center for the benefit of all Jerusalemites as its developers, the Gabriel Sherover Foundation, claim? Or is it a commercial mall, as the residents of the Abu Tor neighborhood believe? Or have the lines between culture and commerce become so blurred in our society, where museums house gift shops and restaurants and bookstores cafes, and where shopping has become a leisure-time activity for many, that it is no longer possible to make a clear distinction? In February 2005, the Sherover Foundation opened a file with the Jerusalem Municipality asking for a change of zoning for a plot of 10.6 dunams at the corner of Rehov Naomi, Derech Hebron and the Sherover Promenade in Abu Tor. The land, which was leased from the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) by the Sherover Foundation purportedly for $4 million, had received approval for construction of a medium-sized hotel (approximately 140 rooms) under urban plan 4099C in 1999. The beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 put an end to these plans. The Sherover Foundation asked the city to rezone the area from a hotel to an institution so it could build a three-story cultural center (with one story underground), covering some 17,000 sq.m., of which 9,623 sq.m. would be functional space. The center would link up with the existing Taverna restaurant. The plan includes seven cinemas with a total of 900 seats, 14 eateries (restaurants, cafes, bars, bistros), a fitness center, library, bookstore, art galleries, meeting rooms, chess and bridge clubs, concert areas, a multipurpose hall, an Internet caf , stores and exhibition areas. In addition, it calls for 180 underground pay parking spots. The Sherover Foundation intends to operate the center also on Shabbat and holidays. The city subcommittee for planning and construction discussed the matter in October 2006. According to the municipal spokesman's office, it approved a plan in which "the main areas for commerce and eateries (not including the cinemas) would be limited to 20 percent of the total area allowed in the plan." It then sent 4099D to the district planning and building committee of the Interior Ministry for further discussion and approval. It was at this point that Abu Tor residents found out about the zoning change, only 20 days before the deadline for filing opposition (there was no obligation to inform the public before this stage and notices were printed in newspapers in accordance with the law). Despite the limited time frame, residents organized, collected money, hired a lawyer and filed some 70 oppositions in time for the December 28 meeting of the district committee. The Sherover Foundation is a not-for-profit institution founded by the late Gita Sherover in memory of her only son, Gabriel, who died tragically in 1988. The foundation makes sure that enterprises set up by the Sherover family are properly maintained and is active in administering and assisting in the maintenance of the Jerusalem Theater, Beit Gabriel in Zemach, the Sherover Promenade in Jerusalem and other enterprises. According to the foundation's legal consultant, Elisheva Shaked, the extent of the foundation's funds is not for public knowledge. The foundation's chair since 1996 is Uzi Wexler, who founded the Jerusalem Development Authority and served as its first director from 1989 to 1994, as well as its chair from 1997 to 2003. Wexler also served as director of the ILA from 1994 to 1996 and was Jerusalem municipal treasurer and acting head of the Gihon (the municipal water company). He has been president of the Jerusalem College of Engineering since 1999. Abu Tor is a seam-line community, which from 1948 to 1967 was divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule. It was reunited in the wake of the Six Day War. Those filing oppositions include Arab as well as Jewish residents of the neighborhood. In addition, the St. Claire Convent, which is adjacent to the site of the proposed center, also filed opposition. "The Sherover Foundation is presenting this plan as a cultural center," argues Yoram Bar-Sela, the lawyer representing Abu Tor residents opposed to the project. "But when you analyze what is in the plan, it is really a commercial center - a mall in every way. Out of the 9,623 sq.m. of functional space, some 6,000 will be for commercial use. It is more than 50% commercial. The Sherover Foundation got this land from the ILA for cultural purposes but is using it for commercial purposes." What most disturbs residents, Bar-Sela says, is the parking situation. "As we understand the parking standard, there should be 350 parking spaces and not 180. Because the structure is situated near the main entrance and exit of Abu Tor, on a narrow street very close to Derech Hebron, even if only 180 cars try to come in and out, and each one has to go through a security check, there will be cars backed up to Derech Hebron. Also, because of the limited number of spots and the need to pay, those coming to this mall will end up parking on neighborhood streets." The municipal spokesman's office confirmed that the project was given a reduced parking standard. "I have a problem with a developer who says he is building a cultural center for the residents when he is building something for Jerusalem at the residents' expense," says Uri Bar-Shishat, a strategic planning consultant advising the residents. "The size of this project is massive. It should be in another location, not in the Abu Tor residential neighborhood. It would be more appropriate in the Russian Compound or downtown. A complex like this is unprecedented in that it is taking an area for public use - culture - that is not supposed to have commercial areas exceeding 20% - and using more than half for commercial purposes. This is changing the definition of what is considered a cultural institution in this city. This project is not right for Abu Tor on all planning levels." Baruch Halahmi is one of only a very few Abu Tor residents opposed to the project who was willing to be quoted by name. He cites the fact that the Sherover Foundation intends to operate the center on Shabbat and holidays. "This is unusual even for industrial areas. And here in a residential neighborhood to operate an enterprise on Shabbat, how can they intend to do this? Shabbat is the day of rest, even for those who are not religious. How could the city have approved this? How can a mall be open in Jerusalem on Shabbat?" The municipal spokesman's office responded that "the plan does not set instructions for operating the center on Shabbat." Other residents object to the vague definition of some of the planned functions, fearing that these could be changed in the future to include elements not defined as high culture. "How do we know that five years from now, if this center is built, the management will not decide to introduce billiards, strip clubs or other less desirable elements? Culture is not so well defined," said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous. Wexler states that while the center will be operated by a subcontractor, the Sherover Foundation will remain the owners and will oversee its content to preserve quality. "We have not locked in definitions because we want to remain flexible so we can adapt to changing needs," he notes. "One of the problems is that culture has a very broad definition," Wexler claims. "Not everyone's definition is identical. This project is innovative. It is unconventional. It reflects our changing concept of culture. Today, cultural institutions have commercial restaurants, cafes, gift shops and bookstores on their premises. Places like Barnes and Noble include cafes. There has been a change in what the public expects from a cultural complex. The line between culture and business has changed. And this creates fear and uncertainty. I have done 216 projects for Jerusalem. I have seen how new things frighten people. This is very human. People want services but they have the NIMBY [not in my backyard] complex. "I am told this is not right for Abu Tor, but this is not a community center for Abu Tor. It is a cultural center for all of Jerusalem. Moreover, Abu Tor is far from an ideal neighborhood. It is on the seam line. There are residents who complain that friends won't come to visit them because they are afraid. I dare say that this center will increase neighborhood security and even add to the value of property. "This will be a center for culture, entertainment and leisure," Wexler continues. "Today, there is no such center in Jerusalem that provides for such diverse functions. The center is not going to be a business. If it were, it would be built elsewhere. It is not a business because there will be no return on the capital. All of its income will go to cover maintenance, operation and security costs and to finance those activities that have no income." It is clear from talking with Wexler that he is building the center he would like to see in Jerusalem for himself and his friends, according to what he defines as culture. "We will have restaurants, cafes, chess, bridge, cinemas, Internet, jazz, classical music, bookstores, art, etc. The center will not be a place to see a movie and go home. It will be a place where people can continue to enjoy themselves after the movie, to spend their leisure time. I envision the slogan as 'We will meet at Sherover.'" The center will not include activities for children. "We discovered that people don't want children around," he explains. "Maybe during Hanukkah, we will have something for one day for kids." The center will also, it seems, not have activities catering to Arab or Mizrahi culture. And it will not be for haredim. "One of the biggest problems of Jerusalem is that the secular cannot find activities on weekends and holidays," he notes. "Therefore, it is our intention to operate on weekends and holidays, in accordance with municipal bylaws." Today, when there are numerous restaurants, pubs, discos, movie theaters and clubs open in the city on Shabbat, as well as museums, this statement seems a little disingenuous. "Nevertheless, I don't want to lose Jerusalem's religious population," Wexler adds. "I also want the religious public to feel at home in the center. We will have at least one restaurant that will be kosher and closed on Shabbat. This way, traditional and religious Jerusalemites can come during the week. I don't want to be provocative. I don't want a holy war. If the Jerusalem Theater were open on weekends, then there might not be a need for this center." As for the parking, Wexler insists that it is adequate. "This is what the standard requires. We are the first cultural center in the city to provide parking according to the standard. In addition, people can arrive by public transportation." And what about Shabbat and holidays when there is no public transportation? "The city is in charge of parking. It can give Abu Tor residents stickers like in Tel Aviv so that only they can park in certain places. Also, the city is building a bus lane on Derech Hebron. It can convert this into a parking lane on weekends." "It is not a nice feeling to be under fire. But when I was building Teddy Stadium and the Begin highway, I also came up against opposition. The center is what Jerusalem needs," he concludes. The district committee has given the Sherover Foundation two weeks to answer opposition. The next committee meeting has still not been set.