What's left to contest in Ramat Danya?

"What’s left? They took even the minimal quality of life we had.”

Days before Rosh Hashana, bulldozers rolled onto the small, yet strongly contested, stretch of green that borders the southwestern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Danya along Rehov Abel Pann. To residents' dismay, the trucks uprooted the olive trees, bushes and wildflowers of a 5.4-dunam area, encircled by a wire fence. As reported in In Jerusalem ("Commercial Concerns", September 9, 2005), residents of the neighborhood have been waging a legal battle with lessor Benny Nehemia, head of the Aleph-Bet Construction Company, over the future of the site since 1995. Nehemia, who in the last 10 years has changed the site's designation twice, seeks to implement his latest development plan (Plan 4920A) for the area: a 25,000-sq.m. commercial, sports and medical center spread over five floors (three underground and two above). Local tenants wish to reinstate the original stipulations for the area: establishment of sports and exercise facilities and a swimming pool covering 15 percent of the plot or 900 sq.m. With nearby commercial centers in Kiryat Yovel, Malha and Ramat Sharet, they question the need for another such facility, particularly when it poses harmful changes to the neighborhood in terms of noise, traffic and pollution. The struggle's most recent legal expression took place in June during a Supreme Court hearing petitioned by residents. Residents hoped to evoke cancellation of a decision regarding plan 4920A at an earlier stage in the planning process or, in the best-case scenario, cancel the plan altogether. Both sides await the Supreme Court's decision on plan 4920A. But in the meantime Nehemia is legally entitled to initiate construction on his property, as long as he builds in accordance with the parameters of his first development plan (4920) and secures the necessary building permits. Attorney Gilad Barnea, the residents' legal representative, received notice of the trees' uprooting from Nehemia's lawyer Yoram Bar-Sela. In the letter, Bar-Sela writes, "My client received a digging permit from the Local Planning and Building Committee… and in the coming days will tend to the trees as outlined in the digging permit (their uprooting and displacement in accordance with the development plan and the permit) and will dig in accordance with this permit." While Barnea concedes that, "in effect there is no injunction forbidding action," he argues that the term "digging permit" is not recognized by the Planning and Building Law. The correct term, he says, is "construction permit," which includes within it the right to dig. Barnea stresses that the distinction is more than a matter of semantics. "In order to acquire a building permit, one has to pay a Land Betterment Tax." If Nehemia circumvented this legal procedure then the initiative was illegal, Barnea says. But for the residents of Ramat Danya, such legal tussles offer little in the way of comfort against the reality of their now-barren backyard. Rachel Marom, a Ramat Danya resident since 1974, says she will leave Jerusalem if construction proceeds. Her apartment overlooks the once-green oasis, which she describes as "a breath of fresh air in a city of concrete." Now her blinds are closed, she says, because she can't stand the sight or thought of "that white elephant." When the trucks appeared, Marom left her apartment, too horrified to "witness the uprooting of olive trees for commerce and money." She painfully reminisces of a different time when Ramat Danya "felt like a village, buses didn't even run through the two and half streets that comprise the neighborhood. "What's left?" she implores. "They took even the minimal quality of life we had."