An expanding city

Ashkelon is fast becoming the new capital of the South.

Hof Ashkelon (photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
Hof Ashkelon
(photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
These days, Ashkelon is one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
That’s the way many of the “Anglo-Saxon” residents describe it, at any rate. With a rapidly expanding population of over 137,500, which is expected to increase to over 200,000 within the next five years, the city is fast becoming the new capital of the South.
The real-estate scene in Ashkelon has undergone big changes, and for the better.
Ashkelon was designed in the early ’50s as a garden city for South Africans.
The area earmarked for their use was called Afridar – a combination of “Africa” and “darom,” Hebrew for “south.”
Since Mayor Itamar Shimoni took office, he has focused his efforts on improving education and culture, with an emphasis on getting the city recognized as one of the most sought-after recreation and leisure spots in the country.
The beaches are clean and attractive, with a promenade that is already 5 km. long and a planned extension that will bring it to 10 km. Ashkelon also boasts one of the country’s largest marinas, designed to hold 600 vessels at anchor and at a fraction of the cost of similar marinas along the Mediterranean coastline.
Named after an ancient city whose remains can be found at Tel Ashkelon in the Ashkelon National Park, the city is mentioned in the Bible several times. The main stories connected to it are those of Samson and of Goliath the Philistine, who was “a man of Ashkelon.” Its location on the coast has made it an important port city.
Since it is centrally located, it is within easy reach of the country’s major cities.
Jerusalem is a one-hour drive, and the train to Tel Aviv takes 45 minutes. Public transportation is readily available, and the city is now installing free WiFi.
Parking is still free, though that may well change soon due to the rapid increase in population and traffic.
The city has 19 elementary schools and nine high schools. An academic college linked to Bar-Ilan University hosts thousands of students. There is also a sports arena, as well as international film and music festivals each year. In addition, Ashkelon boasts its own hospital, Barzilai Medical Center.
The northern terminus for the Trans-Israel pipeline, which brings petroleum products from Eilat to an oil terminal at the port, is in Ashkelon as well, as is a seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant. Since 1992, Israel Beer Breweries has been operating in the city, brewing Carlsberg and Tuborg beer.
The city has a 17-court tennis center, and Donald Trump has expressed an interest in building an international golf and recreation center.
David Zwebner, a leading local businessman, discovered Ashkelon in 2007 by chance. Having just completed his army reserve duty in Tarkumiya, he offered to take a fellow soldier, who lived in Ashkelon, home on his way back to Jerusalem. Realizing the investment potential, he purchased a two-bedroom holiday home on the beach. Within a few months, he realized it was too small to cater to all his friends and family who wanted to spend weekends there, so he bought a second, much larger apartment and rented his first one to the Intel hitech company. Although Intel is based in Kiryat Gat, most of the foreign workers prefer to stay in Ashkelon, which is 20 minutes away. Soon afterward, a number of Zwebner’s friends and relatives followed his example.
In the early ’50s, there were many South African olim living in the city, and roads with names like South Africa Street, Kaapstad Street and Johannesburg Street abound. The houses and streets in Afridar are similar to those the olim left behind in their hometowns. Ashkelon boasts more private villas per capita than any other city in Israel. Within the original area of Afridar live approximately 15,000 people.
Today, the South African element of the population is greatly diluted, but the neighborhood is still the city’s most high-end residential area. Second is the neighborhood of Barnea, which is in the northern end of the city.
Aside from South Africans, Ashkelon’s English-speaking community includes Britons, Americans, Canadians and Australians.
The English Speakers Association of Ashkelon (ESOA) is active socially and culturally, organizing wine-and-cheese evenings, a book club, a monthly movie night, and a lecture series including a weekly Torah lesson. One of the organization’s aims is to help newcomers from English-speaking countries settle in and acclimate to their new environment.
One might think real estate prices would have fallen in the wake of Operation Protective Edge, since Ashkelon was at the forefront of the rocket attacks from Gaza. But that is not the case.
“People now realize that it is not Ashkelon in the line of fire, but the whole country,” Zwebner tells Metro. “Thanks to the Iron Dome, there was almost no damage to Ashkelon, and frankly I feel much safer walking here than in some parts of Jerusalem today.”
The city’s real-estate prices are still far below prices for similar projects around the country, while rent returns are anywhere between 5 percent and 10% of the purchase price, depending on the location.
In the most desirable areas, which include seafront properties in both Afridar and Barnea, an average three-room, 66-square-meter apartment goes for NIS 800,000, while a 99-sq.m. four-room place goes for NIS 1.2 million on average and a 110-sq.m. five-room can cost NIS 1.45m. Four- and five-room penthouses are selling for around NIS 2m. and NIS 2.4m., respectively.
Micky Peri, the Ashkelon concessionaire of the Anglo Saxon real-estate brokerage network, tells Metro that demand for real estate in the city these days is brisk.
But real-estate prices are definitely moving up. The aftermath of the war has attracted visitors to support the South, and those people are discovering the attractions of this city. The weather in Ashkelon is pleasant almost all year round, with low humidity.
The people are friendly, there are quaint bars and restaurants scattered around the marina, and a new Leonardo Hotel has just opened to the public. With the new “zero VAT” law – which exempts first-time home-buyers from paying VAT (17%) on homes costing up to NIS 1.6m. – going into effect soon, one can assume demand for Ashkelon properties will only increase, as most apartments are below that price ceiling. Increased demand will lead to prices rising further, eventually bringing them into alignment with other popular parts of the country.
• In the marina area, a two-room, 45-square-meter apartment on the fourth floor with an elevator, a sun terrace and a sea view sold for NIS 420,000.
• A two-room, 45-sq.m. apartment in the center of town, on the second floor with no elevator or terrace, sold for NIS 440,000.
• A four-room, 90-sq.m. apartment with private parking, an elevator and a sun terrace sold for NIS 600,000; the property is in dire need of refurbishment.
• In the Barnea neighborhood, a four-room, 95-sq.m. apartment with no elevator, parking or terrace sold for NIS 560,000.
• A single-family home in Barnea with five rooms plus a separate two-room residential unit – a total of 270- sq.m. – sold for NIS 2.05 million.
Transactions via the Anglo Saxon real estate brokerage.