Restoring Tel Aviv

Old buildings are back in fashion, and apartments in restored buildings fetch premium prices.

Restoring Tel Aviv (photo credit: SBI Construction)
Restoring Tel Aviv
(photo credit: SBI Construction)
Tel Aviv is a relatively young city compared to important urban centers in Europe and North America, having been founded in 1909. Nonetheless, the city fathers decided in 1992 that there were buildings of historical interest there that merited preservation and restoration.
Up until the mid-’80s, developers had had a field day, tearing down anything that got in the way of making money. However, there was a public outcry when a particularly beautiful apartment building was torn down on the corner of Ahad Ha’am and Hahashmonaim streets, and the municipality decided to preserve whatever was worth preserving.
Walking through what can be termed Tel Aviv’s historical center, one can see many buildings that have been restored to their former glory and others that have been rehabilitated.
In the early ’90s, the municipality took a survey of all the buildings in town and decided that approximately 1,800 of them – about 5 percent of Tel Aviv’s buildings – were to be protected. Of these, 400 were classified as being of special interest and could only be restored under strict regulations.
To be considered a protected building, a structure must have been designed by a leading architect, be located where the public can see it at least from the outside, have had a historical or social role in the past, and/or be in adequate physical condition for preservation.
When a building is protected, it cannot be torn down and can only be renovated if the relevant municipal authorities approve the plans. The façade and publicly visible areas, such as the stairwell, have to be restored to their original state.
In the past, developers were not overly happy when a property of theirs was declared a protected building, because they could not tear the building down to build apartment blocks and had to undertake expensive repairs if the building was dilapidated, as many were.
But today, old buildings are back in fashion, and apartments in renovated and restored buildings fetch premium prices. An apartment in such a building can bring in as much as $10,000 per square meter, which means that a penthouse apartment can be worth $2 million to $3m., while a 120-sq.m. apartment can cost up to $1m.
There are companies that specialize in this kind of work, which is complicated and exacting and requires a great deal of commitment to detail.
Restoration is no easy matter, according to Kamal Shargawy, general manager and proprietor of SBI Construction Ltd., a construction and building company that specializes in restoration projects.
“Restoring a building of special historical interest is very expensive,” he says. “On the one hand, we have to restore the façade and the public areas – stairwells, passages, etc. – to what they were originally, but on the other hand we have to design the interior in a way that is attuned to modern living – parking spaces in the old cellars, modern plumbing and electricity installation. We have to design a building that on the outside is an old building, while inside it is designed and equipped for living in the 21st century.”
Restoring or renovating a protected building that is not of historical interest is less problematic. One can add additional floors and annexes and thereby create more apartments, which finance the renovation work.
All that the regulations demand of the architects and renovators is that they design the additional floors or annexes so the new will blend in with the old. Along Rothschild Boulevard and the vicinity, there are many such renovated houses. One can see at once what has been added, but these “additions” are artistically executed.
Nitza Szmuk, the head of an architectural firm of the same name, was the founder of the municipality’s Conservation Department and as a result is supportive of restoring historical buildings.
“When we restore an old building, we are beautifying the city of Tel Aviv, and what is more, we are enhancing its tourist potential,” she says. “Tel Aviv is the Bauhaus capital of the world, and this is the reason it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Bauhaus buildings attract tourists, and if they have been restored and are not dilapidated wrecks, they attract more tourists.”
The Bauhaus architectural style, which has clean, functional lines and aesthetic beauty, flourished in Germany in the 1930s. Most of the buildings constructed in that style were in Germany and Austria, but Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany built many in Tel Aviv. And since the British and US air forces flattened German cities during World War II, most of the remaining Bauhaus buildings in the world are in Tel Aviv.
Indeed many of the protected buildings are Bauhaus, and the owners, who are now aware of the potential value of their property, are busy trying to buy out the existing tenants so they can restore the buildings and sell the apartments at exorbitant prices.
Some experts believe that the popularity of the Bauhaus style in this part of the world is due to the climate, as this style creates cool, spacious, comfortable dwellings. It might also have been the harbinger of the rooftop garden: Bauhaus buildings were the first dwellings with strong, flat roofs.