High-rises by the highway

Urban planners have decided that Tel Aviv’s commercial and corporate hub would be best served if it were relocated to the Hamasger area.

Beit Ma’ariv junction 521 (photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
Beit Ma’ariv junction 521
(photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
Tel Aviv is contemplating one of the most ambitious, grandiose urban renewal projects in the country’s history.
Hamasger Street, the hardscrabble industrial zone known for its myriad oily garages, car repair shops and hardware stores, is going to get a wholesale face-lift – that is, if the municipality has its way.
Long known among the city’s residents as an eyesore, the southeast district of Tel Aviv is sandwiched between the Ayalon Highway to the east, Hamasger Street to the west, LaGuardia Street to the south, and Yitzhak Sadeh Street to the north.
According to plans that municipal engineers and architects have drawn up – and that are now in the process of gaining approval from the Interior Ministry’s Central District Planning and Building Committee – this 330,000-square-meter block of run-down, two- and three-story edifices and parking lots will, in over a decade, be home to shiny, new office high-rises, luxurious commercial and residential suites, spacious public parks and gardens, a sprawling commercial center complete with shops and restaurants, and facilities that will irreversibly transform the city’s skyline and urban landscape, bringing it up to par with other global metropolises.
Shmuel Decker knows a thing or two about building and managing projects. A quarter-century after founding what has become an internationally known civil engineering company that plans and manages large-scale infrastructure projects, this graduate of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has been called on as one of the dozens of contractors and innovators who will have a hand in seeing this initiative through. His attitude is a simple one: It’s about time.
“The city’s powers that be in the planning and development offices have finally come to the realization that the Ayalon Highway axis and its immediate surroundings constitute the urban center of the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area,” he says from his office in the Yad Eliyahu quarter of the city. “This realization came two or three decades after [Ramat Gan Mayor] Zvi Bar understood this, and that is why the entire financial and diamond exchange district was built there.”
According to Decker – whose firm will play an integral part in building a fourstory structure that will serve as a terminus for an underground light rail station near what is now the Beit Ma’ariv junction – the Tel Aviv Municipality is following the blueprint established over 20 years ago by its immediate neighbor to the east, Ramat Gan, and its longtime visionary mayor.
“If you look at the concentration of buildings that are adjacent to the Ayalon Highway, it was Bar that built them,” he says. “He was the one who pushed forward the building and construction plans. He was the one who steered all of the building contractors and planners to build there. It was Bar who first understood that the Ayalon is the most important traffic artery in the entire Dan bloc, not just in Tel Aviv. He was quick to grasp this, and in Ramat Gan he built at a phenomenal pace.”
The massive urban renewal plan calls for the construction of 15 office buildings that will constitute holdings and properties of some of the country’s wealthiest commercial and residential real estate conglomerates, including the Meshulam Levinstein Group, the Azouri Brothers, Shevet Moshe Properties, and dozens of other investors.
Decker, whose company is constructing its own 14-floor building on Hamasger Street to serve as the new corporate headquarters, says urban planners have belatedly understood that Tel Aviv’s commercial and corporate hub would be best served if it were relocated to an area that was easily accessible by car and public transportation. The major banks and finance firms that are now on Rothschild Boulevard and Yehuda Halevi Street are difficult for motorists to reach due to the heavy gridlock and inconvenient location, he says, explaining that the renewal plan will offer workers who commute into the city through Ayalon or via the planned light rail system easy access to office buildings.
“Whoever wants to drive into central Tel Aviv and the Rothschild district [has] to spend 30 minutes on the road if he wants to gain access to there from the Ayalon or from Menachem Begin Boulevard, which is the continuation of Namir Road and Highway 2,” Decker says. “It’s a Via Dolorosa. The powers that be have finally understood that now is the time to draw up plans that will bear fruit in another 20, 30 years.”
AHARON MADUEL is a member of the Tel Aviv city council. A representative of the City For All faction, which is affiliated with the Jewish-Arab communist party Hadash, Maduel – who sits on the municipal planning and building commission – has been a frequent critic of the municipality’s zoning and building policies.
He has long argued that those policies favor wealthy real-estate interests at the expense of local residents struggling to cope with the economic ramifications of increased gentrification. This time, however, he has a favorable view of the announced plans for Hamasger, though he does add his own caveat.
“The area of Hamasger and the Ayalon Highway is the traditional location for towers, so I support it in principle,” he says. “Hamasger and Menachem Begin Boulevard are main thoroughfares for public transportation, and a light rail is going to be built there. Plus, there are no neighborhoods that will be impacted, and it doesn’t harm the urban fabric. If there’s an area that is really suited for high-rises, it’s this area.”
Still, those who are likely to pay the price are the current owners of small- and medium-sized businesses, primarily car repair shops, that will be unable to meet the expected increase in costs as larger, wealthy companies enter the neighborhood.
“What is unfortunate is how this will impact the blue-collar workers who are in the area now,” Maduel says. “The Tel Aviv Municipality is systematically removing the industrial businesses and garages out of the city limits. I do know that in the plans there are areas that are allocated for garages, but it’s not enough.
The municipality’s planners are making every effort to remove these people from the city, and that’s a shame.”
He says he supports the towers on Hamasger Street, “but at the same time we need to protect those people that we mentioned. It’s not just there, it’s also the small businesses in Jaffa and in south Tel Aviv. It’s important to maintain these areas, so that blue-collar... workers can stay in the city.”
AMIRAM KALAY, a lifelong resident of Tel Aviv, has owned and operated the Kalay Car Repair Service for Mazda and Ford on Twersky Street since 1964. He has seen the volume of business in his garage as well as the entire industrial zone of southeastern Tel Aviv dip significantly, particularly as the global economic recession continues to plague the carservice industry. Kalay, 63, says he will be long retired by the time the municipality completes its plans.
“It won’t have an impact on me because I own the property,” he says from his office. “What will hurt me is if the municipality turns Yitzhak Sadeh Street into a promenade. That will essentially block off a good deal of traffic from the area, and it will make it hard for cars to come here.”
Kalay says that the economic slowdown has taken a toll on his business, which has seen a 25 percent drop in volume compared to last year. With no signs of recovery on the horizon, Kalay is resigned to the fact that his industry is winding down its presence in the country’s economic capital.
“I won’t be here in 10 years,” he says. “I won’t make it. This used to be a flourishing industrial zone. Before the diamond polishing workshops moved to Netanya, they were here. This was a very nice complex.
As time went on, however, it was abandoned.”
The anticipated construction boom and the overall face-lift is likely to generate a windfall for the municipality, which will be able to collect significantly higher sums in municipal taxes from businesses and corporations that will set up shop in the area. Kalay knows that the changing face of the neighborhood will eventually muscle out those small businesses that will be unable to afford the higher costs of renting space.
“A lot of people are paying rent here, so it’s a problem,” he says. “From my point of view, I hope that there is development here, and this area becomes a very trendy neighborhood with thousands of new apartments. But I can’t influence the municipality’s plans. If they do go through with it, the value of my property will go up and up, so I will benefit from that.”
Kalay says he has a lifelong license to operate a garage on his property, so his business would not be affected since the municipality could not render his license invalid.
“If the municipality wants me to move, it’s going to have to compensate me,” he says. “I’m not taking my garage anywhere else. I don’t have patience to open up a garage in Holon or Kiryat Arye [in Petah Tikva]. I’m in Tel Aviv. Where else in Tel Aviv do we have industrial zones? I don’t see any industrial zones in the city.
If the municipality does allot land for an industrial zone, we’ll probably buy there.”
Decker says that the process of clearing the area of garages and industrial shops could drag on “for at least 20 years” since the municipality would have to come to a compensation arrangement with property owners who will not vacate without a fight.
According to the financial daily Calcalist, the municipality hopes to have Hamasger Street rebuilt in 13 years, though legal battles and lawsuits could delay it even further.
The municipality was not available for comment by press time.