Neighborhood Watch: Regenerating Safed

Tourism has its ups and downs: Safed became “unfashionable.”

Inside the Old City of Safed (photo credit: SAFED MUNICIPALITY)
Inside the Old City of Safed
(photo credit: SAFED MUNICIPALITY)
 Safed has seen better days.
This northern mountain city surrounded by pine forests was in the distant past a coveted recreation spot where affluent locals went to spend their summer holidays.
Safed was also considered the artistic capital of Israel, and many local painters and sculptures made it their home and the location of their studios.
Perched atop a 900-meter peak, it is the highest city in Israel – making for cool summers and very cold winters. Its many hotels were full in summer, although they stood relatively empty in winter.
But tourism has its ups and downs: as a summer resort, Safed became “unfashionable,” and the city went into a period of decline. This was further accelerated when haredim seeking cheap real estate flooded the city.
An ancient city, Safed has been identified as Sepph, a fortified Jewish town in the Upper Galilee mentioned in the writings of the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus.
In the 16th century, Safed was declared one of Judaism’s four holy cities – together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. It is also famous as a center of Kabbala, Jewish mysticism.
Safed has seen better days – but it is now undergoing a period of regeneration, due to the new faculty of medicine of Bar-Ilan University and due to the municipality, which is strenuously promoting the city’s economic development.
Today, some 1.2 million tourists visit the city annually. This tourism is different from that of the ’50s and ’60s in that these visitors do not stay in the hotels, but merely see the sights – and in Safed, it does not take more than a couple of hours to take in all there is to see.
Yet these tourists have provided an impetus for economic growth and have had a very positive impact on the economy and on the real-estate scene. With the increased tourism and a new medical faculty, demand for housing currently outstrips demand and prices are rising.
Narkis Chanya, manager of Narkis Real Estate, one of Safed’s leading real-estate firms, told Metro, “The city is undergoing big changes. The medical faculty will employ large numbers of highly trained people, mainly doctors, but also administrative staff. The medical school will also create ancillary services and businesses, and a new neighborhood of some 3,000 residential units will be created. These new housing schemes will accommodate the staff of the new school of medicine as well as the staff of the ancillary services and businesses expected to be set up.
“Together with spouses and children, the new area will accommodate from 12,000 to 15,000 residents – a dramatic addition to a city of barely 35,000.”
FROM A real-estate perspective, Safed is divided into three main areas. The southwestern area on the slopes of the mountain is inhabited by some 12,000 haredim, who comprise 30 percent of the city’s population. This the poorest part of town and prices are lowest here. It was built in the ’50s and early ’60s to house new immigrants from Arab countries, primarily North Africa. Most of the original residents have died and those still living have moved out. They and the heirs of their deceased neighbors have sold their properties to the ultra-Orthodox, who flocked to Safed because of the low prices, and the area soon became exclusively the abode of the haredim. Real-estate prices are relatively low, and an average threeroom apartment costs no more than NIS 500,000.
The second area is the old town, a picturesque area of some 800 households inhabited by 10% of the city’s population.
It is made up of old Arab houses, some of them with patios, but all take up 100% of the area of the plot of land on which they are built, with doors and windows that open straight onto the street. Some of these houses are owned by artists who have their own studios in the property; others have been bought and restored by current residents, while still others are derelict and waiting for the right person to buy and restore. Many of these homes have been bought and renovated by families from the US who have converted them into one-of-a-kind dwellings. Houses in old Safed cost some NIS 12,000 per square meter.
The third part of town, inhabited by the remaining 60% of Safed’s population, is what one can describe as suburb, built in surrounding areas such as Mount Canaan. These are modern areas with diverse homes – single-family, semidetached, penthouses and rooftop dwellings, as well as ordinary apartments.
The price of building land for single-family homes in the new areas around the school of medicine is NIS 1,300 per square meter. A single-family home in one of the better areas of Mount Canaan can cost from NIS 1.5 million to NIS 2m.; a penthouse can run NIS 1.2 million, while an average three-room apartment is NIS 800,000.
A number of luxury projects have also been erected, such as Shemura Terraces opposite the Mount Canaan forest, with panoramic views of the forest and the surrounding area. The project has fourto six-room apartments, duplex garden apartments and duplex penthouses.
Another new development is Lavi Residences. Located in the center of town in close proximity to the old town and with views of the surrounding countryside, this project has been completed and the residents, many of them haredi, have moved in.
Incumbent Mayor Ilan Shohat claims fears of a “haredi takeover” of the area are unfounded. “It is true that in the past there was a constant flow of haredim to Safed, but this has ceased. The price of real estate has increased substantially; housing in Safed is thus no longer as inexpensive as it was in the past. Furthermore, our haredim are very well-integrated in the economic activity of the town.
“Safed is the ideal place for English speakers to settle. We already have a relatively large English-speaking community; the expanding tourist trade as well as the new school of medicine will open up new business and job opportunities.”