Urban facelifts

Tel Aviv's new bylaw on renovating building exteriors is a welcome development.

tel aviv building 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tel aviv building 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tel Aviv's new municipal bylaw obliging all property owners to renovate all building exteriors at least once every 15 years is a welcome, if not overdue, development. It is a bylaw worthy of adaptation by every Israeli municipality. Tel Aviv is an unparalleled repository of Bauhaus architecture, and was recognized as such by UNESCO in July 2003 and deservedly designated an international heritage site. The place that once merited the "White City" moniker is also unique for its pre-Bauhaus eclectic structural design. But most of all, unhappily, Tel Aviv is exceptional in the neglect and dilapidation of its crumbling claims to distinction. And much of Israel is similarly remiss. Compulsory renovation regulations could mean face-lifting our cityscapes by placing the responsibility where it naturally belongs - as it does anywhere else in the world - on real estate proprietors. The fact that this country was exceedingly lax throughout its first decades of existence can be explained away with pretexts aplenty, including immigrant absorption in a newborn state encumbered with existential emergencies, barely able to feed and shelter the influx of newcomers, and where construction was often a quick-fix hodgepodge. But none of that holds water today. Indeed the dereliction of Israeli buildings differs from examples of blight around the world, where eyesores are frequently products of poverty and inner-city decay. In Israel often the most posh neighborhoods project disfigured exteriors to the street, while apartment interiors have been lavishly rebuilt. Tel Aviv's city council cannot but be congratulated for aiming to put a stop to this. The new bylaw allows the city to demand that property owners immediately revamp their building's exterior and then reapply new coats of paint every 15 years. Violators will be liable to heavy fines, while out-of-pocket residents would be offered interest-free loans. The first street targeted for this new approach is Ibn Gvirol, one of Tel Aviv's leading leisure and commercial destinations, but no less so a residential avenue. In two years Tel Aviv will celebrate its centenary and it's only befitting that it spruce up for the occasion. It wouldn't do any harm if the populace would inter alia also evince greater appreciation for its city's cultural and historical assets. Things are better now than when Tel Avivians evinced no compunction to raze such gems as their city's very first houses, including its earliest public facility - the beautiful Gymnasiya Herzliya - torn down to make way for the ungainly Shalom Tower. Appreciation for heritage is growing nationwide and the Historical Preservation Council has already earmarked 8,000 buildings around the country as conservation-worthy. The number is expected to reach 15,000. Preservation, moreover, pays. Jerusalem's Nahalat Shiva section and Zichron Ya'acov's old town center were rescued and restored. Despite initial resistance from locals, property values rose significantly to everyone's benefit. Indeed, most lucrative on the market are holdings along old streets erected by the Baron de Rothschild in early settlements like Rosh Pina, Mazkeret Batya or Gedera. Yet such long-term logic hardly sways Tel Aviv apartment-owners who balk at the new edicts. For them renovation remains nothing but a financial burden, since a mid-sized apartment block can cost over NIS 200,000 to smarten up. It only remains to be hoped that in time residents will grow convinced of the long-term benefits and will come to regard current cash outlays as investments in the future. These may be teething problems but the city will have to prove its resolute commitment to this very commendable project, even if it means imposition of discipline and risking temporary loss of popularity. It's high time Israel's urban facades lose their shabbiness. In Jerusalem and other locations where stone facing is the norm, less stringent bylaws could be adopted given the greater durability of building facades. But too much of Tel Aviv's heritage is rotting away, especially near the seashore, where exceptionally salty air and whipping winds wreak havoc with the old buildings, most of which have not seen a lick of paint since construction. It is not ordained that relatively well-to-do Israeli cities need look like bombing-raid relics. A lovingly maintained outdoor Bauhaus museum could attract visitors and pump up the economy. The new bylaw could do for Tel Aviv what the massive preservation of ancient Jaffa achieved in the Fifties. Rundown exteriors are not predestined. The upkeep acceptable abroad must not be judged impossible here.