Grumpy Old Man: Stop that construction, Nir

The last pristine hilltop in Jerusalem is about to be bulldozed, and the mayor is the only one in a position of power who seems to care.

Nir Barkat (photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
Nir Barkat
(photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
They’re almost done putting up a pair of luxury residences near my home. The work has been going on for at least a year, and until a couple of weeks ago there was a tall sheet-metal wall hiding the building site, or at least the street-level part.
With the wall finally down, you can see the handsome complex in all its glory. And it is handsome, with cream-colored Jerusalem stone and gray trim, floor-to-ceiling windows and generous balconies surrounded by finely crafted metalwork. But when you drop your gaze, you notice the meeting point between new and old – especially the way the front steps lead straight down to the sidewalk, smack into one of its thicker trees.
It reminds me of the stories you’d hear about major engineering projects of yore, like bridges they built simultaneously from both shores that met in the middle somewhat askew. It’s as if the guys laying down the front steps had no idea what was on the other side of the sheet-metal wall.
But that’s okay. We know how it’s going to end. It will be a lot easier and cheaper to uproot the tree than redo the steps. Mankind: 1, Nature: 0. That’s the way it goes just about every time. That’s the way it went with our first residence in the neighborhood.
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Our building was pretty long, having four entrances. It was across the street from an elementary school of similar length. But our apartment was at the far end, in the last entrance, facing an undeveloped lot that separated the school from the next building.
I called that lot Little Switzerland because if you looked outside, you saw only a grassy incline and a thick stand of trees. It was green and it was lush, even at the height of summer. There were wild flowers and birds, and lots of critters. Had you been brought to our apartment blindfolded and then had the blindfold removed in our living room, you literally would have no idea you were in the middle of a city.
Soon, though, Little Switzerland gave way to construction. It didn’t matter that there was a housing shortage and that the lot was big enough for a building of, say, 10 units. (This was pre-Olmert, when zoning regulations had yet to be yanked in all sorts of interesting directions, mostly toward businessmen with deep pockets.) Instead, it became a synagogue for use by a dozen or so men for daily prayer, and a dozen or so families on Shabbat and holidays. Apparently, people need to pray at least as much as they need a roof over their head.
When we moved, it was not due to the synagogue or the loss of Little Switzerland; it was because of a growing family.
Yet when we were looking for a new place, I distinctly remember being super cautious about nearby green spaces, knowing how things generally go when it’s man against nature.
And that’s the way things will probably go with Mitzpe Naftoah.
IN CASE you haven’t heard (and chances are you haven’t unless you live or play in Jerusalem), Mitzpe Naftoah is considered the last pristine hilltop within the city limits.
It’s known for its flora and fauna, especially its wildflowers and gazelles.
It’s adjacent to a leafy outlying neighborhood of red-roofed detached and semi-detached homes inhabited by a mix of secular and national-religious residents.
Municipal planners have long had their eye on Mitzpe Naftoah. So shortly after the turn of the millennium, residents of the nearby neighborhood – quite fond, actually, of their idyllic urban sanctuary – organized a vocal campaign focusing on the area’s value to the environment. They took their case all the way to the High Court of Justice, and this seemed to keep the developers at bay.
But in 2008, the city, led by the now-disgraced Uri Lupolianski, unveiled a detailed plan for some 1,600 housing units in a circular, semi-high-density layout. Many of the plan’s opponents took this to mean that it would be for haredim and their large families. In light of the usual friction between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, this injected another, albeit quieter, angle to the opposition.
Enter Nir Barkat, elected mayor the same year. He’s ambitious. He’s secular.
He’s young and vigorous, and likes to ride his bike. The campaign against developing Mitzpe Naftoah caught his ear, and after years of listening and weighing the pros and cons, he came out against it, at least in the form it had taken just before he took office. But now, with the country’s housing woes at the top of the economic agenda, the saga of the pristine hilltop is back in the spotlight.
One of the arguments that has long been used by opponents of Mitzpe Naftoah’s development is that there is still room in the city to build. However, those areas are mostly small plugs of barren or underused real estate in existing neighborhoods, and developers will tell you they prefer wide-open spaces because this helps maximize the efficiency, and thus speed, of construction.
But it’s another aspect of speed that should have us worried.
Mitzpe Naftoah has now been added to the so-called fast-track construction program being pushed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who says that red tape is behind much of the country’s housing problem. It is indeed. But the program’s overseers have been given a virtual carte blanche to ignore many aspects of the country’s urban and rural master plans, and it’s said that their decisions will be pretty much final.
If you think about it, very little around here seems to be planned just right, even when it’s done on a slow track. So go ahead – tell me not to worry about a fast track.
Adding to the concern is the fact that Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai is not listening to opponents of the Mitzpe Naftoah plan. These opponents include the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which has placed the area high on its list of “natural assets” and describes it as “part of an important green strip that Jerusalem must keep in order to assure the functioning of the unique ecological systems it has been wise enough to preserve.”
Gabai is a member of Kahlon’s Kulanu party – and it certainly is Kahlon’s party, because it is he who chooses the candidates for his Knesset slate and determines who receives a cabinet seat. So it’s safe to assume that if Gabai, a non- MK, doesn’t heed his master’s voice, he might be out of a job – which is probably why he backs Mitzpe Naftoah’s addition to the fast-track program and the construction there of 1,400 housing units.
MAYOR BARKAT happens to be my neighbor, although he doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall. But I know he often rides his bike to work and that from time to time, he probably goes past the neighborhood’s new luxury complex whose front steps lead straight down into that tree.
I don’t expect him to insist that the developer move the steps, but I’d like to think he’ll remain as adamant about protecting Jerusalem’s last pristine hilltop as he is about other aspects of his program to improve the city’s quality of life – even if they include a Formula One promotion that once a year further clogs our streets, further pollutes our air and adds yet more noise to what is supposed to be a very special city.
Nir, don’t let us down. You want race cars? Save what’s left of our greenery.