Much ado about nowhere

Malha, Har Hotzvim, west Jerusalem – the JDA has always liked to think big, for better and – far too often – for worse.

A house in Beit Hakerem (photo credit: COURTESY ANGLO-SAXON)
A house in Beit Hakerem
(photo credit: COURTESY ANGLO-SAXON)
It was a cold winter evening in January of this year when an entire battery of designers and their consultants, introduced by the director-general of the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA ), presented a major new planning project for Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood. Some 150 concerned residents were in attendance.
Malha, Har Hotzvim, west Jerusalem – the JDA has always liked to think big, for better and – far too often – for worse. Their proposal this time called for decking Begin Boulevard for almost a kilometer and a half, between Ruppin Road to the north and Shmuel Bait Street to the south, to create a regional park and “a new neighborhood” in the deep valley that separates Beit Hakerem and Ramat Beit Hakerem from the Givat-Ram campus of the Hebrew University. The main goal of the plan, they stated, was to achieve “urban continuity.”
Given this most problematic site, architect Randy Epstein (Kolker Kolker Epstein Architects), who led the design team, was faced with having to spatially define the space of this enormous proposed park, buried in the valley with 12-15-story height differentials between the level of the existing roadway and large sections of the adjacent neighborhoods and campus. To carry out this mission impossible, he created two extraordinarily lengthy bands of housing. To the southeast, just opposite the Givat-Ram hi-tech complex, he designed a completely isolated housing strip 10 stories in height and several hundred meters in length, which reminded many of The Great Wall of China.
To the southwest, a shorter housing strip, six to 12 stories in height. All public buildings were similarly laid out in a row below Givat-Ram. New roads were of course necessary, sure to draw traffic through the Ramat Beit Hakerem neighborhood.
The icing on this cake came in the form of four 40-story towers situated just south of Kiryat Haleum and Ruppin Road (called for, we were later informed, by Jerusalem City engineer architect Shlomo Eshkol), unrelated to anything in sight, making midgets of the existing Leyada (Hebrew University) High School and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Center buildings.
New neighborhood? There isn’t any. The term “neighborhood” is hardly applicable here. No streets, squares, neighborhood parks or integrated public buildings to speak of. No heart, for that matter. Epstein’s entire design proposal was on a gargantuan scale, comprising some 1,700 housing units made up of just three building types. Variety, it seems, is not his cup of tea.
Access to the new park would be via public pedestrian ways connecting it to Beit Hakerem and two stations of a proposed new light rail Green Line inside the HU campus, which since its founding has always remained a closed precinct. New guarded checkpoints would be necessary for the life of the project.
Given the sharp slopes to both east and west, accessing the park would be a major problem, traversing it even a greater one. As natural surveillance (eye contact) with much of its area from the outside will be difficult, these areas certain to raise security concerns.
Disturbing, too, were several false claims made by the designers.
Decked road examples from Paris and Madrid – major world cities – were shown, having nothing whatever in common with this deserted valley. They also contended that the four proposed residential towers were somehow related to the office towers proposed for the new western entrance to the city, some 800 meters distant. An unconvincing argument, to say the least.
Much pertinent information was lacking. No three-dimensional models were presented. The Beit Hakerem neighborhood buildings could hardly be seen on the plans. Key sections through the proposed pedestrian connectors, so critically important to access the park, were not shown. Neither were sections showing the interrelationship between the proposed towers, Leyada and the Joint buildings. A single new elementary school was indicated. But where were the kindergartens, daycare centers and synagogues? Unclear was how they planned to ventilate Begin Boulevard after it was decked. One couldn’t be sure whether these were oversights on the part of the designers or whether this important information was being intentionally withheld to sell this project which, when presented to the Beit Hakerem community, was little more than a diagram.
While “urban continuity” is a most admirable goal, how precisely do they intent to achieve it here, what with Kiryat Haleum, a bureaucrat’s paradise, situated to the north, the Givat Mordecai highway interchange to the south and exceedingly steep topography east and west? It is no secret that lands for new neighborhood development in Jerusalem are rare, in fact almost non-existent. Obvious is that it is the new housing, already beefed up in their latest plans, and not the “neighborhood,” park or “urban continuity” that the JDA is really after. As it stands now, this publicly sponsored bank-busting project, backed by Mayor Nir Barkat who resides in the neighborhood, now being further developed, is almost entirely divorced from reality. The Beit Hakerem community has real cause for concern.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.