Undemocratic and unfair

Jerusalem neighborhood planning committees are a farce.

AN AERIAL view of Jerusalem’s Old City and outer neighborhoods (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN AERIAL view of Jerusalem’s Old City and outer neighborhoods
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Physical planning committees made up of residents operate within the framework of 28 Jerusalem neighborhood community administrations financed by the city. Their purported role: safeguarding the interests of the communities they serve.
The heads of these committees generally have zero experience in this highly complex field. Needless to say, inflated egos combined with gross ignorance is common. The only professionals assisting these committees are poorly paid urban planners, some with little experience, who work part-time, three days a week. As employees of the municipality they tread lightly. Importantly, decisions taken by neighborhood planning committees are always carefully noted by local and district planning and building committees in defending the problematic plans they approve. Neighborhoods voicing strong objections to plans sponsored by Jerusalem Municipality may find that their budgets have been slashed.
The consequences of this system with its built-in conflicts of interest, exacerbated by a host of irregularities, are severe. Three ongoing major planning projects in and around the Beit Hakerem neighborhood illustrate this most problematic situation.
Work on the Beit Hakerem Master Plan, covering 230 acres, began more than a decade ago. Finally released in July 2016, the plan’s documents aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. At times illegible, incomplete, inaccurate, inconsistent or full of superfluous information, they are possibly the worst set of planning documents ever deposited for public review in Jerusalem.
Millions of shekels in public monies have been squandered in what appears to be a clear case of malpractice on the part of the planners and breach of trust on the part of municipal and district committee public servants charged with checking these documents. Rewarded for his complicity, the neighborhood’s urban planner, who failed in overseeing their preparation, now heads the entire western Jerusalem quarter. The municipality, which has yet to take any responsibility and continues to defend the plan, was backed by the head of the community administration for over a year. Projecting business as usual, not a word on all of this is to be found in a series of articles signed by the head of the physical planning committee reporting in the neighborhood’s paper.
A major urban renewal project on Ha’arazim Street, comprising 400 dwelling units and underground parking garages for 600 cars, was held secret by the neighborhood planning committee for over eight years, known only to those who lived on this street, this in spite of the plan’s serious implications for the entire neighborhood. Incredibly, the Ha’arazim plan area, which is included within the boundaries of the neighborhood master plan, does not appear there at all.
It was learned that the head of the community administration had been a director at Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation, the municipal agency that managed this project.
Critical planning information concerning the gargantuan Begin Highway decking project between Ruppin Road to the north and Bait Street to the south, now being planned to the neighborhood’s east in order to create a regional park and a new neighborhood of 1,860 dwelling units, is presently being withheld by the municipality from the neighborhood planning committee and its planner. Previous presentations have failed to show the project’s physical environmental context, above all its relation to the Beit Hakerem neighborhood.
Unsurprisingly, Beit Hakerem’s planning committee along with the head of its community administration have long ago lost the trust of the community. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who resides in Beit Hakerem, has consistently refused to meet with his neighbors, claiming most unconvincingly a “conflict of interest,” thus denying all responsibility for his backing these projects which, if finally approved and executed, are sure to change forever the intimate and pastoral character of his own neighborhood, still today one of Jerusalem’s finest.
Given the grave defects of the present system, intensified by unethical practices, the following is proposed: that neighborhood planning committees be made autonomous units, immune to political pressures from municipality officials, and that neighborhood urban planners be full-time, well paid professionals of the highest order, legally protected so as to enable their offering objective professional opinions. Heads of planning committees must have minimal experience in the field before assuming their posts. Heads of community administrations and members of planning committees are to be forbidden ties to municipal agencies. Withholding pertinent planning information is to be made a criminal offense.
Public participation in planning is all very well, but barring the introduction of these measures, there remains little choice other than doing away with these planning committees entirely, thereby removing the mask of this undemocratic and unfair system.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.