Reaching new heights

While the new municipal proposal is innovative in many ways, it is also pricing locals out of the market.

romema 298.88 (photo credit: Tamar LaFontaine)
romema 298.88
(photo credit: Tamar LaFontaine)
For years the neighborhood of Romema (Hebrew for "uplifted"), which sits at the northwest entrance to the city and is bordered by the haredi enclaves of Mattersdorf, Kiryat Belz and Makor Baruch, has been home to light industry, including an assortment of garages, foundries, carpentry workshops and factories. But technological innovation has made the old-fashioned workshops obsolete, and industrial growth has seen businesses expand and leave the city for greener pastures. Meanwhile, real estate investors, eyeing the area for its development potential, began buying up the abandoned plots at industry-zoned prices, and then waited to cash in on the neighborhood's anticipated rezoning as a residential area to meet the housing demands created by Jerusalem's burgeoning haredi population. "There were a lot of requests, especially by the haredi public, for property in the area because of its location near the center of town and other religious communities, such as Geula, Mea She'arim, Mattersdorf, Ezra Torah, Neveh Tzvi and Tel Artza," says Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack, who holds the Planning portfolio. "Slowly industrial and commercial lots closed and were turned into residential lots." Municipal planning officials, fearing that the neighborhood would be overrun by disparate development initiatives with disastrous implications for the residents' quality of life, decided to get involved and in early 2005, the municipality froze development in the area. Then in the summer of 2006, the first-ever neighborhood master plan was approved for Romema, and has since paved the way for similar initiatives in other areas of the city, including Givat Shaul, Beit Hakerem and Rehavia. The unique municipal initiative, which was the joint vision of planning officials and residents, put a hold on development in the area for a year-and-a-half as a comprehensive plan was formulated that would coordinate the building plans of private developers and allocate spaces for public use. With such a framework in place, officials estimate that the master plan will come into fruition in as little as 10 years. "We saw the situation as follows: To turn industrial and commercial lots one by one into individual residential lots, irrespective of each other and the neighborhood's needs, would result in chaos," says Pollack. "Therefore, we decided to formulate a more defined, comprehensive plan that would take into consideration green open spaces, parking and public institutions. We allocated a portion of each lot for public use and in exchange expanded the developers' building zones." A building zone is the relationship between the built-up area and the area of the lot. For example, if a developer has a one-dunam (1,000 square meter) plot and is granted a 300 percent building zone, he is licensed to build vertically 3,000 sq.m. Architect Yigal Levi was commissioned to design the master plan, which encompasses Romema's 450 dunams, bordered by the streets Torah Mitzion, Shamgar, Mem-Gimel and Petah Tikva. The process began with a survey of building plans in the area, which, Levi warned then-city engineer Uri Sheetrit, would breed less than desirable results. "As more and more building proposals were submitted to the planning committees," Levi says, "there was growing concern that the area would turn into slums [because of the absence of areas allocated for public use]. The goal of the master plan was to prevent this from happening, and instead to build in a more informed manner." A series of meetings with Sheetrit, the District Planning Committee and a steering committee followed, as well as tours of the neighborhood and meetings with residents and the neighborhood municipal planner. "Residents emphasized the importance of lower density housing and the commitment to creating public buildings and spaces," Levi recalls. The mission, Levi explains, was to "generate change in the area, to create the infrastructure for a normal neighborhood downtown - one that is crowded and confined by its location within a city [because of limited space and green areas]." After checking the road system, Levi's firm, Yigal Levi Architects and Town Planners, discovered several municipal-owned roads in the area that were no longer needed, and designated them as green spaces. "These roads functioned as a guideline along which we continued expropriating area for public use, expropriation after expropriation, until we ended up with groupings of green space that formed a kind of public framework with which the private sector integrates." The idea was for developers to submit their building plans in accordance with this outline. "If a developer wants to have his building plan approved quickly," Levi says, "he submits it in accordance with the master plan, and most of the developers are doing this. "This was the first time where the private sector submitted building plans that plug into a framework created by the public sector. This new approach was adopted by the planning committees, which assembles the larger planning puzzle." After the master plan's approval by the Local and District Planning committees, the municipality decided to expand the jurisdiction of the Eden Company (a subsidiary of the Jerusalem Development Authority responsible for the development and revival of the downtown area) to include Romema. "The idea is for Romema to operate as a closed economy, where the public coffer created by municipal taxes on the building initiatives in the area will be invested back into the continued development of the community, like open public spaces and roads," Levi says. The Eden Company assigned a series of architects to focus on the development of different sections of the neighborhood. One firm, Levi says, was commissioned just to plan Rehov Yirmiyahu, the neighborhood's main artery, which he applauds as "one of the master plan's great successes." "We envision it as a bustling, commercial, haredi thoroughfare, with wide partially covered walkways, foliage and apartments overhead - something for which the religious public thirsts and longs," explains Levi, adding, "I think it will relieve some of the overcrowding on Rehov Geula and offer an alternative to merchants looking to set up shop." SOME OF the features of the master plan's design include terraced balconies, garden roofs, underground parking and storage units for each apartment, a network of green spaces that lead to Wadi Romema, and buildings that face green spaces rather than streets. "Planning for a haredi public is more complicated [than planning for a secular one]," Levi explains. "Factors such as succa balconies, which are hard to integrate into modern designs, and a cap on the number of floors [because of Shabbat elevator restrictions] make the planning process more difficult. Also, every haredi building translates into an extraordinary number of children, which needs to be taken into consideration in designing green spaces." Buildings will rise between 10 and 12 stories, the neighborhood's maximum, along Rehov Yirmiyahu, seven and nine stories along quieter Rehov Oholiav, and will slope off along the back streets. Levi roughly estimates that there will be upwards of 2,500 units - a figure that will vary according to the size of building zones and the manner in which they are divided into apartments by developers - and that it will take 10-15 years for the plan to be actualized. "I am very optimistic," he reveals. "This represents development in the right direction and shows the haredi public that less crowded living conditions are possible within the city limits. "When you break it down, the plan's simplicity is its advantage," he continues. "I don't know of another example where an industrial area undergoes such a dramatic makeover so quickly and the public sector provides a guiding infrastructure for the allocation of enough public open spaces, schools, wide sidewalks, underground parking, organized entrances, etc. "I think many neighborhood plans will follow suit," he adds, noting his current involvement in similar designs for Beit Hakerem and the Geula area. Meretz city councilman Pepe Allalu has a more cautionary take on the plan. "The building is too aggressive, massive and crowded, with building zones approaching 320%," he says, noting that building zones in Rehavia are less than half that size. "Still, without the plan, there would be planning anarchy; the plan has created order within disorder. Before there was a master plan, the demands for building zones rose without proportion. Everyone came and asked for more and more. The master plan, first of all, limited the size of the building zones. The limits, though large, can be tolerated if we consider the needs of the haredi public." For local resident Ariel Cohen, the densifying of the neighborhood is a concern. He moved to the neighborhood three years ago because of its relative affordability, quiet streets and location near the center of town. "I'm worried about the changes the plan poses to the neighborhood," he says. "It will bring more people, which will bring more noise." M., a 30-something woman who's lived in the area for over 20 years, is more optimistic. "I think it's [the master plan] a good thing - it will raise the quality of life of the neighborhood. As it is now [as an industrial zone], I am scared to walk around alone at night. "The area has a lot of potential; I'm glad the municipality is finally investing in it," she continues. "It will create options for young haredi couples. Sure it will mean that the neighborhood will become more crowded. And as buildings rise they may infringe on the light and view of other apartments, but there is still a lot to gain." EVEN THOUGH the first developments are still years away from completion, "phones are ringing off the hook with American and English clients looking to buy here - whether to secure a holiday apartment, an apartment for their children or just simply because they like the idea of having an apartment in Jerusalem," says Shloimy Sussman, the director of Homeport Realty & Investments, which caters to the English-speaking religious community. Before the neighborhood was rezoned as a residential area, Sussman says, prices averaged $75,000-$80,000 a room. Since then, prices have risen to upward of $100,000 a room. "The bottom line is that everyone wants an apartment in Jerusalem." Real estate developer Eli Klein, whose projects include Ganei Yasmin, a 200-unit luxury housing complex planned for Rehov Oholiav, attributes the rising rates to the high demand for property in the area. "Prices of lots in the area are high and rising because they are limited. As a result, they are necessarily targeted more toward foreigners [who are more easily able to afford them]. "Foreign developers pay a lot, and at the outset, set the tone for prices so as not to lose on their investment," he adds. Lots in the area sold two years ago have doubled in price, Klein notes, with the present average cost per square meter at around $4,000. "Prices to foreigners appear fair, even cheap, whereas to locals they are out of reach." To meet these buyers' standards, the size of luxury apartments runs larger than the average Israeli apartment and features high-standard specifications, maintenance, covered parking and private storage units. Apartments at Ganei Yasmin average 120 sq.m. and offer between four and seven bedrooms, including garden apartments and penthouses. "Fifteen percent of our buyers are Israeli; the rest go to more affordable neighborhoods such as Ramot, Mea She'arim and Beit Yisrael," Klein says. "I don't want to say that Jerusalem is chasing people away, but for residents of the city and the state, it will be increasingly difficult to find residences within their income bracket. Jerusalem is only getting more expensive." Alallu agrees. "The problem with Jerusalem is that its land is expensive, building is expensive and the city's residents are poor. But we can't restrict the developers; when prices rise, they rise and there's nothing we can do about it." "Still," he says, "I think there will be room for local residents [to be able to afford housing in Romema] - it's not like the style of apartments in David's Village, where only the wealthy and foreign buyers can afford to buy." Local activist Yoram Amir, however, is skeptical that the plan will benefit the city's residents. "The Jerusalem of Jerusalemites is becoming its peripheries, such as Pisgat Ze'ev, Armon Hanatziv and Kiryat Hayovel," says Amir, whose photography gallery in Mahaneh Yehuda traces building trends in the city. "Locals preserve the authenticity and character of the city, which is more important than the money once-a-year visitors buying up holiday apartments trickle into the local economy." Ironically, he adds, "The same population that is supposed to long for and preserve Zion is becoming the agent of its destruction," referring to Diaspora buyers. "Foreigners' desire to live within walking distance of holy sites such as the Western Wall has seen the development of several unesthetically imposing luxury housing projects in the center of town, which are built without regard for the city's character and, ultimately, stand empty most of the year. "We need to ask ourselves, 'Are we acting in the best interest of the city?'"