Something Worth Rallying About

by Brian on August 24, 2006

in In the News

“Have you signed yet?” a breathless passerby demanded as my wife and I were taking a quiet stroll on Emek Refaim Street, the main drag of Jerusalem’s tony Germany Colony neighborhood, one evening last week.

“Signed what?” I asked, feeling perplexed by all the sudden urgency.

“The petition,” she replied. “Against construction in the neighborhood. There’s a rally down the street at the community center. It’s going until 9…you still have time.”

Our curiousity piqued, we pointed our walk in the direction of the rally. There we found assembled a crowd of about 500 who had gathered to listen to a variety of speakers, most of whom were railing against the “evil developers” who threatened the unique nature of this historic neighborhood.

The raison d’etre for the rally was a proposal to build a 14-story Four Seasons Hotel (including some 80 luxury apartments to be sold to overseas buyers) at the entrance to the neighborhood from the corner of Graetz Street to within meters of Liberty Bell Park, along with an additional 12-story hotel across the street.

The height of the structures is completely out of proportion to the rest of the neighborhood, the flyer explained, and will cut off the natural flow – and view – from the German Colony to the Old City. Joshua Levinson, one of the coordinators of the rally, said in an interview last week that the main hotel was a “Herodian monstrosity.” Another German Colony resident said she wanted to see the space closed to all commercial development and turned into a community space, “preserving as many trees and as much green as possible.”

The land was originally slated for a smaller seven-story hotel, but protests in the 1980s blocked its construction. It was officially approved in 2001, but the terrorism of the last several years scared off the tourists and put development on ice.

Now, with the throngs returning and hotel space once again at a premium, the ice apparently has melted.

If you had asked me my opinion about this kind of development when I was growing up, I would have told you unequivocally that all new construction was “bad.” In the Bay Area of the 1960s and 1970s, preservation of the status quo was politically correct and I was nothing if not a classic California liberal.

But the situation in Jerusalem is different and my feelings today are more complex. As the population continues to grow, the city needs to build; otherwise, young couples and families will have no choice but to move out to more affordable locales like Modi’in and Bet Shemesh, taking out with them the city’s future and inviting in economic stagnation. My politically correct upbringing also told me that encouraging suburban sprawl was equally a sin.

The major plan on the books for increasing housing in Jerusalem has been to build in the hills. A massive development project designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie calls for covering the outlying areas to the west of the city with some 20,000 housing units, access roads and nearly 500,000 square meters of industrial and commercial space.

The Safdie Plan, as its known and which is waiting for formal approval, has been opposed by environmentalists and several Knesset members (and is backed by a petition with more than 16,000 signatures) who say the damage to the ecology in the Judean Hills would be incalculable and that there is more than enough space in the city to house a swelling population.

But that means increasing density and, yes, height. In places like our very own German Colony. The hotels may be for tourists, but can 14 story apartment complexes be far behind?

Frankly, though, is this such a terrible thing? While it’s certainly true that the traffic and congestion have reduced the quality of life for residents who live near the epicenter of the action, the rapid development of the German Colony over the last few years have actually made the neighborhood a lot more lively with some truly excellent eateries and a real night life.

Other building projects in town are also encouraging. These include a major refurbishment of downtown, the light rail project, and relocating the Bezalel School of Art to a more central location to revitalize the city and bring art to the streets. All of which mean more density…but in these cases, certainly not a travesty.

Let’s be honest: were the “good old days” that much better? Would we really want to go back to a “simpler time” when it took four years to get a phone line, there was only one TV station (and it was in black and white) and customer service – despite whatever complaints I may have about it today – wasn’t even an entry in the Hebrew cultural dictionary?

Back then, your choice of where to eat in the German Colony was limited to a single café, the venerable Caffit. Ha’aretz newspaper now counts 42 fast and not so fast food establishments in the area today including what has to be one of the most elegant settings for a Big Mac in the world: a McDonald’s housed in a historic building faced with elegant Jerusalem Stone.

Looking for nightlife in 1986? Try Tel Aviv.

We also “get used to” things. The Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge, two of the most striking visual images in San Francisco where I grew up, were both initially opposed as being hideously ugly and “out of proportion” too. In Jerusalem it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever get used to the monstrous Holyland apartment complex overlooking the Malcha Mall area…but we will. The same will be the case for the hotels at the entrance to the German Colony, I imagine.

So does that mean I support construction wherever and whenever in the city? Not at all. I think that the proposal from twenty years ago that called for a smaller hotel, more in keeping with the proportions of the neighborhood, would be a reasonable compromise.

Can we get there?

Well, that’s something else I learned growing up: you can’t turn the clock back, but you can move forward with dialogue and respect, integrating old and new with intelligence and creativity. It shouldn’t be impossible to preserve the small town feel of the German Colony neighborhood while still giving tourists a luxurious place to bed down on their way to pick up some Asian stir-fry in a baguette or a cornflake-fried schnitzel sandwich with pesto and garlic sauce.

It won’t be easy, but I’m confident we can find common ground and foster tolerance and moderation in all things…yes, even development.

Now that would be something worth rallying about.

This article was also published in the Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem magazine. Here’s the link.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous August 24, 2006 at 2:41 pm

I too agree that in order to keep the younger generation and the student population here in Jerusalem we need to build more apartments.
I do however believe there should be a reasonable limit to the hight of the building as well as mandatory number of apartments for rent in each new building being made. It is wonderful that there are so many foreigners buying property here but when they do not rent it out that too leads to a lack of afforable living space.

2 Anonymous August 27, 2006 at 1:52 pm

Great post! I agree completely except I wonder if luxury apartments for foreigners and a luxury hotel is what we need to make the German Colony more and more unaffordable for us locals.
Renovated and high-rise apartment and commercial centers for residents …. now that I can support!

3 Anonymous September 5, 2006 at 10:11 pm

Nice post, one doesn't see too much building code or zoning these days in Jerusalem – it seems like its non-existant or on a rolling by petition basis. Regardless, I think that restraining builders too much can often lead to them just moving out or taking jobs as you said in suburban or new developments that have fewer restrictions and higher profits.
The social erosion aspect is up to parents of children, not developers of buildings.

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