50 floors in Jerusalem

Jerusalem from the east / Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock.com

High-rise construction is changing the beloved city. For better or worse? It depends whom you ask.

Why do people love Jerusalem? Why do Israelis say they feel like they’ve gone abroad when they visit? There are deep religious and emotional reasons for this, but the city's architecture also plays a significant part. The limestone facing (a British Mandate legacy), the low buildings in the city center and the Old City, the pleasant walkways - plus, the unique character of the city’s residents, of course - have all created a magical aura, and also the Jerusalem skyline.

But this cityscape has been changing in recent years. Along with the "ghost" neighborhoods made up of luxury apartments purchased by non-residents, more and more high-rises are being built in the city, changing its character and, many believe, damaging its beauty.

For developers, the benefits are clear: there are people willing to pay. Planning and municipal officials consider additional housing units as additional property tax revenue.

The policy: Type of building and price per apartment

In Jerusalem’s city center, there are currently several high-rise projects in various stages ranging from announcement to construction. The Israel Canada Group recently announced it had purchased the historic Sha’arei Zedek hospital complex, where the Israel Broadcasting Authority had operated in recent years, for about half a billion shekels. Israel Canada intends to build - among other things - two 24-story residential towers with commercial areas. The company will pay another NIS 25.5 million to preserve the impressive hospital building.

Not far away, near the Mahane Yehuda open market, stands the 24-story Saidoff Tower. Despite its proximity to the market, shops on the street side of the building are having a hard time attracting tenants - we’ll come back to this later. Opposite this building, AKA Real Estate is currently building its own tower. Occupants of these buildings will be able to look across at one another while attempting to get a glimpse of some Jerusalem landscape. They might even manage to see what’s happening on the balconies of Savyon View Tower, a 27-story high-rise project being constructed by Africa-Israel (AFIgroup) on the Mapai House site, near the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road.

At the 6.2 dunam (1.53 acres) Etz Chaim Yeshiva property, also adjacent to Mahane Yehuda, two 30-story residential towers with 308 apartments, are planned. This complex - to be built by a buyers group organized by BSR Group - will also include a hotel, and will preserve the site of a historic kindergarten.

Israel’s most famous open market will become an enclave squeezed between towers.

Joining these towers are buildings, built in recent years, on HaNevi'im Street leading down to the Old City. Many of the projects are supposed to preserve the historic buildings in this area - such as the Bishop Arthur Hastings Kelk House, (which locals call Beit Phoenicia) at 25 HaNevi’im Street, built in 1876, and are not as tall as the towers on Jaffa Street - but they still change the neighborhood character. These are usually luxury towers, in which apartment prices start at NIS 2 million for a 2-room apartment, and easily rise to NIS 5.5 million for a 4-room apartment. Many of the buyers are Jewish non-residents.

Future high-rise construction in the Mahane Yehuda area

The heights: Hitting 50 floors

In a historic city, even an eight or ten story building can change its uniqueness. For example, the beautiful two-story Anna Ticho House, once the home of ophthalmologist Dr. Ticho and his artist wife, which later became a museum, is today dwarfed by surrounding tall buildings.

"Next to the Ticho House there’s still a large public park you can visit," says Itzik Shweki, Director for the Jerusalem District at the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. "But if that area was privately owned, they would have built on it a long time ago. It’s currently owned by the Israel Museum, but if they sell it, there will be no park - because all developers want today is money-money-money. This is construction for the rich. Young couples can’t afford to live there. Only foreign residents will live there.

"Jerusalem once had a policy of not building high-rises. Now we’ve entered a multistory period that will only intensify. If, at one time, the maximum height set by then-Municipal Engineer Uri Sheetrit was 24 stories along the light railway -which was already too high- that limit has also been broken. For areas at the entrance to the city they determined a limit of 33 floors, and have now approved up to 50.

"This is happening because of all sorts of statutory tricks. After a master plan is approved, things can be changed by the local committee - adjustments that go against the district committee’s original intent. For example, in the area of Heleni HaMalka Street, towards the junction of Jaffa Road and King George/ Strauss Streets, construction of up to ten floors is permitted. But there are easements, the contractors bend the rules, and go up to twelve floors.

"It’s true the Old City is untouched, and it’s impossible to build tower blocks in Abu Tor. But there are high-rises in Jerusalem that should never have been; in central Paris there are none, and in Barcelona as well. In Moscow, too, they built their tower block complex outside the city center.

"It should have been forbidden to build high-rises in Jerusalem. Towers are something that should have been built in the surrounding areas. But, you can’t cry over spilled milk; if they’ve already approved a construction project, we won’t oppose it because once it's approved, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s 24 or 30 floors. It doesn’t make a difference, visually. I just want to ensure that these towers don’t interfere with buildings slated for preservation. By the way, on HaNevi'im Street, the buildings there are no higher than eight floors, thanks to the objection I submitted."

So, what is the "reasonable" height for Jerusalem? Architect Giora Solar, a city planner and cultural heritage conservation specialist who serves as an observer on the Jerusalem Conservation and Cultural Heritage Management Committee, says, "In the very center, eight floors is reasonable. Today, we already see things ramping up to 15 floors and more. Often, we attempt to reduce the number of floors, but really, what’s the difference between 10 and 12? In either case, the poor little protected structures are dwarfed. Sometimes, eight floors more will be added to one of those buildings, and that just makes things cartoonish. In order to keep things human-scale, entire areas must be preserved.

"There are master plans, there are policy and outline plans, but people 'get smart.' Just like with coronavirus: we set guidelines, and immediately start backtracking and making allowances. The developers and architects know what’s set in the approved blueprint, but they enter into project planning by figuring out ways they can get a break. It seems that, in the same way we’ve been dealing with the pandemic, perhaps when it comes to high-rise construction, we also need to stop and rethink everything."

According to preservation architect Moshe Shapira, "In my opinion, eight floors is the maximum height for construction on the main streets like King George. The towers cast a shadow over the local architecture, there’s something brutal in their positioning. Even if they’re next to historic preservation areas, there’s something very vulgar about it. You can see it at the Ki'ach Street complex and the Saidoff Tower. They preserved the historic exterior structure, but in fact destroyed the entire original interior. All the beautiful stucco is gone. The tower itself is foreign to the spirit of the location, it overshadows the courtyards, creates something predatory. It reminds me of science fiction movies with giant three-legged creatures coming in and taking over a place. "

There are also environmental and climatic aspects to multistory construction. The Ministry of Environmental Protection states that its policy for construction height limits in Jerusalem’s historic city center is seven to eight floors. Yet ten-story buildings can be seen in this area; the ministry's explanation is that "There is flexibility - depending on street width, lot size, location and architectural design - that allows for adding a floor or two."

The towers are also driving away Jerusalemites.

Shweki: "Young people are leaving for Modi'in and Ma'ale Adumim, and it’s all connected to those luxury high-rise apartments."

Central Bureau of Statistics data support Shweki’s remarks: migration in Jerusalem (number of persons leaving minus those coming in), has been negative for several years in a row, and in 2019 the population will have decreased by about 5,000 people.

The urban planners: "High-rises are a means, not an end"

"In my opinion, a high-rise is not a goal but a means to produce better planning," says Shira Talmi Babay, Jerusalem district planner at the Israel Planning Administration. "A high-rise is a means of freeing up property to create quality public space, pathways, wider sidewalks, public areas, etc.

"The Saidoff Tower on Jaffa Road is a good example of a high-rise succeeding in being a means. Thanks to the plan, which coalesced all the property rights for the lot, there has been full conservation and authentic reconstruction of the historic buildings, without any additional elements. The tower, set back from the street, doesn’t encroach on Mahane Yehuda, and doesn’t loom over pedestrians. It feels like another Nachlaot courtyard."

In my opinion, it does loom a bit over people walking on Jaffa Road.

"It's a reasonable price to pay from a planning point of view. If this building had 10 floors, we would have had to compromise on conservation. This way, we were able to leave the street-facing façade as is."

The shops in front are empty.

"Some of those stores are publicly owned by the municipality - and that’s a mistake. This is the reason why it's failing to function. They had things there that were unsustainable."

All these towers damage the city’s unique skyline.

"It's fine for the skyline to change because every generation makes changes. Should Jerusalem stagnate? No. That’s the price the city pays but without it, Jerusalem would deteriorate into a provincial backwater. To my mind, these towers are tall and graceful, and enable a range of uses without damaging the city’s historic fabric. In any case, we check for acute damage, and where a balance can be achieved between conservation and development.

"Buildings of up to 30 floors are permitted along the light rail axis. If we look at the numbers, before the Covid-19 crisis, the Red Line, which is half of what was approved, transported more people daily than all of Israel Railways combined. So, high-rise construction is the order of the day."

When you compare Jerusalem with Paris and Barcelona, which are also historic cities, you find there are differences.

"If you wanted to build Paris in Jerusalem, you would have to tear everything down. We won’t achieve the uniformity of the French, and, in the Israeli mentality, it’s not appropriate to build apartments with single-sided ventilation. Also, Paris and Barcelona are unique. Other European cities haven’t been able to replicate their charm."

If things go on like this, Jerusalem won’t be Jerusalem.

"What is Jerusalem? It's something huge. We’re not touching the Old City and its surrounding areas. Over the next decade, there won’t be more than ten high-rises in the historic center, and these will be centers of energy that strengthen and renew the city by bringing in a productive population.

"This will also bring new jobs, because the construction is 50% residential and 50% commerce. Doing nothing, not renovating or renewing, is much more disruptive to the city. Jerusalem's main business district is what keeps it going. A city without a business district is a very sad city. And here, over the years, it has been badly damaged."

The conservationists: "They’re destroying things that should not be touched"

"Is high-rise construction damaging to the sense of place? It depends on where you stand. We used to check it from the Tower of David. Today, when you stand there, you can clearly see all the things popping up in the heart of the city," says Solar. "After you define what you really want to preserve, high-rise construction in the city center is not always a terrible thing. If it's right on the main commercial axis and not in residential areas, then it's seemingly fine, it brings life to that area. But every building like that blocks the historic neighborhood behind it. There are already bad buildings like that, which should not have been built, like those in front of Beit Yaakov and Mahane Yehuda.

"Another problem is that these buildings aren’t built all at once, but one at a time. And another problem is buildings not situated on main commercial streets. The J Tower Residence on Ki'ach Street, for example, is off the main street.

"When the historic Alliance School was demolished to make way for the Clal Center in 1972, the barriers to urban renewal were also broken. They destroyed things that should not have been touched."

And changed the cityscape forever as they went along.

"They say that if the Dormition Abbey hadn’t been built on Mount Zion, and someone today would request permission to build something at that height - even a synagogue - it would be rejected on the grounds that it would ruin the skyline."

How do you feel when you stand in front of these towers?

"I'm a person who walks around and caresses the stones. It’s painful, and yet this is a global trend. High-rise construction is a historical fact. Conservation means managing change properly in the knowledge that things change. Part of a city’s significance, and culture as well, is that it is a living thing, and not a museum. Although I’ve dealt in conservation my entire professional life, I do believe that. A city must not be frozen in time."

"The tower business is just pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Government officials just want to prove they’re building something during their term in office," says conservation architect Shapira. "This city was not made for luxury towers, because this is a city of salaried employees and government clerks. There’s a reason why the city center high-rises are owned mostly by non-residents. They are a nail in the city center’s coffin.

"Construction there should have retained a textured urban environment. The scale of the Ben-Yehuda/Jaffa Road/King George triangle is that of a 1930s British Mandate-era city block. Six- or seven-story buildings are possible, but when 20 and 30-story buildings are erected, they change the proportions entirely. These are ghost towers."

Shapira agrees that high-rise construction in the city center has damaged its skyline. "Today, a tower has even sprung up in Musrara, completely unrelated to anything, but with all the permits. Even the city officials were in shock that it had been approved.

"It's an example of what's going on in this city: this lack of oversight means even the mayor won’t be able to see the Old City from his window, while the Old City will have a view of a tower full of people with the money and capacity to push their plans forward. And this construction is legally approved, it’s not a crime."

In the high-rise debate, people often cite the Mount Scopus ridge as an example - it has the Church of the Ascension, Augusta Victoria and the Hebrew University water tower. Shapira: "These are three buildings built more than 100 years apart from one another, but all on the same scale. Everything in proportion and of the same language. But what’s happening today with the high-rises is a violent capitalist discourse. Jerusalem has become San Gimignano, the medieval Italian town where everyone had their own tower. But there, at least, tall building construction had its limits; today there are none.

"The developers are not to blame; only the authorities who make it possible. We need a public debate on how we want Jerusalem to look, to allow the professionals to be part of this discourse. There is only one Jerusalem in the world, and a high-rise in it will remain forever. If one tower goes, a bigger one will take its place."

Paris and Barcelona have managed to preserve their historic centers.

"In Paris, they stopped at six floors and managed to cram an Israel-sized population into an area the size of Jerusalem. They’ve made smarter use of the area. Paris also has needs and there are those who want high-rises, but there are also people who know how to put a stop to it, and situate tower blocks outside the central city. By the way, London is also better balanced, although there are some towers in the center."

The municipality: "A dynamic city that must develop"

Unlike some Jerusalem lovers, its municipal engineer, Yoel Even, does not think that the high-rise construction in the city center is excessive. "I like what I see in the city," he says. "Jerusalem has close to a million inhabitants and we want to strengthen it. Jerusalem is a special city, and its past plays a part. On the other hand, if there is a plan that enables construction without destroying the conservation ethos, I'll do it. This is a dynamic city that must develop. And the more we build, the greater the possibilities for renewal."

Do you understand why the city center high-rises are criticized?

"I can understand the criticism. Everyone loves their Jerusalem. There may be someone who doesn’t think tall buildings are something to be valued, but if you consider the values of development, reinforcement, and growth - sometimes those values are worth working on because they outweigh what was valuable to a particular someone."

Getting a high-rise project approved is dependent on transport routes, whether the building is on the light rail line, its position on the ridge line, which views it blocks, and, of course, conservation aspects. "I’ve vetoed some plans," Even says. "For example, there was a proposal for tower blocks in the French Hill area. We examined the view of the Old City, and decided not to approve that location. There are some places in the historic city center where we won’t even take proposals. We safeguard their historic value. You won’t see high-rises in Nachlaot and Baka."

There are two towers next to Mahane Yehuda, and it was recently reported that high-rises will be built at the Etz Chaim complex nearby.

"I’m not familiar with everything. But I examine in accordance with policy. The biggest complaint to date has been that there’s no uniform policy; there are places that work one way and places that work another way. It’s very important to me that procedures are orderly, uncomplicated and honest - and I’m very pro-conservation."

In historic European cities, for example Paris and Barcelona, there’s no high-rise construction in city centers.

Even: "I take inspiration from there. In my opinion, Jerusalem is going in that direction. For example, Barcelona preserves its historic city, with more modern construction on the outskirts. In most places in Jerusalem that is indeed what is happening."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 8, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Jerusalem from the east / Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock.com
Jerusalem from the east / Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock.com
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