Demolition of the Dolphinarium building on the southern Tel Aviv beachfront began today. The round building designed by architect Nahum Zolotov and opened in the early 1980s was an important Tel Aviv icon. People originally came to see the trained dolphin shows, followed by an event hall and dance club that became famous as the site of a terrorist attack in 2001. The building has since been semi-abandoned; it served mainly as a surfing club, while the beach on its northern side ("Drums Beach") was used for community gatherings by "spiritual" musicians and dancers.
A still unfinished real estate, planning, and legal saga lies behind the demolition. The Dolphinarium was built at the initiative of businessperson Zvi Efron with financing from South African investors on land leased from Israel Land Authority (ILA). In 1989, German businessperson Josef Buchmann bought the lot for $5 million. 20 years ago, when the Tel Aviv municipality wanted to open the beachfront to the public and continue the promenade there without interference, it signed an agreement with Buchmann's company, Sha'ar L'Israel, for an exchange of land. Buchmann was to have given the Dolphinarium site to the municipality in exchange for 12 dunam (three acres) on the east side of Herbert Samuel Street. Buchmann sold the new site to a group of developers in 2015.
The new plan gives the developers rights to construct 48,000 square meters of hotel, residential, and commercial space; up to 26,500 square meters of above-ground service space; and 36,000 square meters of underground parking space. Construction of a building with 250 square meters on the public space will be allowed. Objections to the plan were filed by the Movement for Quality Government, the Adam Teva V'Din non-profit organization, and representatives of the residents, who claimed that the developer had received irregular and excessive rights.
Adam Teva V'Din urban planner Yael Dori believes that the plan sets a dangerous precedent. "At first, we thought that demolishing the building, removing the roadblock, and creating open space was a great idea, but then we discovered that in exchange for removing the building, the developer received rights worth 31 times as much. The new project, which will be part of the wall of the towers on the seafront, lies within the beachfront environment. Part of the project is located on the site of Hakovshim Garden. In other words, the neighborhood's open public space was sacrificed for a metropolitan promenade. We filed objections and an appeal together with the Movement for Quality Government. We started a legal proceeding, which is now at the Supreme Court. There is a dangerous precedent in this case that is liable to detract from efforts to vacate the beachfront. In my opinion, the option of utilizing part of the building was not given enough consideration. They are going to build a surfing center there in any case (on the beach, G.N.)."
The Movement for Quality Government said that the appeal to the Supreme Court concerned the possessory aspect. "This is a deal in which the owners of rights in the Dolphinarium waive their rights to the abandoned site and receive in exchange from the state a huge amount of construction rights. The difference in value between the two sites is nearly NIS 1 billion. In our petition, we argue that ILA was obligated to market the public land by auction in order to get as much money as possible for the public treasury. At the same time, the Dolphinarium site could have been expropriated and the developers paid compensation equal to the site's value. It could then have been developed as part of the promenade," the movement stated.
Movement for Quality Government lawyer Adv. Itamar Shahar says that in preparing the Supreme Court petition, it was discovered that ILA had not acted completely in good faith. "We did not understand why the state was in such a hurry to give space to a private developer. We found that the area (east of Herbert Samuel Street, G.N.) was part of the Manshieh neighborhood, which was partially destroyed in the War of Independence and was finally vacated in the late 1960s in order to construct a central business district. In 2007, ILA made it clear to the State Comptroller that if the land is marketed in a public auction, there is a concern that people from Manshieh will demand compensation for the expropriation. This was apparently ILA's excuse for the connection and re-division of the two sites."
The residents of the area are angry about what was done. Yakir Ben-Maor, one of the activists against demolishing the building, claims that it was done deliberately by the municipality. "A petition was filed at the Supreme Court that is still outstanding. The hearing is scheduled for July 11. The Tel Aviv municipality did not want to wait for the legal hearing. As I see it, in this situation, the court hearing will be unfair and unfitting."
In a press statement issued by the Tel Aviv municipality after the demolition today, it was revealed for the first time that the municipality plans to build a sports center on the site. "The building will be designed in minimalist fashion as part of a shading element. The western part of the building, where the promenade will pass, will constitute the balcony, which will be designed as a framework facing west facilitating maximum openness overlooking the new expanded beach for pedestrians from both the north and the south, as well as people coming to the promenade from the city to the east. The area of the building will be expanded through the shading element included in it, thereby adding informal shady places - in between areas that can be used for the activity of the center, which will serve as a plaza for the promenade and the restaurant that opens out on it." In early June, an initial meeting will be held for planning the mix of uses for the new building.
The Tel Aviv municipality responded, "Demolition of the dolphinarium will make it possible to turn the area, which was an environmental nuisance dividing the city from the sea, into an open public space in which the municipality will build a beach park and public beach promenade completing the continuity of the beach promenade from Herzliya to Bat Yam. The plan includes an allocation for built public spaces for public needs, including the construction of a community center for maritime sports to be built at the beach level with a direct connection and access to the surfing beach. This building plan already received final approval several years ago and includes construction rights consistent with policy for the beachfront and the municipal outline plan.
"In contrast to what is being alleged, the plan in which construction rights were set is not scheduled for a Supreme Court hearing. The old Dolphinarium building cannot be used in a way that serves the main purpose of making the beach promenade continuous and giving a sea view. Furthermore, using the Dolphinarium building will cost more.
"Consultation meetings with the public are currently taking place, with an emphasis on uses of the public and open space. Coopting the public is designed to present the proposed design for the sports center and to obtain responses and proposals pertaining to the building and developing the space in the park."