Eilat looks to develop former airport land

Eilat's old airport Photo: Shutterstock

1,700 hotel rooms and 1,920 housing units are planned for the old airport's southern and central sections.

The new Ramon Airport near Timna was inaugurated last week. The old historic airport built by the Israel air force in the town of Eilat following the War of Independence will be closed down.

The new airport is expected to contribute quite a bit to Eilat. Municipal property tax revenue from the new airport will be divided between Eilat (70%) and the Hevel Eilot Regional Council (30%). The land on which the old Eilat airport, a true eyesore in the heart of the city, is located can now be given to various developers.

Israel Land Administration (ILA) provided NIS 350 million in funding for the new airport, development, and growth in Eilat, while promoting the plan for the 760-dunam (190-acre) site to be vacated after the old airport is vacated.

The land is divided into three sections: central, northern, and southern. There is already an approved plan from 2017 for the central and northern sections, in which the Eilat municipality is making changes through the Local Planning and Building Commission. The plan for the southern section is in different stages. This part is the most challenging, because it is adjacent to the city center and is designed as the connection to it. The municipality is also promoting a plan for temporary use of the space until ILA markets the land, a process slated to begin in 2020.

The central section is zoned for 800 hotel rooms and 1,000 housing units and the southern section for 900 hotels rooms, 920 housing units, and 50,000 square meters of business space. The northern section will contain business and high-tech space.

In addition to the new construction potential of the vacated airport's space, it also affects planning for construction around the vacated area. "As soon as we have removed the airport, the height restriction resulting from the aerial cone will no longer exist, and we'll be able to develop the surrounding construction," Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi says. "If the construction environment consists of 2-3 floors of hotels and commerce, we can now get approval for seven-storey urban building plans. The situation will be different."

Meeting place between residents and tourists

What will be done with the vacated area until it is marketed? Land appraiser Daniela Paz from Paz Engineering and Management is preparing a plan for the Eilat municipality for the vacated areas of the airport that will be given to the municipality until marketing. "The municipality is getting the airport land until it is permanently developed. It is believed that the interim period will last for several years. The aim is to make use of the land that will be advantageous for the city, instead of leaving an empty and abandoned space in the heart of town.

"Uses under consideration include leisure, vacation, attractions such as festivals and hot-air balloons, conferences, and even temporary hotels in containers. The aim is to create continuity between the municipal area and the hotel section of town. Up until now, the airport creates separation between them, and a bypass was necessary to get from the hotels to the residential neighborhoods. The future plan connects the two parts with a road to be constructed now in the framework of the development work on the vacated land. Architectural firm Derman Verbakel designed the temporary use plan.

"The most challenging area today is the southern part of the airport," Halevi says. "As of now, it is zoned for temporary uses, and we're planning on building a large entertainment center on it. We won't demolish the old terminal; we'll make it into a cultural center called The Terminal, with a theater and studio rooms, like Beit Lessin in Tel Aviv.

"We'll build a large vacation and entertainment center on the rest of the southern area, which will be a meeting point between the city and tourism, in which residents will rub shoulders with tourists. Three roads will be opened: two east-west roads and one for pedestrians."

Paz also commented on the new hotel space to be built after the available land is marketed. "Tourism today is more urban and less connected to swimming on the beach. The new hotel areas to be built will be smaller hotels with an urban character along Hatemarim Boulevard, which is currently unfriendly to pedestrians. Keep in mind that the new airport will substantially increase the number of tourists coming to Eilat, so adding new hotel rooms that are different will be worthwhile."

Also worthy of mention is the large number of Airbnb apartments in Eilat. Halevi says increasing municipal property taxes for the owners of these apartments is under consideration.

The first sign of the new boutique hotels that will be featured in Eilat in the coming years can be seen already in a recently signed deal between Eilat developer Avi Carel and the Brown Hotels chain, which has eight boutique hotels, most of which are in Tel Aviv. Brown Hotels will operate the hotel to be built by Carel on 15 dunam (3.75 acres) of land that he owns near the airport to be vacated. Carel bought the land in 2017 from Thermosyntex Holdings, owned by Arik Yaakov and Samuel Shteker, for NIS 40 million. According to the plan, a complex with 223 apartments and a 155-room hotel will be built on the site, to be called Brown 42 Degrees.

"Removal of the airport from the city center is an historic event with a broad effect on the tourism and real estate sectors, and probably also on real estate prices in the city," Carel told "Globes." "First of all, the airport that divided Eilat into two will be removed. The first thing that will happen after the removal of the airport is the construction of a road connecting the two parts of the town. Secondly, for many years, high rises could not be built in most parts of the city for many years because of the airport. This restriction was a critical constraint, not only on new projects, but also urban renewal projects, which require construction of at least 15 floors."

Owners of land nearby the airport who have not used the construction rights to the land will benefit from the airport's removal, due to the restriction on the height of construction applying to the land. Companies like Israel Land Corporation, which owns 10 dunam (2.5 acres) near the airport will now be able to request additional construction rights.

According to developer Yossi Avrahami, who owns land near the airport after winning an ILA auction last September and buying a 3.8-dunam (9.5-acre) lot zoned for 3,740 square meters of commercial and hotel space for NIS 15 million, "There will be many more options after the airport is removed. While construction is now limited to 2-3 storeys, we plan to ask for building permit and to start building, but at the same time to request additional floors, which can now be obtained. I believe that removal of the airport will help the city, because higher buildings will be constructed and more tourists will fly to the city on low-cost airlines. What could be better than connecting Paris with Eilat? It will be less convenient to go from the city to the airport, but it will be much worse if they close Sde Dov Airport."

Avrahami, a veteran Eilat developer who builds residences there, says that the city needs more housing units. "There was no construction in Eilat in recent years. All of the land was put into the Buyer Fixed Price Plan, and even after a developer won, the plan was held up. The ones who really need apartments in Eilat now are move-up buyers, to whom the Buyer Fixed Price Plan does not apply."

In addition to the new airport, Halevi is pinning his hopes on a railway line from Dimona to Eilat, which will make it possible to travel from Nahariya to Eilat by railway. He says that planning the track, which was frozen for a long time, was recently resumed, and it is being worked on intensively. "The railway route from Dimona to Eilat is in the very early planning stages. The planners say that they will finish the planning by the end of 2019," Halevi says.

"Construction will reach to the new airport"

The terminal being removed is Eilat's oxygen pipe, which enables the residents of Israel's southernmost reach Tel Aviv in less than an hour.

"Removal of the airport in Eilat to Ramon Airport poses a major question," says Avi Srur from the Eilat Taxi station. "They took a service that was right next door away from the residents. It takes longer now to reach the airport, and it also costs more."

Srur also mentioned the importance of Sde Dov for Eilat residents. He said it was a more significant resource for the town's residents. "Doctors used to come from the north and the center on a flight from Sde Dov in order to give service to Eilat resident, then return on a flight the same day. Residents traveled to the center for medical treatment. Going for treatments in central Tel Aviv from Ben Gurion Airport is a completely different story."

Halevi agrees, saying, "There's no doubt that Sde Dov is a convenient and accessible umbilical cord for the city, but it was also a planning divider and a barrier to the city's development. Its proximity to the populated areas of the city also required a great deal of preventative work in order to avoid safety problems.

"The new airport will be there for 100 years, not one day. If you look at the future construction plans north of Eilat, it is certain that the new airport, located 16 kilometers from the existing city, will become Eilat's northern neighborhood. Someone traveling from the airport to Eilat by car in the future will be going through populated areas."

"Globes": Aren't you worried about the conferences sector abandoning Eilat?

Halevi: "Work is underway to expand the entrance to Eilat, as I demanded, and the solutions are still only partial. The optimal solution is an electric high-speed train and a sterile road from the Ramon terminal to the old Eilat terminal. This is a straight road that does not need complicated work with tunnels or bridges. It's a simple task. If the decision-makers in Jerusalem decide that it will happen, then it will happen.

"At the ceremony inaugurating Ramon Airport, I spoke with Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz and Israel Airports Authority director general Yaakov Ganot. I asked Katz why the vision of a high-speed railway from Eilat to Ramon Airport wasn't being implemented. He grabbed Ganot and told him, 'Give me a workplan for a high-speed train from the old terminal in Eilat to the new terminal at Ramon Airport." If I know Ganot, he'll submit a plan very quickly.

"When there's a railway, traveling from Ramot Airport to Eilat will take 6-7 minutes. Fast shuttles can also take 8-9 minutes, and that's like four stops on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv. Now they're widening the entrance to Eilat, and I hope there will be as few check posts as possible. If doctors already come from the north to Ramon Airport via Sde Dov, I believe that a trip of several minutes won't deter them."

Eilat mayor: Closing Sde Dov won't make conditions worse; it will destroy a city that is growing at an amazing pace

"I'm far more worried about what closing down Sde Dov will do to the conferences sector. Sde Dov is the airport that has fed internal tourism to Eilat more than anything else. 80% of the guests at conferences in Eilat arrived from Sde Dov, so closing it down will be a hard blow for Eilat, not the switch to Ramon Airport," Halevi says.

"It's completely clear that the alternative of Terminal 1 at Ben Gurion Airport will have far fewer flights than the current number, and will have a critical effect on the Eilat tourist industry. Sde Dov is the central bus station for Eilat residents. The airplanes are our buses. I compare it to a situation in which the central bus station in Yeruham or Mitzpe Ramon moves to Askelon.

"If we get three flights instead of the current 12 flights, it won't be poorer conditions; it will destroy the city. Closing down Sde Dov will destroy Eilat and turn a city growing at an amazing pace into a ghost town. I'm not willing to let that happen," Halevi declares.

An ILA source says that it is astonishing that the mayor of Eilat is preventing Tel Aviv residents the same benefits he is getting from the removal of the airport - available land for construction.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 30, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Eilat's old airport Photo: Shutterstock
Eilat's old airport Photo: Shutterstock
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