Two weeks ago, the Jerusalem municipality signed a roof agreement with the Ministry of Finance and Israel Land Administration (ILA) for construction of 23,000 housing units, and three million square meters of office and commercial space. Some will say that the timing of the agreement, one month before the Knesset elections, is questionable, but the timing makes a more important statement - that while in the previous Knesset, former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat did not reach agreements with the government, a roof agreement has been signed only three months after Lion was elected mayor. This highlights Lion's connections with senior government politicians, and that for better or worse, the fate and future of Jerusalemites also depends on relations between politicians.
Lion squeaked through in the second round of the mayoral elections with 50.85% of the vote against 49.15% for Ofer Berkovitch.
"My goal is to prevent negative migration from the city," Lion told "Globes." "There is no reason that Jerusalem should not attract young people, and this is possible only if the supply of housing and jobs is increased. In recent years, the trend was not to build apartments in Jerusalem; housing starts were only 2,000 units a year. One of my goals is to enlarge the Jewish population in the city in both the western neighborhoods and the eastern neighborhoods where Jews live, in Ramat Shlomo, Har Hahoma, Ramot, Armon Hanatziv, and everywhere possible."
"Globes": If I ask you to draw the city's boundaries, what belongs to Israel and what doesn't, where does the line go?
Lion: "There is no line in Jerusalem anymore. It's irrelevant, because Jerusalem is not to be divided."
What about the outline plan for the city, which has been suspended since 2007?
"I don't foresee an outline plan for the city in the coming years, because of illegal construction in the eastern part of the city. We thought about doing it in stages, but we eventually concluded that the solution was impractical. But I'll prove to everyone that this city will be built even without an outline plan."
How much does the US really decide what will and will not be built in Jerusalem?
"I haven't encountered any US interference in construction. This assertion that the US is preventing construction in Jerusalem is just an excuse for not building; it isn't the real reason. Construction opportunities in Jerusalem were missed in the past 10 years, which has resulted in higher housing prices and negative migration from the city. We're going to fix that."
"No war between secular people and haredim"
You signed a roof agreement in which the largest stock of housing will be on the White Ridge. Isn't it better to first build within the city before losing open spaces forever?
"I support construction on the White Ridge, not because of the neighborhoods that will be built there, but because construction there will facilitate urban renewal in neighborhoods like Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Menachem, and haredi neighborhoods where urban renewal is not feasible without supplementary land, which the White Ridge will provide."
But there are no high-rises in haredi neighborhoods because haredim do not use elevators on the Sabbath.
"Things have changed. Today, construction for haredim in Jerusalem goes as high as 12 floors. This is the importance of the plan on the White Ridge. A developer can build 12 floors in a haredi neighborhood and get additional construction rights on the White Ridge, so that the project will be financially worthwhile."
What about the struggle over the future character of Kiryat Hayovel? Despite what you say, the haredim are refusing to sign urban renewal agreements, because they know that high-rise construction will bring secular people, not haredim. Nir Barkat approved a pre-military preparatory program on the Warburg site so that it would not become a haredi institution.
"There is no war between haredim and secular people in Kiryat Hayovel. It's a fabrication. I'm not closing the First Station, either. The Warburg site won't determine the future of Kiryat Hayovel. There's no problem about building high-rises in Kiryat Hayovel. We can't allow negative migration from Jerusalem."
Do you support the high-rise construction policy approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Commission, which allows up to 30 floors along the light railway route?
"High-rise construction can take place wherever possible. It's true that it hasn't happened in Jerusalem for years, but I'm in favor of adding apartments, hotels, and offices. We have to build tall buildings."
Very little trust in the government
In the revised socioeconomic index published last November by the Central Bureau of Statistics for the socioeconomic situation in the city in 2015, Jerusalem was demoted from Group 3 to Group 2, its lowest rating since the index began in 1995. For the same reason, Jerusalem was in 12th place among Israel's 14 largest cities in the quality of life for 2019 published a month ago by the Central Bureau of Statistics. The proportion of residents satisfied with the areas in which they live and with the green spaces near their homes is among the lowest. The degree of trust in the government in Jerusalem is the lowest of the 14.
Let's talk about Jerusalem being an impoverished city.
"Jerusalem is a city of extremes. The wealthiest people and the poorest people live here. There are people here from all sections of the population. Keep in mind that Arabs make up 30% of Jerusalem's population, as do haredim, only a minority of whom participate in the labor market. There are many municipal property tax discounts and exemptions among the haredim and the Arabs, but this is balanced by the money we get from the government. I expect the next government to help Jerusalem at least as much as its predecessor."
According to the figures, Jerusalem collected NIS 2 billion in municipal property taxes in 2018. NIS 1 billion, half of this amount, came from municipal taxes on residential properties. NIS 741 million, a little less than 40%, came from businesses. The remaining NIS 384 million were from associations and government offices.
Lion does not fear to add to the city tens of thousands of housing units that will have a negative effect on the city's treasury, because of the plans to build millions of square meters in office and commercial space that will contribute substantial municipal property tax revenue to the city's treasury. "In the coming decade, we'll build tens of thousands of housing units, thousands of apartments under the Buyer Fixed Price Plan, millions of square meters in office space, and thousands of hotel rooms. There are currently 14,000 hotel rooms in Jerusalem, and there will be 22,000 by 2020. In addition to all of this, we'll also build two more light rail lines. We also plan to transform the Atarot industrial zone, which currently looks like the Jabalia refugee camp. Palestinians, Jews, and Arabs from East Jerusalem work there, and there are many factories. In the coming years, I plan to invest NIS 60 million in developing infrastructure in this industrial zone in order to bring more and more enterprises there because there are plenty of construction rights, but no infrastructure."
How can you be sure that there will be demand for so many offices?
"Jerusalem has great potential for attracting more and more high-tech companies. The fact that Jerusalem has hospitals, the Hebrew University, and is a magnet for foreign residents, creates a successful formula for high tech, which is an enormous growth engine for the city and the country as a whole.
"There are tax benefits here that make it worthwhile for companies to found a technology company and also government offices. I have no complaints about government ministries for not complying with the government's decision to move them to Jerusalem, because they have nowhere to go there. Three million square meters of office space are now planned, and in the coming weeks, a first tender will be issued for the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) complex of four towers: two residential towers and two office towers. Transportation solves the distance problem, because when the railway to the city works full-time, it will take 35 minutes to get from Tel Aviv to the International Convention Center (ICC) in Jerusalem."
Leon is not concerned about the breakdowns on the railway to Jerusalem, which have so far disrupted the promising timetable set by the Ministry of Transport. "The breakdowns are teething troubles. The railway will eventually work. I expect the next government to support Jerusalem at least as much as the current government supported it. I expect it to encourage construction and help bring government offices to the capital," he declares.
Are you aware that there are people who are afraid to come to Jerusalem?
"That's a primitive idea. Tel Aviv is more dangerous than Jerusalem. Jerusalem is better guarded. Everyone wants to live here in peace. It's true that there is room for improvement in neighborhoods near the boundaries, such as French Hill, but there, for example, we'll soon cover with cameras in order to enhance the residents' sense of security. There are terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv, too."
Are construction regulations enforced the same way in the center of town and in eastern Jerusalem?
"Enforcement has been lacking in the past decade. We're now taking steps to make sure that there will be no more illegal building. Every violation draws an immediate response. I have to say that stepping up enforcement began before I took office, but I'm determined to continue it, and if it becomes necessary to demolish buildings, we'll do it. Several buildings were also demolished over the past decade, but it's not enough."
Without commenting about it origins, from a strictly architectural standpoint, what is your personal opinion about the Holyland project?
"Holyland is an eyesore. It's a project that was built in a place where there shouldn't have been such high construction. It should have been a hotel. Tourism was hit hard by the intifada at the time, however, so a residential project was eventually built. Today, however, I know that the people living there are very satisfied."
Since the affair, a lot of mayors have been afraid to meet with contractors. Do you meet with contractors tete-a-tete?
"No. Since I became mayor, I haven't had offers to meet tete-a-tete. I think that in a big city, there are fewer things like this; it's more common in small places. In any case, I decided against being the chairperson of the Local Planning and Building Commission. I appointed Eliezer Rauchberger from Degel Hatorah in the municipality. Let me make it clear: for him, haredi and secular are the same thing."
Why aren't you even a member of the Local Planning and Building Commission?
"I set policy, and my policy is high-rise construction and massive construction."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 28, 2019
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