Jerusalem's Zion Square, the heart of the city's downtown, is set for a facelift and major renovation in the coming weeks. Billed as an "urban forest clearing," the new Zion Square is being designed to soften the atmosphere of a location often associated with charged political demonstrations.
Like much of what became west Jerusalem, the land on which Zion Square was built originally belonged to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. After World War I, the Patriarchate fell into financial difficulties and sold the land, which became Jerusalem's main commercial triangle (Ben Yehuda Street, King George Street and Jaffa Road, the main thoroughfare linking Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and Jaffa) to the World Zionist Organization. Despite opposition from local Arabs and Christians, the sale went through. Zion Square is at the eastern corner of the triangle where Jaffa Road meets Ben Yehuda Street.
Over the years Zion Square became a target for Arab terrorists and a forum for Jewish political demonstrations. It was here in 1948 that Menachem Begin proclaimed the dismantling of the Irgun (Etzel) and that it would become part of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1952, Begin led demonstrations here against German reparation payments, and in 1971 the Black Panthers protested discrimination against Sephardim. Most notoriously in October 1995, the right wing opposition held a demonstration against the Oslo peace accord with placards showing the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dressed as a Nazi. Several weeks later he was assassinated. In 2005, there were bitter protests here against the dissolution of Jewish settlements in Gaza.
In 2016, the Jerusalem Municipality together with JDA - Eden the Jerusalem Center Development Company, and the United Architects Fund in Israel initiated an architectural competition to find the best new design for Zion Square. The competition was launched not long after the murder of teenager Shira Banky during the Jerusalem Gay Parade and the aim of the new design is to promote a vision of "coming together, tolerance and mutual respect."
The winning design was put forward by three young Jerusalem architects, graduates of the Technion in Haifa - Maya Atidia, Tamir Mansur-Carmel and Maayan-Tokkie-Carmel. Their design, which is called "Urban Forest Clearing" includes a stage, seating area, and a lot of trees (plane, carob, Mediterranean hackberry and cooking pear).
Atidia said, "We decided to make it a place that is pleasant to be in and not just somewhere to pass through. We filled it with trees because we understood there are no shady places to sit in the city center. The heart of the matter was that we felt we didn't need much more. Just to keep it as it is and make it more pleasant. We had to adapt things for events that take place in the square - demonstrations, the night market, artist performances and parties."
JDA - Eden the Jerusalem Center Development Company CEO Alon Shpeizer stressed that Zion Square is Jerusalem's most important square. "We wanted to re-establish it as the hub of the city center."
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"We wanted a place where people come together because that is the essence of the square like Rabin Square in Tel Aviv but on the other hand something that will be much more calm - a place that you can pass through but also calm down in. Since the advent of the light rail the square has come apart somewhat and the new plan will put the square back in the center.
Yehudit Oppenheimer, who wrote a thesis on Zion Square for her doctorate at Bar-Ilan University, is not optimistic that the new design will revive the fortunes of the location. She said, "I've no problem with the design but the design is in my opinion not an answer to anything. People don't go to a place because they like a particular bench. People will come to a place because it's part of a functioning city with other things. There were once cafes and cinemas here. There has been no public discussion, the issue has just been reduced to a question of design."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 2, 2018
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