Renewal gains momentum in Nahalat Binyamin

Nahlat Binyamin Photo: Eyal Yitzhar
Nahlat Binyamin Photo: Eyal Yitzhar

Renovation of some of Tel Aviv's most unique buildings was planned 16 years ago, but is only getting underway now.

The Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall with its arts and crafts market is located in central Tel Aviv, several hundred meters from Rothschild Boulevard, near the White City and close to the prestigious homes in Neve Zedek. The street has an unusual concentration of unique architecture. It nevertheless seems, however, that the place is stuck in a time warp. The public space is neglected and rather dirty, the buildings are in a poor physical state, the backyards look like junkyards, and the businesses are outdated. Nevertheless, several new projects were completed this year, and marketing recently began of apartments in HaAmudim House at the intersection of Rambam and Tavor Streets.

16 years since the launch

The mall area drew quite a lot of public attention in 2001, when developer Ruth Speiser, who was born in the 1950s as a rent-controlled tenant in the house at the intersection of Rambam and Tavor Streets and slowly accumulated properties in the area, announced her intention of setting up a "quarter" that would include a boutique hotel and luxury apartment buildings. Speiser's ideal was innovative, because it mentioned for the first time shared management of the street. The plan included preservation and reconstruction of all the buildings marked for preservation with additional construction, demolishing buildings in the area not marked for preservation, and building new residential buildings in their places.

According to this plan, commercial space and an underground parking lot with 1,500 parking spaces would be built. One of the plan's interesting ideas was developing backyards and creating immediate access to Allenby Street. "A living dream," she told "Globes" in early 2004, "is rejuvenating the home and street on which you were born."

Speiser and her husband, businessman Shlomo Lehi (a cofounder of high-tech company Sapiens International NV (Nasdaq: SPNS; TASE: SPNS)), invested $50 million in the acquisition of buildings, while taking a $33 million bank loan. The plans, however, drew immediate opposition from a committee of artists displaying their wares in the outdoor mall. They hired Advocate Avigdor Feldman to promote their interests. They were concerned that a real estate company would take over the public space, reduce it or detract from its activity, and they especially feared having to pay a large sum for the right to sell in the market. The Society for the Preservation of Historical Sites also opposed the plan, claiming that the street's current special character should be preserved and excessive new construction should be avoided.

Not much has happened in the area in the 16 years since the heralded launch of the "quarter" plan. The large debts troubled the developers, the banks lost patience, and the buildings that Speiser and Lehi bought moved from hand to hand. In 2007, Nicholas Berggruen acquired six buildings (Michael Chernoy was previously in negotiations that did not succeed). The buildings were sold to YH Dimri Construction & Development Ltd. (TASE: DIMRI) in 2010, which sold Tamar House to French investor Gerard Bentolila for NIS 35 million in 2012. On June 9, Dimri reported that it had signed an option agreement (not for the first time) to sell three more properties on the street: one at 18 Rambam Street, one at 12-16 Rambam Street, and one at 44 Hatavor Street.

Meanwhile, Speiser surfaced with her grandiose dreams. In early 2014, one day after holding a press conference and announcing the construction of a shopping mall and a building with 26,000 square meters, she announced that she would acquire (with Lehi) the stock exchange shell of Clal Finances for NIS 350 million in order to use it to raise money for building the Nahalat Binyamin project. Six months later, however, this deal also fell through, after Speiser could not even agree with Dimri on the purchase of the properties.

Speiser herself now lives in Paris, and was not eager to talk about her development projects on the Nahalat Binyamin mall. She says that the problem with a project on this scale is mainly the financing, since most of the buildings on the street are marked for preservation, and no method has yet been found to renovate them according to strict standards that will make the project economically feasible. She objects to other preservation projects in Tel Aviv, such as the HaZiporen House on Nachmani Street, in which "the planning formula for doing this" has not yet been found. Speiser says, "They loaded too much on the building, which is a salad of old and new. One competes with the other. I wouldn't want this to happen to the HaAmudim House."

Architects Simona Bar Sagi and Moshe Warshavsky prepared the plan for the "Nahalat Binyamin quarter" for Speiser. They are also responsible for the Tamar House project, a building from 1922 at 8 Nahalat Binyamin Street. In the rear of the house, which was carefully renovated, they planned an addition of 15 new apartments. Warshavsky, who previously served as the architect of Tel Aviv, says, "The Tamar House was the first buildings to be preserved, and it was the first sign, but it can't maintain an entire area. Several more buildings are needed. Commerce and hotels are needed. It's necessary to make a neighborhood that is able to preserve the past and build the future."

Meital Lehavi, who was a partner in promoting Speiser's project, and now serves as Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor, says that in her opinion, Speiser's plan was excellent, but there was no response from the municipality. She adds, "A private developer can be a motivating force, but support from the establishment is necessary, especially when there isn't so much planning potential, and there are issues such as mobility of rights, complementary investments in public space by the municipality and the Ministry of Tourism."

A NIS 14 million option

There has been new spirit on Nahalat Binyamin Street in the past month. It comes from Peso-Gov, a young development company headed by Ido Peso and Shamar Gov. The company focuses on central Tel Aviv, and already has experience in renovating buildings marked for preservation (5 Levontin, Rothschild House, 10 Nahalat Binyamin).

In early June, Dimri announced that Peso-Gov had acquired an option to buy the buildings at 18 Rambam Street, 12-16 Rambam Street (HaAmudim House), and 44 Hatavor Street for the considerable sum of NIS 7.1 million. The option was signed for only one month, and the company is paying NIS 1.4 million to renew it each six months, meaning that Dimri is already enjoying an expected payment of NIS 14 million. If the option is exercised, the buyers will pay Dimri NIS 142 million for the three buildings.

Meanwhile, the buyers are getting a move on. Peso-Gov is marketing HaAmudim House as the "Binyamin complex," with announcements such as "a breathtaking complex" and "an opportunity that hasn't been since 1927." The problem is that the monetary proceeds and enormous renovation costs are dictating especially high selling prices. Real estate market sources believe that the buyers will have to sell at an average of NIS 70,000 per square meter.

Two-room and four-room apartments in the building are now being offered at prices starting at NIS 2.9 million. Tenants will reportedly benefit from a rooftop with a private pool and private parking, with a private garden above, "pastoral walking paths," and "in order to complete the calm and peaceful atmosphere, a stunning ecological water fountain will be built."

Peso says that it is time that Nahalat Binyamin became the most desirable place in Tel Aviv, more than the Lev Hair or Neve Zedek areas, and some are even calling it the "Fifth Quarter." Peso comments, "This is the most colorful area. This is the Tel Aviv message. The customers are also no longer those we had four years ago - people who came to invest. The buyers are couples in their 50s and 60s who appreciate these buildings, with their character for preservation, who want 70 square meters with parking. They want to buy a building with a soul." Peso, notes that there are already five buildings under construction now on the street. "There are more good buildings in advanced planning, and I have three more. People already understand the weave of Nahalat Binyamin."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on July 31, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

Nahlat Binyamin Photo: Eyal Yitzhar
Nahlat Binyamin Photo: Eyal Yitzhar
Dafi Hirschfeld and Michal Raz-Chaimovich
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