Spare that tree, and spoil the plan

Tree transplanting in Kikar Hamedina, Tel Aviv / Photo: Shai Tsabari

Israel's unclear rules on tree preservation create uncertainty for developers and homeowners.

In recent years, we have heard of campaigns all over Israel to preserve old trees. They are up against the accelerated pace of urban renewal development in which individual buildings are slated for demolition and replacement by high-rises, the plans that the National Committee for Planning Priority Housing Areas wants to use to solve Israel's housing problems by building huge neighborhoods, and large infrastructure work, such as the greater Tel Aviv light rail.

On the other side from the people and organizations coming to the defense of the trees, there are quite a few people, not just developers from the construction industry, for whom tree preservation is a problem. They are usually portrayed as heartless and/or greedy bad guys, but the truth is somewhat different.

"Subject to caprices of the municipal agronomist"

Architect Roy Levian is deputy CEO business development at City People, which operates mainly in central and northern Tel Aviv, and specializes in urban renewal of individual buildings. Levian says that as both a resident and a developer, it is important to him to leave as many trees as possible on sites. On the other hand, he describes a built-in problem in the way projects are promoted: "Since the planning procedure precedes the tree survey, it sometimes happens that after planning of a building has been completed, it is discovered that there are trees to preserve, or those that some people insist must be preserved, and the trees affect the ability to carry out a project, or make a project more complicated and expensive.

"When an agronomist hired by the developer makes a list of trees, we tell him that we want to preserve as many trees as possible, as long as it doesn't detract from the construction rights. Where does the problem come in? When there's a tree we want to cut down of because it affects the construction rights or the design, and then a representative of the trees department in the municipal licensing institute comes and says that there's a tree for preservation, and that stops the project in its tracks. This is after I have already signed an agreement with the tenants for promotion of the project. What does this mean? That I should leave the tree in place at the expense of construction rights? That there will be only 1,600 square meters instead of 2,000 square meters?

"Globes": Is there some source of information you can use to figure out in advance that the tree is marked for preservation?

Levian: "I would be delighted if there were something like that - if the Tel Aviv municipality would go and spend NIS 3 million to designate trees for preservation in the same way as it designates buildings for preservation. Then when both I and a competing developer come to a building, we'll know that the construction rights in a building are reduced because of a tree that must be preserved. When there's no certainty, we're subject to the municipal agronomist's caprices."

Can you give me an example of a project in which you encountered problems over preservation of trees?

"There are many trees for preservation around the building at 36 Sharett Street. The large number of trees for preservation forced us to change the plan, and go back to the tenants and explain to them that we were unable to carry out the plan we promised for them. It was like getting the tenants to sign a new plan."

The Tel Aviv municipality said, "The municipality is in the midst of a project for mapping the noteworthy trees in the city, which are marked for rigorous preservation. All of the details will eventually be published on the GIS map on the municipality website. This mapping will provide a partial picture, and will not include private yards, so it will not constitute a substitute for a tree survey carried out by the developer's agronomist, which will still be essential for planning and building."

"Tree protection is an unplowed field"

Adv. Ariel Kamenkowitsch represented the White City Buildings company in its appeal to the national forest commissioner for its project on Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv. The appeal concerns a Tama 38 project involving two old residential buildings that the developing company plans to connect through a parking basement. The only option the developers had for an entrance to the underground parking lot was on the side of the building, where there is a row of tall 80 year-old cypress trees. The local forest commissioner ruled that the trees should be preserved. The tenants were unwilling to do without parking.

"When the developer appealed against the local forestry official's decision to the national forest commissioner, his appeal was turned down. He then came to me. I showed the national forestry commissioner the entire planning situation, and requested a rehearing, to which I brought the calculations. We explained about the property rights, gave planning explanations, and showed the national forestry commissioner that no urge to cut down trees was involved, that without moving trees, there would be no project," Kamenkowitsch explains.

So what exactly is your complaint?

Kamenkowitsch: "Tree preservation is unmapped territory in every way. There are dozens of planning and building regulations; there are no tree regulations. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's rules are not available to the public, and the criteria for tree preservation are unclear. Only when you turn to legal action and explain to the forestry commissioner the framework in which you are supposed to operate does he change his stance."

"There are alternatives for trees, but not for the quality of life"

White City Buildings VP Amikam Berger says that the decision to return to the national forestry commissioner came from recognition that the project, which had already been planned and promoted with the tenants and the authorities, was liable to be thwarted. "To my great surprise, he listened to us. They realized that they couldn't stop development.

"The question of whether a tree is more important than a building very quickly becomes a question of whether a tree is more important than the quality and length of people's lives. If trees prevent implementation of an urban renewal project, then an elderly woman on the third floor will never be able to use an elevator, which will affect her ability to go out of the building. The tenants won't be protected by a sealed room, and won't be protected against earthquakes. In contrast to the general impression among the public that the apartment owners in Tama 38 ventures are seasoned investors, I can tell you from my own experience that most of them are families that own only one apartment. There's nothing wrong with their wanting to use their ownership rights to improve their property for the sake of their quality of life. There are alternatives for trees, but not for the quality of human life."

"Just moving the trees cost NIS 3 million"

Urban building plan 2500b proposed a residential complex in Kikar Hamedina with three buildings containing 450 apartments, an underground parking lot, and a public park - an open private space with a public easement - for the use of the area's residents. Civil engineer and architect Shay Zabari, a project manager at Waxman Govrin Geva, was responsible for handling the ficus trees uprooted in Kikar Hamedina.

Zabari says that the first idea was to move most of the trees to another spot, to a temporary garden. Eventually, after considering the matter, it was decided to preserve them in Kikar Hamedina. "When the current urban building plan was made valid, the District Planning and Building Commission announced that the national forestry commissioner's opinion should be accepted. He was unwilling to approve uprooting the trees twice (moving them to temporary location, and back to the original site after the completion of the construction work, G.N.), because the trees would probably die."

Zabari says that the new requirement of moving the trees only once posed a serious problem. "Shifting them to another location in the city, such as Menachem Begin Park (Park Darom) would require an engineering operation including radical pruning and dismantling the traffic lights on the road. In addition, pressure from residents in the area, who strongly protested against their loss of the old trees, led to a search for a place to plant them on the project site. This was also difficult, because 75% of Kikar Hamedina is slated for construction, which does not leave much empty space. We changed the design of the contours of the basements in order to put the trees in central locations. The trees are now already in their final locations."

Can you explain the economic consequences of this operation?

Zabari: "The project of moving the trees in Kikar Hamedina cost NIS 3 million. Moving each tree cost tens of thousands of shekels." The market estimates the project's total cost at NIS 1.2 billion.

Zabari says that the developers were required to preserve all of the trees under the terms of the building permit. "What is unusual here is that the developers were supposed to develop the entire area between the towers and the park in the style of Central Park, and then give it to the municipality to maintain. In addition to construction, we paid the municipality millions of shekels in advance for maintenance."

Did the trees problem delay construction?

"Yes, because moving trees involved a long process for preparing them. We already had a building permit by December, but the trees weren't ready. Since we had to wait six months until the trees could be moved, the developer suffered more damage."

"Looking for the trees at the beginning of planning"

The tree question is not confined to Tel Aviv. Architect Naomi Angel, a former Planning Administration Tel Aviv District planner, and now a professor in the architecture faculty at Technion Israel Institute of Technology, was responsible for formulating the shade plan, which later became priority housing plan 1001, also known as Tel Hashomer Center. This plan covers 1,358 dunam (339.5 acres) and contains 10,000 housing units and 440,000 square meters of office and commercial space.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the plan, which connects the communities of Kiryat Ono, Yehud, Ganei Tikva, Saviyon-Ganei Yehuda, Or Yehuda, and Ramat Gan. The site of the plan contains many eucalyptus trees planted by the British on the site of the military base.

Angel says, "This area doesn't belong to any municipality, and it was obvious to me that the urban importance of this area had be understood; it couldn't be planned in separate parts. A general perspective of the red network of traffic arteries for vehicles and pedestrians, and of the green network - green arteries and parks - was needed.

"When the Amendment to the Planning and Building Law (Preservation of Old Trees) was passed, I said that a change in thinking was necessary, and that a survey had to be conducted to examine where there were groups of trees and where trees had significance.

"We realized that this had to be done at the beginning of planning, not at the end. Trees aren't mayonnaise on spoiled salad. The thought arose that it was necessary to take into account the natural features of the location as a basis for planning.

"When we began surveying the site, we realized that the pattern of the Tel Hashomer camp was streams, and that most of the trees were concentrated at the sides of the stream. This was a very important realization. We examined where there were clusters of trees. The footprint of the streams and the trees enabled us to formulate the design, not the way it's done now - moving trees elsewhere, providing compensation, and leaving 15% of the area on the site empty for seeping surface runoff. That's not the right approach."

Lior Lovinger, the landscape architect in the Tel Hashomer plan, says, "In the new neighborhoods now being planned, the architect comes and simply redesigns everything, as if there were nothing there before him.

"When I came to Tel Hashomer, I realized that the British were being smart when they didn't do development work - they understood the topography. In the low places, where there were floods, and it was damp and wet, they planted eucalyptus trees.

"This perspective included a preservation aspect for streams and trees. Furthermore, we discovered that the water on the site was flowing correctly; everything worked. There is a real concept of sustainable planning. There is good quality natural drainage of the area, and you don't have to wait 40 years for the trees to grow and give the new neighborhood some character."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 29, 2019

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

Tree transplanting in Kikar Hamedina, Tel Aviv / Photo: Shai Tsabari
Tree transplanting in Kikar Hamedina, Tel Aviv / Photo: Shai Tsabari
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