Last week the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee approved a plan to cover a 1.6 kilometers section of Begin Boulevard (Road 50) between the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus and Beit Hakerem.
Over the 52.5 acre covered area a park will be built alongside 40-floor residential buildings, commercial centers, office developments and public buildings.
Begin Boulevard extends over 16 kilometers from Ramot in north Jerusalem to Gilo in the south. The central section was opened in 1998 with various extensions added to the north and the southern section linking up with Road 60 (the Tunnels Highway to Gush Etzion) completed in 2015.
The Begin Highway cover plan will link up the Beit Hakerem neighborhood with Givat Ram and the national government center. The plan includes gardens, parks, shade-giving trees, walking tracks and cycle paths alongside 1,800 apartments, 250 sheltered housing units, 300 hotel rooms, 10,000 square meters of commercial space, and 36,000 square meters of office space.
The plan is being promoted by the Israel Land Authority, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority and designed by the Kolker Kolker Epstein Architects.
Jerusalem city engineer Yoel Even said, "I estimate that the plan will receive statutory approval by the end of next year, and by 2025 we will see construction taking shape. The building as part of the plan will be done in stages, starting with infrastructures, and covering the highway while marketing the land. It's very similar to what we are doing today at the western entrance to the city. All the processes are taking place simultaneously.
The project will cost an estimated NIS 1.2 billion. Where will the money come from? Even said, "in the past few weeks, we closed with the Israel Land Administration the economic details of the plan and we adapted construction to economic needs."
Jerusalem Municipality CEO Itzik Larry said, "The division between us and the Israel Land Administration is about 50-50. At a conservative estimate, the value of the land is NIS 650,000. It a very expensive and attractive area, so even if the development costs NIS 1.2 billion, the payments received for the housing alone will gives us Nis 1.3 billion. The Israel Land Administration will market the land because their expertise is in marketing but there will be joint ownership of the land."
Beit Hakerem residents have in the past been critical of the plan for high-rise buildings claiming that it is doubtful whether there is demand for 40-floor towers in this area. Is there a chance that the plan won't be fulfilled?
Larry, "Ramat Beit Hakerem is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Israel. There are no apartments to be had there. This plan goes well with the high-tech park currently under construction at Givat Ram. We want to bring high-tech people to live there. NIS 650,000 for land per apartment is a conservative estimate. People will snap them up."
However, the plan, which still needs to be approved by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee is controversial. While the Municipality talks about healing the scar that Begin Boulevard makes, residents in the adjacent neighborhood of Beit Hakerem describe the plan as "bad and damaging."
In explaining the plan, the Jerusalem Municipality admits that covering the highway is an attempt to repair the aesthetic, urban and environmental damage done by Begin Boulevard, which carves through the heart of the urban fabric.
Beit Hakerem's residents, however, are concerned about the new project. Musicologist Dr. Elisheva Rigbi, who is chair of the "Save Beit Hakerem" residents committee and a member of the physical planning committee of the community administration, thinks that the plan, "is bad and damaging and megalomaniacal and not needed."
"The roofing itself is a good thing as is making a park. The problem is that they are also going to build 40-floor towers and a wall of buildings in land that will loom over the Beit Hakerem neighborhood and cast a shadow over the eastern part of the neighborhood for most of the day. The strip that they are building is a ribbon and certainly not a neighborhood and doesn't encourage urbanization. All the urban services will fall on Beit Hakerem."
Rigbi also disagrees with the pretentiousness of the planners in trying to connect up different parts of the city with a park. "The Hebrew University Givat Ram campus is a fenced off area that you cannot enter. Even the residents of the neighborhood can't go in there. So there won't be any connecting up."
There is also major criticism over the quality of the park being proposed. "There will be soil 1.5 meters deep and that won't let trees and plants grow. Even in 70 years there won't be big trees there."
The four residential towers that are planned above the highway roofing are also not acceptable to the area's residents. In a position paper put out by Beit Hakerem administration council member Danny Tauber, he claims that the towers will harm the character of the area. "The towers will dwarf the historic administration building of the Givat Ram campus, which is one of the symbols of the campus and does not speak visually of functionally to its surroundings."
"These huge towers, if they will succeed economically, and we doubt that, are expected to attract investors and an extremely affluent population, which does not suffer from a housing shortage to start with." The rationale of putting up the towers, the residents claim is financial and not designed just to cover the costs of the roofing.
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion says, "The Begin Highway cover strategic plan represents an important additional tool in bringing the city towards a better future. The plan will remove an environmental obstacle while adding a great deal of green space to the city for the welfare of the public while taking advantage of land in an optimal way."
City engineer Yoel Even adds, "The Begin Highway is a noisy road congested with traffic. The plan takes excellent advantage of the land and transforms the Begin highway and covers it with a major urban development."
Even stresses that the location was well chosen, both in terms of the topography and manly because of its proximity to the city center. "This place can create genuine urban continuity. The new park will be a continuation of Shahar Park next to Beit Hakerem."
How do you respond to the claims by residents that the new construction will create a linear neighborhood - a type of wall?
"I'm sure that when the residents will see the plans they will understand the quality of the project. The level of noise generated by Begin Highway will be reduced and there will be a large open area instead of the highway and there will be many urban advantages here."
Even explains that 40-floor towers will be close to the new business area at the entrance to the city and will not adversely impact the urban skyline. "I remember when we can and built the Shahar Park, residents of the neighborhood came along and said that they missed the Gazelle Valley that was there before the highway. Today we are healing that wound."
Learning from others: the cost will balloon
In order to imagine the size of the planned project, you can look at what has been done elsewhere in the world. One of the most famous such project is the Big Dig in Boston, Massachusetts, where a sunken highway was built with a park above. Initial estimates were that the project would cost $2 billion but in the end it cost $20 billion.
In Dallas, Texas they built a more modest project the Klyde Warren Park covering five acres above an eight-lane highway. This park was also designed to join up two areas on the banks of the highway but was simpler than the project planned in Jerusalem because no new buildings were involved.
Back in Israel Tel Aviv is planning to cover over a section of the Ayalon Highway (Road 20) and to build a park at a cost of NIS 2 billion. Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg is looking into options for covering over part of the Coastal Highway (Road 2) and connecting up the two sides of the city.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 25, 2020
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