What next for Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station?

Tel Aviv Central Bus Station Photo: Shutterstock

A white elephant and economic disaster from 1976 to 1993 and environmental hazard and urban blight ever since, the sorry saga is entering a new phase.

Israel's Ministry of Transport announced two weeks ago that it will move and vacate Tel Aviv's New Central Bus Station by 2023. This was the first time that Tel Aviv - Yafo Municipality, the Israel Land Administration and the Ministry of Transport jointly acknowledged that the bus station is a hazard and specified a clear target date for its removal.

Tel Aviv's residents must have breathed a sigh of relief on learning that the bus station was finally to be moved but the important question now is what will happen there in its place. Will the huge structure be demolished? What will the location be used for? Will those with property rights - Nitsba and the small store owners, promote a new plan that will transform the area?

The sorry saga began in the mid-60s when the municipality decided to build a huge new central bus station together with Arye Piltz who owned lots of land at the eastern end of Levinsky Street. The architect Ram Karmi was chosen to design the building, which in the spirit of the times was designed as a huge multi-purpose structure with enormous concrete ramps linking the bus station to the surrounding streets. The plan approved in 1967 included 180,000 square meters of space for stores, services, buses and parking, covering an area of 10.5 acres.

In 1976, during the economic crisis after the Yom Kippur War, Kikar Levinsky, the development company in charge of building the project, went into liquidation, leaving just a monstrous concrete shell. It was not until 1983 that the Jerusalem building contractor Mordechai Yona, owner of the Heftzibah Construction Company, bought the project in partnership with the Dan and Egged bus cooperatives. Building resumed and in 1993 Tel Aviv's New Central Bus Station was finally opened.

The New Central Bus Station covers 230,000 square meters on seven floors. According to the original plan, the inter-city buses were meant to depart from the sixth floor and the city buses from the first floor, compelling travelers to pass through the commercial areas when transferring from city to inter-city buses. But once it became clear that the first and second floors were plagued by heavy air pollution, buses were moved to the seventh floor and the first and second floors were left abandoned.

Those immediately harmed by the opening of the bus station were the hundreds of families living in Levinsky, Har Zion, Congress, Matalon and other surrounding streets. They soon left the area, which was taken over by migrant workers and criminal elements. As the years went by, the New Central Bus Station and the surrounding district became a scary, murky place of doom, gloom and pollution.

All the parties of interest in the bus station have different aims regarding what should come in its stead.

Nitsba Holdings: "No comment."

The owner of most of the rights in the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is Nitsba Holdings, a privately-held subsidiary of Airport City Ltd. (TASE:ARPT), which also owns the central bus stations in Jerusalem, Rishon Lezion and other major cities.

Nitsba acquired 48% of the shares of the New Central Bus Station back in 2009, later increasing the stake to 80% after assuming NIS 193 million in debt to Israel Discount Bank for NIS 138 million. But in 2015, the bus station's management company encountered financial difficulties and Nitsba bought the assets of the bus station for NIS 320 million.

In 2017, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Nitsba had orchestrated matters so that it could seize control of both the bus station management company and its assets at a reduced price. Judge Binyamin Arnon noted that Nitsba only saw the bus station as a real estate asset. In Kfar Saba, for example, Nitsba is promoting a residential neighborhood on the site of the bus station. When asked about its plans for the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, Nitsba declined to comment.

The store owners - with no buses there are no customers

Nitsba is not the only entity with property rights on the bus station. There are also 600 store owners.

Moti from the Organization of Store Owners in the Central Bus Station, said that he doesn't have a clue about what is going to happen with the building. "I'd be happy if you could tell me what is going to happen there. Nobody knows. Let's be clear: there are 600 store owners, and only a small number of them actually received their stores (they only have rights in name). What will happen is that even those who operate stores, as soon as the buses stop arriving, won't have any customers."

He added, "That's exactly what happened to the store owners on the first and second floors, and a large part of the third floor that has never actually been opened. They manipulated the situation and moved the permits from the lower floors to the sixth and seventh floors, without approvals. That doesn't prevent the management company from asking us to pay maintenance fees."

Interviewed by "Globes" last month Adv. Zvi Shub, who represents several hundred owners of stores in the central bus station that have closed down, said, "After Nitsba bought Mordechai Yona's stake, which was half of the bus station, they didn't do a thing to promote the commitments of the management company to the first 700 store owners, such as approving the new urban plan and consolidating rights within the bus station. They left it all closed.

"In effect, they wanted to weaken the original buyers through management fees and municipal taxes and in that way make them eventually sell their rights to the management company. They initiated a legal battle against them with endless lawsuits, and many of the people there, who were either heirs or very old, relinquished their rights or sold them for peanuts to the management company."

Adv. Shub explains that Nitsba's behavior was designed to seize control of the property and future rights. He said, "The assumption is that vacating the buses will mean that nobody will want to go there and that the store owners will close down because they won't want to pay maintenance fees and municipal taxes on a dying place. On the other hand, the management company and Nitsba won't get the substantial amounts it is paid by Egged and Dan, which are worth an estimated NIS 40 million annually. And so it is likely they will promote construction on the location.

"Since this is a private property, it is reasonable to assume that the owners won't allow the property to be used in an unprofitable way. According to the creditors agreement, in the stay-of-proceedings case, Nitsba is committed to register the rights of the store owners and promote a plan for the site. It could be that in the initial years the management company will exploit the vacuum created in order to take control of more areas."

Tel Aviv - Yafo Municipality "Various alternatives are being examined." "

Tel Aviv - Yafo Municipality has made it clear to "Globes" that according to the instructions of the TA/5000 city plan, "The area will be developed as a main business district and unique municipal attraction close to mass transport systems in the urban space of the south of the city. The district will include extensive public areas with significant residential, social, office, commercial and entertainment developments."

The municipality declined to relate directly to the bus station building itself. "The architectural, environmental, social, and proprietorial challenges posed by the planning are complex. It is important to remember that the building is privately owned and contains a range of activities that serve the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and dozens of businesses.

"Various alternatives are currently being examined for the building in terms of its functioning, structure, ownership and the environment as part of moving forward on a future detailed plan for the entire district. After the reduction or moving the activities of buses from the central bus station building is completed, this will allow the conceptual promotion of planning procedures for the space, of course while taking inhto account the residents of the neighborhood and the business owners operating in the bus stations and nearby."

The residents

The residents of Neve Sha'anan have suffered for years because of the central bus station, through which 5,500 buses pass every6 day. According to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Neve Sha'anan residents have 1.2 square meters of open land per capita compared with 17 square meters in the north of the city.

Tel Aviv - Yafo city counsellor and head of the Neve Sha'anan Residents Committee Shula Keshet is angry about the situation that has been created. "The removal of the buses is taking place by setting up alternative terminals. The estimates are that the cost of building the terminals is NIS 200 million. The Ministry of Transport has given NIS 140 million for this and the municipality was supposed to add NIS 60 million. But the municipality was not prepared to invest money and the solution is to support it with money from tycoon Kobi Maimon (Nitsba's owner) who has neglected the bus station for so many years and who is only interested in his profits.

"In effect a situation has been created where the municipality is indebted to Kobi Maimon. That's a substantial matter in everything related to the day after.

"We will campaign for something to be built here that benefits the residents. I don't want tall towers to be built here that will hasten gentrification. It is important that there will be public housing here, cultural centers, and green areas. We demand full support for the public and that the plans will not just be a matter decided between Kobi Maimon and the municipality."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 20, 2021.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2021.

Tel Aviv Central Bus Station Photo: Shutterstock
Tel Aviv Central Bus Station Photo: Shutterstock
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