Brian Blum
June 27, 2011
Planned 24-story tower in southern Jerusalem

When the city of Jerusalem canceled the “Safdie Plan” in 2006, urban planners said there would be no choice but to build inside the city itself. The Safdie Plan, a project conceived by world-famous architect Moshe Safdie, would have put upwards of 20,000 housing units in the hills to the west of Jerusalem. Environmentalists fought it tooth and nail, as did conscientious bikers and hikers.

There’s no denying that Jerusalem’s burgeoning population needs more homes and apartments to live in – it’s either that or intensifying the ongoing exodus of young families to surrounding communities and, ultimately, the abandonment of the city to the super rich and famously vacant.

But building more inside the city necessarily means greater density: open plots get developed, height limits are raised, and entirely new complexes are planned.

Nowhere is that more blatant than the recently revealed master plan for the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, where we live. The plan, which was presented recently to stunned local residents at an emergency meeting at the Baka community center, is full of zoning changes that allow 6, 8 and 12 story buildings to be erected on the neighborhood’s periphery.

The most audacious part – and the one that’s raised the most controversy – is a plan to erect a massive 24-story building at the “Oranim” junction, where Yehuda, Pierre Koenig, Yohanan Ben Zakai, Emek Refaim and Elezar HaModa’i Streets meet, on the current site of a gas station and car wash.

This building would so tower over everything else, it would be impossible to miss from, well, the entire city. It would cast a shadow over many existing homes, and its central location would make it even more of an eyesore than the controversial Holyland project. Indeed, the untenable height leads to all kinds of speculation on Holyland-style corruption and bribes.

Not only would the building be entirely out of sorts with its surroundings, where 4 story buildings are the exception, but it’s hard to imagine how the area would cope with the significantly increased traffic. Is the city planning to build double decker highways? Because the narrow two lane streets that currently comprise our transportation arteries are already woefully clogged during the rush hours.

But is it really so bad? My friend Yuval, a successful local architect, says that large construction often means the developers have to give a lot back to the city. New parks, improved roads, community infrastructure.

And, indeed, the pictures of the building show an impressive traffic circle which would presumably ease the flow of cars and buses, as well as the continuation of the new “train track” bikeway and park right through the center of the building complex on their way to the Malcha shopping mall. Transportation consultant Marc Render (a friend and very honest broker) has his name on the plan, so presumably there are traffic accommodations that would mitigate the initial fear.

The complex would ironically also serve to visually integrate the neighborhoods of Baka, the German Colony, Katamon, Makor Haim and the Katamonim around the traffic circle, with each community jutting out like a spoke in a wheel (although detractors say you’d only see the design from above).

Perhaps the size of the new building is a red herring. With all the other new buildings and zoning changes in the master plan, those involved in negotiations know that dropping in a particularly controversial project means they can take it out (or scale it down, to perhaps, 12 stories) and get everything else they want.

It will undoubtedly be a long fight from here and my personal jury is out on what the optimal result will be. In the end, it may not affect me as much as my grandchildren – the plan is not scheduled to be completed for another 20 years. By that time, there may even be a light rail line into our neighborhood (wishful thinking, to be sure).

Or maybe, I’ll embrace the monster and buy a penthouse flat of my own. I bet things will look very different from the top.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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