Construction mania is sure to cause even more damage to Jerusalem’s historic neighborhoods and open spaces. Despite a new master plan, it seems like eventually tourists will require a tour guide to recognize the Old City

Ziva Sternhell Jun 29, 2022

An artist's rendition of high-rises slated for construction in Ein Karem.
An artist’s rendition of high-rises slated for construction in Ein Karem.

Last month, the Jerusalem Municipality held a festive event in which it proudly presented its master plan for open spaces in public areas. The plan is aimed at preserving green spaces to serve as publicly accessible buffers in the face of the massive planned expansion of construction slated for the city in coming years. But despite the good intentions and effort of the experts, it was apparent that they failed to convince the audience gathered for the festive event.

A large group of young activists from the Save the Hills of Jerusalem organization, which consists of members of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel along with architects from the Binui Shafui (“sane construction”) organization who have participated for years in civic campaigns for maintaining the city’s character, have repeatedly claimed that all the major and heavily-funded plans announced for Jerusalem are never executed.

A simulation of the planned cable car from downtown Jerusalem to the Western Wall, in the Old City.
A simulation of the planned cable car from downtown Jerusalem to the Western Wall, in the Old City.Credit: Jerusalem Development Authority

The group is familiar with the inner workings of the local and regional planning committees, which it sees as a charade in which thousands of objections are not enough to halt the plans of influential powerbrokers at city hall, plans that are riddled with political interests or just contain bad ideas.

One of the few cases when a public campaign succeeded – the campaign for preserving the Gazelle Valley as an urban green space – is constantly heralded by the Jerusalem Municipality, as was seen again during the festive evening last month, even though this rare success was achieved 20 years ago.

Like others before it, the central problem of the recent plan is not just the question of preserving green spaces, but the more outrageous fact that Israel’s capital, a city of international and historical significance, lacks a legally approved master plan. It beggars belief, but the last, and only, plan that was legally approved is from 1959.

Certainly, several plans have been drawn up through the years, like the ones prepared during the tenure of former Mayor Teddy Kollek – who was aware of the importance of preserving Jerusalem’s architectural heritage – as well as the plan that regional planner Moshe Cohen worked on for three years, which was highly appraised, but got stuck on its way to official approval.

Of all places, Jerusalem, a city of many problems, undergoing constant political upheaval, boasting a unique topography, and requiring a delicate balance between progress and preservation, practical needs and value, is governed without a binding regulatory framework.

For years, the city was dependent on the expertise of lackluster city engineers, uninformed local committees, and regional councils whose members – representing government departments – do not necessarily have the city’s best interests at heart. This is how Jerusalem has been developed for 60 years, resulting in a patchwork of segregated neighborhoods.

Lately, things are going from bad to worse. Amid the ongoing construction frenzy, aimed at providing a solution to the lack of affordable housing and employment zones, steps have been planned without any broad systemic considerations that take into account appropriate infrastructure and the needs of residents.

An artist's rendition of high-rises slated for construction in Ein Karem.
An artist’s rendition of high-rises slated for construction in Ein Karem.Credit: Julia Grinkrug

Such claims aren’t just raised by architects and civic groups; even deputy mayor Yossi Havilio agrees. According to him, neighborhoods that lack suitable infrastructure will soon be transformed into slums. For example, it has recently become clear that the series of tower blocks planned for construction along the light-rail track lacks any infrastructure plan, and a competitive bidding process for plans to build escalators leading passengers to the tracks has not been launched.

In this regard, the initiative to issue a master plan for preserving open spaces is a welcome step, but it will be of limited value if it is not part of a more comprehensive general conservation plan. The fact that Jerusalem is first and foremost a historic city requiring tight control over planning and design of new construction has been forgotten in the current planning frenzy, along with efforts to give Jerusalem an image of a modern city that appeals to business and high-tech.

It is shocking to think that Jerusalem has no general conservation plans in place while in Tel Aviv, a very detailed master plan was prepared 20 years ago and officially approved in 2016, and the municipality has put heavy restrictions in place on any attempt to alter historic buildings. Even though conservation plans for the historic neighborhoods were drawn up in the 1980s, roundabout methods to contravene the stated restrictions have been utilized over the years.

The outrageous fact is that Israel’s capital, a city of international and historical significance, lacks a legally approved master plan.

Moreover, again in contrast to Tel Aviv, the Jerusalem Municipality’s conservation department is unable to prevent significant damage to buildings of interest or entire neighborhoods caused by disproportionate construction expansions, built in a style that lacks any relation to its surroundings and with the use of low-grade materials.

A survey conducted by Ran Wolf Urban Planning and Groag Harel Architects found that there were only six experts in charge of overseeing 5,300 buildings slated for conservation in Jerusalem. This is in contrast to Tel Aviv, where 18 people are in charge of 1,200 structures. A scathing report by the State Comptroller’s Office in 2019 criticized the small number of experts working for the conservation department and accused them of negligent work. The report describes the municipality’s conservation work as a “patchwork” policy indicating “the low place conservation has in the city’s list of priorities.”

Three years later, the state comptroller’s report seems to have evaporated into thin air. Things have improved since the days of Mayor Nir Barkat, who disregarded the issue, as it did not suit his interests. But the sweeping approval for high-rises along the major light-rail arteries has led to planning anarchy.

Ein Karem. Not just the question of preserving green spaces.
Ein Karem. Not just the question of preserving green spaces.Credit: Ron Havilio

For example, the Hebrew University’s campus on Mount Scopus is the site of an approved 30-story high-rise that is sure to assist in the further destruction of the Old City’s scenery; and close to Ein Karem, a series of massive tower blocks is set to be built and overwhelm one of the city’s most magical spots. All this is being justified by the fact that Jerusalem is soon to be covered in high-rises, anyway. These projects expose not only the impotence of the conservation department, but of the entire municipal apparatus and those running it.

Obviously, the city cannot remain frozen in time and its pressing economic needs demand renewal initiatives. But in Jerusalem, such initiatives demand the immediate completion of an updated master plan for the city and its surroundings, along with a strict conservation plan that includes open spaces. These plans must be legally sanctioned if there is to be any hope of thwarting the tricks that developers and political bodies employ to erode the buildings, neighborhoods, and character of the Old City and its surroundings.

If the current situation goes on for much longer, then in the near future, tourists arriving in town will have to rely on tour guides to recognize the concealed Old City amongst the modern, generic construction blocks, and discover where the natural scenery and historic neighborhoods that gave Jerusalem its unique character and image have disappeared.