Yarkonim shopping center - Ofer Vaknin - Nov. 21, 2010
The Yarkonim shopping center, built illegally within the area earmarked for greening. Petah Tikva wanted to authorize more sites like this to pay for a section of the park. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
Text size

The city of Petah Tikva found out the hard way that the state won't stand for paying for the preservation of a green area by developing more land. Last month a giant step was taken toward turning one of the last green lungs in the Tel Aviv area, along the Yarkon River between Hod Hasharon and Petah Tivka, into an official metropolitan park: a sub-committee of the National Planning and Building Council granted its imprimatur to the plan for the area. But in doing so it stymied the city's plans for developing its section of the park.

The concept of the park was born three years ago, when a district plan was approved for the area on the eastern section of the Yarkon. The plan determined that an area of 30,000 dunams would be turned into a metropolitan park, combining nature, landscape and facilities for leisure and recreation.

The 30,000 dunams falls within the jurisdiction of more than one local authority. The plan stated that each local government would be responsible for the planning of its section of the area.

Earlier this year, the city of Petah Tikva handed in its plan for its 10,000-dunam section of the park. City representatives presented their plan to the sub-committee of the National Planning and Building Council last month. It did not fly.

The city of Petah Tikva wants most of the 10,000 dunams in its section to be a nature preserve. It proposes the rehabilitation of natural flora, to preserve the heritage sites and to build pedestrian and bicycle paths through the greenery connecting the city to the Yarkon.

It also wants to dot the park with areas for leisure and fun, where it would allow the construction of cafes and restaurants. It proposes cleaning up polluted old waste sites and recommends moving an eyesore, namely a switching facility belonging to the Israel Electric Corporation.

A quarter of the area would be earmarked for infrastructure. All that is fine.

There is a problem, though. Such things cost money, and the sub-committee rejected almost entirely a plan by the city of Petah Tikva for financing its section of the park through rezoning areas for construction.

Half of the remaining three-quarters is privately owned land, on which the city based the financing plan elaborated below. The sub-committee ruled that the money to develop the park could not derive solely from rezoning part of the land for construction.

The snag: It isn't the city's land

The city's plans for the area, detailed below, can't be pursued until a solution is found for the private owners. Also, infrastructure must be built. The city's working assumption is that it won't get any substantial money from the government to pursue its plan.

The Petah Tikva municipality estimates that buying land from private owners and building the park will cost nearly half a billion shekels.

One idea to cope with the cost is to allow the owners of land to build on some of their land, in exchange for handing over other sections of land.

In total the city proposes allowing 1,350 dunams of land to be developed into housing (up to 9,450 housing units ), commercial areas and employment centers. These activities would generate a betterment tax, which would pay for developing the rest of the land into a park.

Or at least that was the city's plan. Three months ago the Committee for the Preservation of Agricultural Land and Open Spaces' council rejected the concept, and a month ago it was ratified by the sub-committee of the National Planning and Building Council.

To be precise, they will allow the city to pursue that idea - but only to a fraction of the extent the city had planned.

The Committee for the Preservation of Agricultural Land and Open Spaces said that Petah Tikva's residential issues, and how the park should be financed, were separate topics. It also claims that a third of the land slated for development in the area of Petah Tikva is standing there unused - and added that in any case, the greater Petah Tikva area (including the towns around the city ) has already exceeded its population target stated in the relevant National Master Plan for a decade to come.

So no, it couldn't let private owners build inside the park to finance the rest of the park.

An area of beauty, and illegal shops

Petah Tikva's plan for its section states that the privately-owned land is "in an area with one of the most beautiful, and the cleanest sections of the Yarkon." The section also contains a number of heritage sites, says the plan document, as well as wide swathes of agricultural land, some of which is being cultivated.

"This area is in a constant battle for survival against pressures to develop it, against pollution, nuisances and shortage of water".

The Yarkonim commercial area, right inside the future park area, is the embodiment of the problem.

No less than 40 businesses have set up shop there, without permits, in blatant contravention of the law. While discussing (and rejecting ) the Petah Tikva plan for financing-through-rezoning, the sub-committee also ruled against legitimizing Yarkonim, most of which was built illegally.

The Interior Affairs Ministry says that in its planning document, the city of Petah Tikva suggests that most of the Yarkonim area be designated for urban development - housing or commerce. But the National Planning and Building Council sub-committee ruled that the character of the site must not be dictated by the illegally erected structures.

The ministry also stated that it plans to continue its "enforcement processes" against the shopping center, meaning many of those stores may yet be razed to the ground.

The shops may go, but the farmers are staying. The planning authorities approve of their presence, feeling that cultivation of the land is an inherent part of the region's nature.

Also, based on past experience, the planning authorities suspect that their presence is crucial to ensuring that the land does not lie fallow, abandoned, neglected and ultimately invaded by elements that build illegal shops.