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Alea iacta est. The die is cast. Development of Modi'in, the city that sprang up from nowhere between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, will be first decelerated, then halted in order to spur the development of Lod, Ramle and even Jerusalem. That is what the ultimate authority, the National Planning and Building Council, has decided. But this begs the question of whether allowing Modi'in to arise in the first place was a mistake.

On one hand, some argue that the city's establishment undermined existing national policy on population distribution. On the other hand, studies show that Modi'in's establishment did not actually harm Lod, Ramle or Jerusalem. Confused? You should be.

First of all, the National Planning Council's decision is extraordinary, especially given Modi'in's tender age. The city was ostensibly planned in the most modern way, factoring in national, demographic and environmental concerns. Yet now, the council is proposing a time-out in order, basically, to examine whether Modi'in was indeed properly planned and built, or whether extraneous considerations came into play.

The idea behind Modi'in was not new. The concept of building a city in that location had been around since the establishment of the state. But it kept being shelved, in part because the leaders of Ramle and Lod did not want competition so close by.

However, the idea refused to go away, and finally, in the mid-1980s, the planning authorities decided to build the city where two independent neighborhoods were already going up - Re'ut and Maccabim. In August 1990, the then housing and construction minister, none other than Ariel Sharon, approved the plan for the city, and five months later, it received the nod from the National Planning and Building Council.

The initial plan was for a city of 120,000 people, though plans for doubling that figure exist in various files. The Modi'in municipality's web site suggests a target population of 240,000.

A month ago, David Azrieli's construction group inaugurated a shopping center in the city, declaring that it would serve the city's 200,000 residents. Wishful thinking? For the nonce, perhaps: Today, Modi'in has 75,000 residents. But hundreds of apartments are being built, and housing prices have shot up in the last couple of years: A four-room apartment now goes for an average of NIS 1.05 million. Even planning for train lines and roads assumes a population far beyond 120,000.

The fate of Lod and Ramle

But what has Modi'in's rapid development done to Ramle and Lod? These two cities, with mixed populations of Arabs and Jews, boast roughly the lowest demand in the land, even though their location is superb - right by Tel Aviv and other employment hot spots.

However, they are poor, and both towns have dreadful images. Lod in particular suffers from a high level of crime and a problematic local government, and its infrastructure is terrible, with ugly streets. None of the above is the sort of thing to attract more upscale residents, and housing prices in Lod and Ramle remain extremely low. If Modi'in had not been there, some argue, Lod and Ramle would have done better.

Jerusalem has its problems, too. It may be a magnet for very wealthy Jews, but its weakening economic spine has made it unattractive to the middle-class secular population. The capital is losing its secular, middle-class base and turning into a poverty-ridden, ultra-Orthodox city. Again, Modi'in is blamed, for providing a solution for the secular.

In any case, the National Planning and Building Council had meant to reexamine Modi'in's development when it reached the stage of boasting 16,000 completed apartments, which it has. Developers are already pressing to build more, but the complaints about Modi'in weakening nearby cities induced the council to sit down and think hard.

At the most recent council meeting, Modi'in Mayor Moshe Spector rejected the view that his city is ruining the fortunes of its neighbors. "Modi'in doesn't compete with Ramle and Lod," he objected. "Migration to Modi'in is from Rishon Letzion, Tel Aviv, Givatayim and other cities that aren't being hurt by its development."

Yet the council decided to give the development of Ramle, Lod and Jerusalem higher priority than Modi'in anyway, saying that before developing Modi'in any further, the others needed attention. "We must support the government's efforts to develop the periphery, and in central Israel, we must act to strengthen the cities of Jerusalem, Ramle and Lod," the council declared. Modi'in's urban development may continue only in the area slated for its first 120,000 residents, the council ruled, and that was that.

Undercutting Zionism

As noted, the decision to halt a city's development is not one the council makes often. This is a reversal of its previous position. And, though nobody said the M word, one has to wonder if the planning chiefs do not feel that Modi'in's very establishment was a mistake. The city arguably allows people to move within central Israel without relocating to the weak, unattractive towns of Ramle and Lod, or even, yes, Jerusalem.

"From the get-go, I claimed that the establishment of Modi'in was a bad mistake from the perspective of Zionism," said geographer Arnon Soffer of Haifa University. "It was obvious to me that thousands would go there instead of peopling broader areas of Israel."

The professor - who wrote a book (in Hebrew) called "The State of Tel Aviv" that describes the process by which the nation came to center on that seaside city - said it was pure stupidity to build a new city next to two crippled towns like Ramle and Lod. "I'm glad that somebody is waking up," Soffer said. "In the past, we could have helped these cities by funneling in tens of thousands of people."

Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavie also thinks Modi'in is a disaster. "I have claimed in the past that expanding Modi'in and Shoham, along with the drive to expand Be'er Yaakov, are a demographic disaster for Ramle and Lod," he said. "The Housing Ministry never checked what might have happened if Modi'in had never arisen, and if the investment [in it] had targeted Ramle and Lod [instead]. Ramle has 2,000 dunams with a housing density like that of the desert. The city center could have been rebuilt." He therefore applauded the National Planning and Building Council's decision.

Housing Ministry Director General Aryeh Bar thinks Soffer and Lavie are out of line. Modi'in was a necessity dictated by reality, Bar argued. It is right between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a key position economically.

But Soffer is unconvinced: "That simply isn't true. I promise you that if new neighborhoods had arisen in [Ramle and Lod] and they had been called contemporary names like Iris Hill or Givat Hasavyonim, and the words Ramle and Lod had been downplayed, the situation would have been completely different."

Bar sought to place the council's decision in a different light: It is not a u-turn; it had been planned all along. Modi'in was never planned to have a quarter of a million people, he claimed, just 120,000. All the decision means is that when developers seek approval for their plans, those in Lod will get higher priority than those in Modi'in.

The real victim: Rosh Ha'ayin?

But the council's decision has its opponents, too. One is architect Miron Cohen, from the firm of Moshe Safdie & Associates, which has been involved in planning Modi'in.

Cohen projected that at the current pace of population growth, Modi'in will reach 180,000 residents by 2030. However, the council's decision could thwart this development.

Cohen suspects the council's decision of being "politically motivated."

"The State of Israel should take care of Ramle and Lod, but the decision to give them higher priority than Modi'in isn't clear to me," he said.

"They should be developed in parallel. The material the National Planning and Building Council presented supports the contention that Modi'in isn't hurting Ramle and Lod, or Jerusalem, either."

Cohen is referring to a study of Modi'in's influence on the surroundings that economist and urban planner Ehud Pasternak conducted for the Housing Ministry. It concluded that the city was not hurting Lod, Ramle, Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh.

In fact, the study found that the city losing most residents to Modi'in was Rosh Ha'ayin:

Some 15% of all people leaving Rosh Ha'ayin migrate to Modi'in. Only 5% of the people leaving Ramle go to Modi'in, and the figure for Lod is 6.2%. Regarding Jerusalem, the figure drops to 1.9%. Pasternak concluded that the same number of people would have left these cities whether Modi'in had existed or not.

But of course, there remains the question of whether people who found affordable housing in Modi'in and moved there would have moved to Ramle, Lod or Jerusalem instead if the city did not exist. The jury is still out on that one.