In the Shadow of the Polinum

Haifa's landscape is about to change with the construction of a mammoth hangar that will house the navy's new submarines, but mar residents' view of the sea.

Haifa residents, meet your new neighbor: the Polinum, a kind of hangar meant to house two new submarines that will arrive in Israel from Germany in 2014. Construction is set to begin soon, after the Haifa Municipality grants the official permit.

Simulations being published for the first time in Haaretz reveal how the new building will look and how it is integrated into the plans for city development. The construction of the Polinum, which harms the Carmel landscape by marring the view of the port and sea, is being met with silence. There was no serious public battle here. Even the Haifa Municipality, which used diplomatic means to fight the project being pushed by the Defense Ministry, compromised in the end, and is speaking optimistically about the possibilities of developing the city in the shadow of the Polinum.

Polinum - 17.7.11
Mann Shinar Architects

The Polinum project was first revealed in 2006, thanks to landscape architects Dafna Greenstein and Gil Har-Gil. They were hired to design it, but when they discovered the size of the building and its implications for the Haifa landscape, they resigned. At that time the dimensions of the structure, designed to house two submarines that the Israel Navy is supposed to receive by 2014, were revealed. The submarines were purchased from Germany during the tenure of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for $400 million each. The navy demanded that they be placed in a closed marina.

The main objection to the Polinum is its huge size, which will block the view from the Louis Promenade on the Carmel, via the Bahai Gardens, Ben Gurion Boulevard in the German Colony and up to the port. The Polinum and the accompanying buildings will also be easily visible from all the city neighborhoods that overlook the sea. An even greater fear is that in case of war, the building - which would be a strategic target - will endanger the adjacent Rambam Medical Center and the Bat Galim neighborhood.

The Polinum will be located in a 520-dunam complex, which will also have new piers, a shipyard and housing for soldiers, who will be transferred from the existing naval base.

The municipality fought against the construction of the Polinum through legal pipelines, until a compromise of sorts was reached through a committee headed by former navy commander Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yedidia Yaari. The Yaari Committee examined the alternative, building the Polinum on the eastern side of the planned port in the Kishon River estuary, alongside fuel tanks and an industrial zone, far from a residential area.

After four months the committee announced what was known in advance: The eastern alternative is feasible, but there is no way of knowing when the eastern port (the gulf port ) will be built. And meanwhile, the committee noted, the submarines are supposed to arrive in 2014. The municipality gave in, in exchange for several gifts.

Built to be dismantled

Among other things, it was decided that the new naval military port would be built as a minimal structure that can easily be dismantled, so that if the government decides to develop the Haifa port (rather than the Ashdod port ), the military port can be easily moved. After receiving a construction permit for the Polinum, the navy will leave the beachfront area and the municipality will build a public promenade on the evacuated site.

It was also decided that an interministerial committee would promote a plan to construct a beachfront in the area of the (civilian ) western port. This is an attempt to repair the injustices of the British, who built the port and the naval base on a large area northwest of the Haifa coast, thereby preventing direct access to the sea. According to the plan, the warehouses and buildings that served the port during the British Mandate period will be converted for leisure and vacation activity, like the Tel Aviv port.

Soon the plan will be sent for the approval of the Israel National Planning Council. But already it seems that difficulties are in store for the beachfront plan as well: The Haifa port workers refuse to evacuate the port without compensation, or provision of an alternative area such as the planned gulf port, to operate as a private port.

But if in the past Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav claimed that the Polinum was liable to cause serious harm to tourist and economic development, and that it was "a disaster for the city," today other voices are being heard, which see the glass as half full.

"The Yaari committee decided that what will be built is the minimum that is required," says City Engineer Ariel Waterman. "The Defense Ministry has undergone a revolution. The army is planning the Polinum with civilian criteria. The Polinum has been diverted about 100 meters from the Ben-Gurion artery, a tourist area, in order not to harm the landscape. It was decided that the officers' training school would be moved back and the pier would be evacuated in the future, so that for the first time there will be contiguity between the Quiet Beach and the Bat Galim Beach," says Waterman.

And what about the things he said a few years ago, namely that it would be better without the Polinum? "You have to recall where we started out," says Waterman. He says that at first "the ministry's committee for security installations decided everything. We had no right to appeal and no legal standing. The achievements here are unprecedented. The Defense Minister worked in coordination with us and the new port was planned in such a way that the Polinum building can serve in the future as a maritime museum, and the soldiers' housing can be used as hotels."

'The municipality lost the battle'

The original planners, who resigned, are skeptical. "The army has no history of dismantling temporary structures," says Har-Gil. "Nor did anyone promise that the gulf port would be built and there would be a place to which to move the Polinum, and therefore I'm afraid that the Polinum will be stuck here. The municipality lost the battle. It should have piled up bureaucratic obstacles [to stop] the Defense Ministry, but it's not popular to fight with them.

"I believe that at some point in the battle they decided that it was impossible to achieve more. The municipality didn't want to violate the rules of the game and cause the navy to leave the city. At the same time, the compromise of the Yaari committee is a precedent: The army is evacuating part of its territory in favor of a beach promenade, without being paid for the evacuation. A beachfront area is strategic for a city."