sarona - Simulation - December 12 2011
Once completed, the Sarona complex will include 10 residential high-rises, hotels and a convention center. Photo by Simulation
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Aviad Bar-Ness
One of the historic Templer buildings being renovated. Photo by Aviad Bar-Ness

At the end of this coming summer the Ganei Sarona project is expected to open to the public - a new complex for commerce, recreation and entertainment located in the area of the 140-year-old Templer colony that has become part of the urban fabric of Tel Aviv. Sarona is not another ordinary commercial project, but the development of a significant and central piece of the city, 190 dunams (47 acres ) in size. Around the historic buildings and streets there are plans to build about 10 high-rise buildings that will include tens of thousands of square meters of housing, hotels, commerce and a convention center.

The 33 original houses of the colony, or what remains of them after over 60 years of ownership by the State of Israel, will be carefully preserved and used for new purposes: 27 will serve as shops, restaurants and cafes, and the other six will become a visitors' center, two museums and a unit to be leased to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The preservation and development work now in full swing includes the rehabilitation of the local flora and the preservation of the mature trees that lend the place a special atmosphere. A new underground road will connect the main arteries surrounding the complex with underground parking lots and the Hashalom train station, along with a future light rail station on Yehudit Boulevard that will enable easy access via public transportation.

The project is being developed simultaneously by the Ganei Sarona management company, which operates under the aegis of the municipal Ahuzot Hahof corporation, and two groups of entrepreneurs: the Irani-Rogovin partnership and Ganei Sarona Ltd. (which is composed of several private companies and investors ).

In a discussion this week, the entrepreneurs expressed their hope of creating a unique urban complex that will grant added value to the shopping experience and will also succeed in attracting Tel Aviv residents - a "hard nut to crack," according to one of them.

Ganei Sarona is based on the "lifestyle center" model, a new type of retail center developed in the United States during the 1990s that constitutes a kind of counterreaction to the closed malls. These centers were built for the most part near well-to-do suburban communities. They have a well balanced mix of commercial and recreational uses, and include a large number of squares, manicured gardens, fountains and well designed public spaces - and attempt to provide an experience of enjoyable loitering that will encourage visitors to linger in them for a long time. In other words, they are trying to imitate a classic urban center - but in a totally controlled, directed and supervised way. You won't see any peeling plaster or homeless people there, the corporation in charge will make sure to get rid of them within a short time.

According to estimates, there are about 150 such centers today in the U.S. Even in the city of Yonkers that borders New York a similar center was opened recently.

"The public is tired of malls. It makes no difference if you enter the Seven Stars in Herzliya, the Givatayim mall or a mall in Minnesota, in the final analysis you see exactly the same thing," says Ran Steinman, one of the entrepreneurs.

He says that one of the main inspirations for Sarona is a famous lifestyle center in Los Angeles called The Grove, which was built on the area of a historic farmers' market. The entrepreneurs constructed a series of pseudo-historical buildings there, with magnificent facades in the spirit of the local architecture. It may be terrible kitsch, but the complex is considered a dizzying commercial success. "There is one building that is leased to a movie theater, one that belongs to Apple and many good restaurants. Outside they play a little music - it's an amazing thing," says Steinman.

Amit Yulevitz, the CEO of Sarona, thinks that the public is seeking the open air and the experience of wandering around typical of city centers. "We don't see ourselves as competing with some mall. Those who want to do traditional shopping in malls will continue to go there, but anyone who wants high-class shopping and a different atmosphere will come to Sarona."

Mutual appreciation

The Sarona marketing campaign reflects the desire of the entrepreneurs to connect to high-end businesses in Israel. Instead of large fashion chains or cafe chains, they tried to attract designer stores and chefs' restaurants. And in general, the historical legacy of the place seems to be an inseparable part of the marketing. The potential leasers have received a comprehensive file that includes, among other things, a naive illustration of the complex that shows stone houses alongside high rises, and romantic postcards that include information about each and every building. The entrepreneurs call them a "collection."

At the same time, the entrepreneurs realize that the success of the complex depends not only on attracting successful businesses but also on close cooperation with the municipal administration that is responsible for Sarona. "There is symbiosis here between the public space and the private space," explains Gadi Roitman of the Ganei Sarona management company. "The buildings cannot work without the park, while the public space cannot work without the buildings."

He says that the planning of the public space between the buildings includes attention to commercial needs, such as areas for tables and chairs or the creation of an infrastructure for an air conditioning system (which due to preservation restrictions will not be placed outside the buildings ). Another reflection of cooperation between the entrepreneurs and the municipality will come in the form of various events to be held on the site throughout the year.

The close cooperation and mutual admiration between the parties is an example of proper development of public space.

Sarona joins additional complexes in Tel Aviv that are based on cooperation between the private and public sectors: the Tel Aviv port and the train station complex. What the three complexes have in common is the creation of a distinct and defined urban space based on an historic site and operated by one body. This model has many economic advantages, because in effect it is run and maintained just like a mall.

On the other hand, it lacks the spontaneity and heterogeneity that typifies a city center. Both the port and the train station are facing difficulties that stem from the fact that they are complexes that are not an integral part of the urban fabric. On the one hand they cater to a yuppie clientele, and on the other, during the week they attract mainly tourists.

The entrepreneurs, both from the municipality and the private companies, explain that they have learned the lesson from the other complexes in Tel Aviv and that Sarona's central location will ensure traffic of about 17,000 people daily, not including tourists. Now we have to wait for the opening to see whether they will succeed in restoring the Templer colony's intimate and charming character, in spite of the numbers of visitors, or whether it will turn into a branded and commercial product in which history serves only as a romantic backdrop for a day of shopping.

Read this article in Hebrew.