Text size

Emanuel Leviev, 58, of Or Akiva, is in the habit of riding his bicycle to the Or Akiva market. He loves haggling with the vendors, uttering curse words in Russian. He declares that he is "no fake, but a bona fide guy from the Caucasus." He wears a cap; his mouth shines with gold-capped teeth; his mustache is stained with nicotine and he wears a suit he brought with him from the Caucasus. He knows the vendors well, and notes that "the greengrocers work a bit, and the rest not at all."

To illustrate the market's current crisis, he points to a grilled chicken store across the street that "has been grilling the same chicken for a week." The blame for the moribund state of the market lays with a shopping mall built at the town's entrance in 1995. But things can be expected to go from bad to worse if an ambitious real estate project comes to fruition, argue opponents of the plan.

Two months ago the local council for planning and construction approved a plan for an enormous commercial area in Or Akiva. The plan calls for the laying of a six-lane road to link the old and new Haifa-Tel Aviv highways, which would lead to Or Akiva's being "hedged in" on its east and west flanks. The new road, which would be built on areas currently open, would divide the city's north and south sections. In addition, three luxury high-rises are slated for construction, with apartments whose prices would be out of reach for local residents, who are generally of middle-to-lower-class backgrounds. Those opposed to the plan say it will attract "a walled-off upper class."

Some 16,000 people live in Or Akiva, most of them hailing from the former Soviet Union, North Africa and the Caucasus. Many fear that their outdoor market, which offers basic commodities at reasonable prices, will die if the plan goes proceeds.

Activist Avishai Kedar, one of the most vocal opponents of the plan, claims Or Akiva residents are unlikely to benefit from it. "What do we need such a large commercial area for, with a population of fewer than 20,000 people?" he fumed. "Instead of investing in the market, they are building a center on the outskirts."

Most of the market today stands abandoned, Kedar said, with the only exceptions being a few stalls, shoe stores and cheap clothing stores. The town's only cinema has also closed.

"The public has not been allowed to participate in the decision," said Kedar, who said his request to receive information on the project was denied. "In place of initiatives like this, I'd like to see them develop parks, pedestrian malls and cafes to hang out in."

The Israel Lands Administration said in response: "The plan is being promoted in cooperation with the municipality, and is aimed at bringing development and prosperity to the city by generating employment, commercial activity and housing units to both new and veteran residents."

"The finest urban planners have been working on this project for 10 years, in cooperation with everyone," said a spokesperson for Or Akiva city hall.