Who Wants a Dolphinarium?

Laws were made to enable the public to monitor the activity of its elected officials. But often it seems that with exaggerated diligence for the law and the rules and regulations, city halls are unable to do anything.

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

Who says government ministries aren't quick on their feet? Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit hurried to freeze the real estate deal between Tel Aviv city hall and businessman Nahum Buchman, shortly after the state comptroller issued a report criticizing the deal's considerations. If only they would hasten the subway system with such alacrity.

But haste in this case could be destructive. The deal, which was struck in a series of measured steps and much effort over more than six years, is far from being one of those shady real estate deals full of special interests. It is about the Dolphinarium, the much-neglected, ugly building that blocks the beach and prevents the city from completing its plan for the seaside boardwalk. Buchman is the private owner of the land and the buildings on it, and his lease from the Israel Lands Administration gives him special commercial use of the property for another 70 years.

The Tel Aviv municipality and the ILA tried to persuade Buchman to leave the Dolphinarium. It was not easy. During the negotiations he was offered in exchange some land to purchase in its stead: the open public areas that serve as a parking lot and the city's car-tow lot, near Hassan Bek Mosque. Since it was a plan without a tender, the two separate planned units would become one planned unit. The price for Buchman was fixed with enormous speed by the government assessor: NIS 245 million.

Buchman was not enthusiastic about the deal. The purchase price seemed high to him. He didn't like the price determined for the Dolphinarium, NIS 45 million (less the costs of exiting, which were on him). Besides, he said, he isn't a building contractor and does not want to build in Tel Aviv. Buchman appealed and in the wake of that appeal, the assessor raised the price of the land to NIS 280 million. Buchman passed.

A year ago, the deal was resurrected. Buchman found a contractor to build on the land, the coastal environment committee convened and approved the plan, as did the ILA, and for the first time it seemed to the city's director general, who is responsible for advancing the plan, that it was going to happen. At this stage, the state comptroller handed over to city hall a report vehemently critical of the deal. The comptroller ruled the city should not have rolled the exiting of the Dolphinarium into a zoning change for the public areas north of Hassan Bek, and that it should have done two separate deals: One with Buchman for leaving the Dolphinarium, and the other with the contractor who would win an open tender, transparent to the public, for housing construction on the public land.

The comptroller's demand sounds logical. Seemingly, city land should not be handed over to any entrepreneur without a tender, no matter what the price the business pays for it. But in this case, the term "tender" is confusing. These are not two construction plans merged into one on a whim. According to documents produced during the negotiations for the deal, which are open to the public, there was no harm done to the public or the city's interests and its representatives won't be clipping any coupon from the deal. Moreover, the open public land was not even meant for construction. Changing its zoning could only be done as compensation to private owners of land elsewhere, more important to the public, which in this case was the land on which the Dolphinarium stands. Even if the parking lot and the city car-tow lot were put up for tender, it is possible that it would take a decade or more until an appropriate contractor would be found and in any case, Buchman would not have a reason to concede the Dolphinarium, and the public would come out the loser. That section of the boardwalk would not be built, and towers would be built on the open public land.

The story of the Dolphinarium is of great public importance, because Tel Aviv could be stuck another 70 years with the ugly and unnecessary nuisance known as the Dolphinarium, and even more important, because it threatened city hall with paralysis. In the early days of the state, great deeds were done, sometimes by circumventing the law in a roundabout manner. Since then, laws were made and committees established, meant to enable the public to monitor the activity of its elected officials. But often it seems that with exaggerated diligence for the law and the rules and regulations, city halls are unable to do anything.

The Tel Aviv municipality, like any municipality, is committed to abiding by the law in a way that is seen and not only done. However, a careful reading of the city's and ILA's documents raises questions at least about the comptroller's insistence on separating the two deals. His demand pushes the city into a corner of paralysis, where its leaders, fearing criticism, might give up their efforts and allow the Dolphinarium to continue to decay slowly on the beach.

Comments