New Urbanism, Israeli Style

About a month ago, on the eve of the countrywide municipal elections, Hadera inaugurated its new city produce market.

About a month ago, on the eve of the countrywide municipal elections, Hadera inaugurated its new city produce market, which dominates the junction of Herbert Samuel Street and Rothschild Boulevard. It sticks out like a sore thumb, an alien presence offering a cacophony of bold colors, angular shapes and industrial lattice work. A crimson clock on the building's facade overlooks a grandiose fountain installed in the adjacent traffic circle at a cost of NIS 1 million.

From the new market the road leads to a piazza, a public square built some 35 years ago in an attempt to create a big-city aura. The story of the piazza's efflorescence and decline is a sad and controversial topic of discussion among the local burghers. In the meantime, the piazza, too, has been overhauled as part of the urban renewal taking place in Hadera, a nondescript city of 85,000 between Netanya and Haifa. The piazza's original modernist conception has been violated by stone gates and state-of-the-art stainless-steel benches. Similarly, the original denizens of the piazza - including groups of youngsters and elderly backgammon players - have disappeared with the arrival of new props: seasonal greenery illuminated at night by faux-exotic green lighting.

The facelift that Hadera is now getting, for better or worse, must be credited to its mayor, Haim Avitan, 55, imbued with Herodian ambitions previously unknown in the town.

"Urban renewal is the most suitable thing for the city," says Avitan, who was just reelected by a majority of almost two-thirds. "The city market was built 90 years ago and was like a carbuncle in the center of town. We renovated it and resurfaced the road European-style, with interlocking stones. To develop a center like this within a year - that is the true success. Who ever thought of a fountain in Hadera? I brought Amram Mitzna here for a visit and he told me, 'I was a major general, I was a mayor [of Haifa], but I didn't succeed in building a market like this in Haifa.' Everyone who sees it is thrilled."

We are in Avitan's office in City Hall. The mayor, dressed in jeans and a gray shirt, is talking a mile a minute. Until three years ago he was a member of the city council and deputy mayor. His big break came when the former mayor, Yisrael Sadan, was convicted on bribery charges. Since Avitan took over, Hadera has been subjected to a renovation obsession, with the end nowhere in sight. "I am a person with initiative and charisma, and I work on everything at once," he says. "In the past few weeks we authorized a project of a thousand dunams [250 acres] of high-tech structures on the coastal highway. I already have a plan to develop 2,500 dunams for residential housing on the seafront. We are going to have the biggest desalination plant in the world here, Hadera Paper Mills is expanding, the mall is growing and we are going to build a cultural center with 800 seats. It's going to be dynamic: development after development, nonstop."

Unrealized potential

Hadera is a riveting test case for urban renewal - a shopworn phrase that in recent years has become a trend in the big cities and a popular electioneering slogan for politicians. Like many other cities in Israel that are fighting to attract affluent residents and entrepreneurs, Hadera is trying to reinvent itself. The large-scale architectural effort that is quickly recasting the face of the city gives rise to questions about the substantive implications of urban overhaul. Did the decision-makers consider in depth the full implications of the plan? Is this a genuine metamorphosis or a mere cosmetic makeover?

Hadera was founded in 1891 as a farming colony established by immigrants from Lithuania and Latvia, and by the early 20th century it had grown into a regional center. During the British Mandate period, governmental structures such as a police station and a coast guard station were built. Hadera was officially declared a city in 1952, and it was then that two of its biggest neighborhoods were built: Givat Olga on the seafront and Beit Eliezer on the east side.

Hadera has some impressive assets: Its area of jurisdiction of 53,000 dunams is the fourth largest in Israel. It lies along two railway lines (the coastal line and the eastern line, used by freight trains) and two major highways (Highway 4 and the coastal road). Its natural features are also unusual: 7 kilometers of seacoast, Nahal Hadera Park, a eucalyptus forest covering 1,300 dunams, plus the adjacent Hasharon Park. However, the city's great potential has not been fulfilled: Hadera did not become a significant urban player. Following the arrival of tens of thousands of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1990s, Hadera lost its small-town character and its power to attract newcomers declined in favor of the nearby locales of Zichron Yaakov, Binyamina, Caesarea and, more recently, Pardes Hanna-Karkur. The past two decades saw Hadera's historic center destroyed by the municipality's neglect combined with unreliable behavior by developers. For example, the Hefziba construction firm, which was marketing a new neighborhood under the slogan "Between Mikhmoret and Caesarea, on the seashore," collapsed; the new neighborhood was only partially built.

"This is a city that got lost between Haifa and Tel Aviv," says Hedva Yehezkeli, a representative of the Greens and a member of the opposition on the city council.

"We used to be a district center containing all the municipal services. The income tax department and VAT have offices here, and there is a courthouse and a hospital. But look what happened: We shifted from being a district center to a kolkhoz. The one movie theater shut down, the young people are leaving and the mayor is busy applying cosmetic touches. Why do we need all these city squares? What is the point of this unnecessary fountain in the market? He did everything too fast - within three years - just to get reelected."

Weren't the renovations necessary to improve the look of the city?

"With what? With olive trees? Maybe visitors to the city are impressed, but when you check out our education system all the problems stare out at you. Once we were one of the leading cities in the country, but today only 50 percent of our high-school students obtain matriculation certificates. Blow away the dust and you see that we have Nahal Hadera, the most polluted stream in Israel."

Black hole

The city architect, Avishai Kimeldorf, 35, a Hadera-born resident, leads a tour of the center, where he himself lives. Highly motivated and effusing good will, he describes every site as a success story. The city has always enjoyed a bustling street life, and now, in the late afternoon, the main streets are crowded with people. Kimeldorf points out the four pillars of the new center: projects to renovate the market and the piazza, at a cost of NIS 10 million each; the expansion of the Lev Hadera Mall by private developers; and the preservation of the historic Avshalom Feinberg [a leader of the Jewish spy network NILI in World War I] house at a cost of NIS 3 million. Complementing these are various projects involving infrastructure, landscaping and the renovation of private homes.

"The new projects lie along a seven-kilometer stretch that links Beit Eliezer with Givat Olga, with the piazza and the market at the midpoint," says Kimeldorf. "The new center has become a drawing card. Since we opened the project new businesses have come in and developers are also showing interest. We see that in requests for building permits. That is the proof that our handling of the public space is attracting investors. Now we are planning to renovate some of the buildings, especially those that have a touch of history to them. You should see what it's like here on Fridays - performances, booths, all kinds of stuff, like a kind of Nahalat Binyamin," he says, referring to the trendy street mall in Tel Aviv.

Did you get dragged into renewal like many other cities because it's fashionable?

"You must have read too many opposition articles. It was a decision of principle to renew the city center. We could have put the money elsewhere. In contrast to other cities, the renewal here is not only visual. It involves a series of steps, some of them immediate and others long-term. Renovating the center is not only cosmetic, but is intended to deal with the black hole that existed in the city."

The tragic turning point that led to the overhaul of the market was the suicide bombing attack perpetrated by Islamic Jihad in October 2005, in which six people were killed. The old market, which served the region's farmers, a labyrinth of dark lanes and makeshift structures, was almost completely destroyed by the blast. While the debris was being removed, the merchants were moved to a tent along the adjacent road in order to ensure the market's continued operation.

The municipality held a small-scale competition for the design of a new market, with a promise from the Tourism Ministry to help out if a "tourist-attractive market" were built. The competition was won by a Tel Aviv firm of architects headed by Irit Solzi and Dror Gershon. The two are also the co-founders of the Merhav Movement for Israeli Urbanism, which advocates the creation of "a sustainable humane urban quality of life." Gershon was a planning adviser to the Hadera Municipality under the previous mayor.

"The old market was in very poor condition," he relates. "The municipality took a live-and-let-live approach to the merchants. The owners of the market stalls invested nothing, and the city, for its part, did not collect municipal taxes from them or give them services. In the past I advised the municipality to develop the market and, in the end, the terrorist incident left them no choice."

The opening of the new market gave the municipality the chance to institutionalize relations with the merchants and collect lost municipal taxes in return for their move to the new structure. So far about half the commercial space is populated. The illuminated inner spaces generate a feeling of order and cleanliness. Still, it is hard to ignore the structure's problematic appearance - a postmodernist collision between a Mexican hacienda and a paint shop. The loud colors, by the way, are not foreign to the work of Gershon and Solzi. A visitor to their office can hardly ignore the architects' fondness for bold hues. "We made the market colorful because we think that a city cannot be just gray. Right now, with everything around it gray, the market stands out a bit too much, but if you notice, a few buildings to the east someone has already used a similar crimson. In terms of form, there is an emphasis on the corners, but the rest is perfectly quiet lines."

Why does the message of urban renewal have to be shouted out so loudly?

"We definitely wanted the market to stand out, but part of the pleasant feeling of the Hadera center is the public space, not the structures themselves. It's all about proportions. Take the Basel compound in Tel Aviv, which is very pleasant, but lift your head and look up and you see that everything is guck."

Would you paint the Basel compound buildings in dazzling colors?

"The introduction of color and form creates a backdrop. The use of color is like an amazing hocus-pocus. It's like makeup. It's a relatively cheap means to stir interest. When you work on office buildings using aluminum and metal, the material itself is distinctive and exudes strength, but when you have a smaller budget but still want to underline something, color is a marvelous solution."

The market's unusual appearance is especially noteworthy against the backdrop of the handsome but modest modernist buildings in the city center. These architectural gems could easily enter the list of buildings for preservation in Tel Aviv or Haifa. The architectural effort embodied by the new structure evokes buildings that were designed by architects of the New Urbanism movement in the United States, who try to generate urban renewal on a human scale.

"I don't think Hadera has a characteristic architectural language," Gershon says. "If your building maintains the proportions and scale of the street - that is the important thing. Theatricality is not a dirty word. I visited several New Urbanism projects in the United States, and they really like this playful splashiness. One of the places copied an Italian city center. You ask yourself if it's from here or not from here. But the result is an urban space that is fun for people to visit."

In the past few months the Hadera municipality has been trying intensively to market the new center, which was also the star player in Haim Avitan's election campaign. A press release from the municipality's PR people claims that "Hadera has become the only city in Israel with a clock in the city center." In fact, Jaffa, Nazareth, Acre and Haifa have equally prominent clocks. The municipality tried to sell the glaring colors to the local residents through an article in the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, which waxed poetic over the symbolic meaning of each of the structure's spaces: purple for "good virtue" (a play on words in Hebrew), yellow against "bad people," crimson "against rats" and pink for "exorcism of demons."

The renovation of the piazza has the feel of an initiative by a provincial town that is dying for recognition at any price. The resulting hybrid is not really a square and not actually a place to sit. Instead of planting trees and leaving an open landscape, the planners brought in palm trees, probably at the behest of the kitsch committee. The one-way traffic introduced at the piazza has done little if anything to alleviate the congestion. Hadera is not alone in this story. In recent years the Israeli cityscape has been cluttered by traffic circles with olive trees and clay jugs, complemented by banal street furniture. Artificial flowers a meter and a half high, made of plastic and metal, now stand at the entrance to Hadera. The idea was to create a colorful welcome. An election brochure described the plants as "environmental sculpture," though any connection between them and art is purely coincidental. The metal-flower trend, by the way, has spread to a number of cities.

Kimeldorf: "Metal flowers is only the technique. We made a strategic decision to deal with the main entrances, and the mayor said he wanted a project that would be both visual and raise the standard of living. The design decisions are made jointly by the mayor, the landscaping department and me, and every project is budgeted separately and submitted to the city council for authorization. These flowers complement our treatment of the street. The previous landscaping was extremely wasteful of water. In my view, it also adds a touch of color. It's diversified, it adds interest, it's new. It's art in the service of landscaping, or vice versa. This design suits the spirit of Hadera. It's a decision that reflects the city's green history."

How do artificial flowers reinforce the urban heritage?

"It's like a pleasant anecdote instead of using regular landscaping. As part of the upgrading of the urban axis, we asked the flower artist to create for us a huge logo of Hadera in Police Square. Instead of plows and old wagons, we decided to put the city emblem upfront. That suits the dramatic scale of the square. The emblem, with the inscription 'Those who sow with tears shall reap with joy,' reminds people where we came from and where we are going. I find it much more meaningful than just writing 'Hadera.' It is very modernist in terms of a statement."

Identity problem

On the tour with Kimeldorf we encounter Ada Havida, coordinator of the local branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). She congratulates him on the extensive renovations, but complains about the theft of cyclamens from the flower boxes in the piazza. "That's Hadera for you," he replies, but immediately corrects himself: "It's the same everywhere, you know."

The municipality is planning to renovate the historic Kotler house, which will become the SPNI center. "I am happy Haim won," she says. "After all, how much can a person accomplish in three years? Really, we have to give him a chance to do things." South of the piazza, the veteran men's fashion house belonging to the Zimmerman family is still operating. It's a nostalgic remnant of a time when the personal touch and tailor-made clothing were the bon ton. The inner space, dating from the end of the 1950s, is decorated with hundreds of narrow interlocking wood shelves, on each of which lies one shirt.

"The intention behind the renovation is fine, but I'm not sure this is what Hadera needs, though it's all a matter of personal taste," says owner Gidi Zimmerman. "I don't feel as of now that the renovation has boosted sales, but on the other hand this is a period that is not really good for small businesses."

Like many others, the Zimmerman children left the city. "There is nothing for them here. In the past, Hadera was based on an average-and-up population, but the 'and-up' part left." Still, he has praise for the municipality. "I don't know if it's all Avitan's planning, but he has done a huge amount. For 60 years mayors here just talked, but he did things."

Across the street is the optician's establishment run by Ami Shiovich, also dating from the 1950s. "The old Hadera was a green community and it had that image for many years," Shiovich says. "The residents are disappointed in the city today because its character has changed so much. But a lot of good things are happening."

Along with the city's renovation, Shiovich decided to upgrade his business premises, too. "When you meet someone, the first thing you see is what he is wearing. So it's important first of all for the city to be dressed well, and in my opinion Hadera is managing to change." The past year saw a rise in the price of real estate in the city, and in the past three years the population has grown by 10,000 to its present 85,000, including a large percentage of young couples. The cost of living in the city is still relatively low. A four-room apartment in the center costs NIS 650,000 on average, and a villa in the veteran Otzar neighborhood goes for about NIS 1.1 million. Hadera thus offers inexpensive and convenient housing for those who cannot afford a detached home in one of the prestigious nearby communities but still want train access to the center of the country.

Journalist and screenwriter Gal Uchovsky is Hadera-born, but left the city. His father, Dr. Dov Uchovsky, a resident of the Ephraim neighborhood on the city's east side, runs a well-known veterinary clinic that serves the entire region. "Having spent my boyhood in Hadera, I think the place represented 1960s Israel," Gal Uchovsky says. "It was a far more innocent place then, a town that very much recalled the villages, with a farming groove, not so bourgeois. It was never a special city. In the Scouts, when we went to the jamboree, our branch was always the most meager. It's a meager city where nothing happens."

What do you think is to blame for the city's gloomy image?

"Hadera is a bit of a problematic city. There were many mayors who never really developed it, and it became a kind of place without a clear identity. There was a moment at which all my parents' friends moved to Caesarea, when the price of land there was still the same as in Hadera. My mother refused to move. She said she doesn't like suburbs but the city, she likes going by foot to the center. And she does not regret not having made the move."

Urban nightmare

According to the architect Zvi Elhayani, a researcher and teacher at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, the renewal project in Hadera reflects an unnecessary architectural effort that is out of joint with the spirit of the city. "Hadera is full of ridiculous toys," he says. "I would expect from someone who advocates the New Urbanism approach to identify places like the small square on the Palatin pedestrian mall, which links the axis of the Founders Park and Rothschild Boulevard. Adjacent to it is the old post office and another building that used to be a movie theater. That is a true urban space, in the right proportions. With no effort, one can shut one's eyes and imagine a square in Vienna or Italy. You don't need all kinds of caricatures, all this Disneyland, to create good urban situations. The whole world is critical of postmodernism, but in Israel it's still the in thing. What is happening there in the city center is simply a nightmare." That critique is seconded by Prof. Yael Moriah, a Technion lecturer and a partner in the landscape architecture firm of Moriah-Skali. "Urban renewal has become very fashionable in recent years," she says. "But one has to see whether it meets physical needs or political needs. It is first necessary to understand the normal changes in a place and then see how to adjust it to the new conditions that evolve."

Why are all mayors so enthusiastic about the "urban renewal" slogan?

"Cities in Israel have changed a great deal. The population has changed, our behavior in the city space has changed, and there is also of course natural amortization. Quite a few cities have used up their land reserves and are now trying to see what can be done with the existing situation. How to turn a path into a street, how to put in bicycle trails - things like that. Although this is an important process, it also contains elements of the ludicrous. I have never heard that Paris is undergoing urban renewal. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but the process has to be examined carefully and a decision made on how to redesign the space. In most places - and this is what's so sad - the observation is entirely graphic, external. There is no attempt to fit the new planning to the city's new needs."

According to Prof. Moriah, three years is too short a period to examine the complex process of urban renewal. At the same time, she admits that city dwellers usually react positively to quick renovations, as was proved in the results of the election for mayor of Tel Aviv this month.

Architect Dror Gershon, the designer of the Hadera market, draws encouragement from the development momentum under way in Bat Yam. "Hadera is not in such a good situation today and it has a lot of work to do on itself," he says. "But dealing with the city center can foment a change. It wasn't by chance that Shlomo Lahiani won 90 percent of the vote in Bat Yam. He transformed Bat Yam from the city with the worst image in Israel to a place where the price of real estate is now higher than [neighboring] Holon. If Bat Yam can do it, so can Hadera."

Gershon also notes, though, that in the period when he was an adviser to the Hadera municipality he encountered far-fetched development ideas that were wildly out of sync with any sort of planning logic, such as a master plan from the 1980s to build 5,000 hotel rooms in a city that has no tourist potential. In addition, the Interior Ministry approved a plan to build 30-story towers in the city center.

"When people in the municipality tell me, 'We will build prestigious towers here and the rich people from Tel Aviv will come and buy penthouses,' I ask myself what would induce them to come. It's good that the municipality stopped waiting for people from other places and started to be concerned about its own residents leaving. That calls for a different approach to city leadership. It's happening everywhere in the world. The key is the rejuvenation of the city center."

In the meantime, the new mayor is dreaming about his next project: a high-tech zone of 1,000 dunams to be built at the entrance to the city, next to a new train-and-bus station. The new industrial park will provide thousands of jobs and be competitive with other nearby industrial parks. Avitan promises that it will enjoy environmental development at a level equal to the city center. "It's environmental psychology. When you feel good in your surroundings, you behave accordingly. This city will become one of the most important in the country, with 120,000 inhabitants. We will be like Rishon Letzion, like Ashdod."