Leaning over maps and aerial photographs in his office, the mayor of Bnei Brak, Yaakov Asher, excitedly explains his city's new flagship plan. Asher visits the future compound with the aid of a three-dimensional computer program, which switches between the high towers, below the innovative deck at the spot where the highway and the train tracks will go, and at an angle in the direction of the Bnei Brak Yarkon River park.
From his point of view and that of the city's other leaders of the past 15 years, this is the fulfillment of an urban dream - the development of a modern industrial zone for the city, which, he says, will free it of its dependence on grants of millions of shekels from the Interior Ministry and will make it completely independent from an economic point of view. Not merely independent - Asher hopes that this development will turn Bnei Brak into a city that will enjoy a considerable addition to its municipal budget, and as a corollary, a rise in the standard of living in the city, which the residents so desperately need.
"If this plan is put into operation, we will become super-independent," he says. "There are two stages here: an industrial zone in the north [a plan that has already been approved] will lead us to economic independence in the near future. The new plan will lead us to independence plus. We wish to run our lives and not be managed by someone else, and for that we have to have jobs. It's not possible that what is good for Ramat Gan, the stock exchange compound, will not be good for Bnei Brak, too. Our time has come," he says proudly. But while the mayor has high hopes for the plans, from the point of view of other bodies, including environmentalist organizations such as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Adam, Teva VeDin, as well as residents of neighborhoods that border the compound, the picture is somewhat different. These bodies have submitted objections to the plan, for various reasons, such as the heavy load of traffic and the plan's tendency to encourage private transportation as well as the location of the public area, far from the city center. In their opinion, the plan in its present form has too many defects.
Last September, after 15 years of working on and debating it, the district planning and building committee deposited the 572/BB master plan for the North Bnei Brak compound. The area in question is located next to the Ayalon mall and constitutes the last large reserve of land in the city. It is bordered by the Yarkon River in the north (on the other side are the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Kiryat Atidim and Ramat Hahayal), Sheshet Hayamim Street (which becomes Em Hamoshavot Road east of that) to the south, Mivtza Kadesh St. to the west and Route No. 4 on the eastern side.
At this stage, the plan remains an outline only, intended to portray the area's character and to present what is envisioned for it. Detailed city building plans will follow at a later stage, when they will be drawn up along the lines of the city's master plan, to fix the final appearance of the place. The compound encompasses an area of some 1,450 dunams, part of which currently houses factories, offices and businesses. This large tract allows for massive construction - up to 1.5 million square meters, most of it in high rise towers of 15 to 30 storeys, which will be used for commerce, offices, services and high-tech industry. Some 150,000 square meters will be earmarked for public buildings. The high-rise construction will be graded nearby the park, where buildings will not exceed five storeys.
The construction work in the compound, located on a main traffic artery, is expected to be completed in 2029. The Bnei Brak train station is already in place and the plan calls for moving it to the center of the planned industrial area. A light railway is also supposed to pass near the area and perhaps even traverse it. In addition, two main thoroughfares are expected to cross it from east to west - the Em Hamoshavot Road (which is not yet completely open to traffic and which is supposed to link up with Route 4 on its eastern side) and Route 491, which is more massive and consists of the eastern part of the Ayalon Highway, which will pass through the planned compound in the future. Route 491 is the rationale for one of the plan's innovations - the deck that will partially cover the road and on which will be located open piazzas for pedestrians and towers of up to 30 storeys.
One of the jewels in this crown is the park that will stretch across the compound's entire northern area, close to the Yarkon River. It is meant to benefit the residents of Bnei Brak, one of the poorest and most densely populated cities in Israel, which also suffers from a severe shortage of open public spaces. "It was clear that the development of the Yarkon park and its bank would be one of the plan's focal points," says architect Eli Furst from the urban planning firm of Adam Mazur - Eli Furst, who drew up the plan. The residents of Bnei Brak are desperately in need of open spaces, Furst says, and the park will be accessible "through a system of pedestrian paths that will join the city of Bnei Brak with the other side of the Yarkon above Sheshet Hayamim Road and will end at the piazzas, from where pedestrians will once again pass through green routes to the Yarkon. These are indirect and safe traffic routes." However this description does not satisfy those opposed to the plan, who believe that the public section next to the park is too limited and too remote. It seems that what most disturbs the residents of northeast Tel Aviv, who have submitted joint objections to the plan via a non-profit association that represents 15 neighborhoods and more than 850 residents, is the heavy traffic that will be created, in their opinion, at their places of residence.
One of the reasons for this is what they consider the incorrect delays in the traffic arrangements, which will enable massive construction work even before the roads and intersections in the area are completed. As a result, they are worried about the accompanying dangers and annoyances, such as noise, air pollution and safety hazards. The residents opposed to the plan claim the construction will reach enormous proportions, which will be stretched over a relatively small planned area. They believe this will create "an urban monster" with extremely dense construction of high rises that will be very busy, even in comparison with the neighboring industrial area of Ramat Hahayal. All this will lead to a decline in the value of their apartments, they say. Another concern relates to the train station. Residents are calling for the transfer of the station to be part of the plan, rather than relying merely on guiding principles to ensure that it will be as proximate as possible and will also be connected by public transport to the industrial area in Ramat Hahayal and the adjacent neighborhoods, serving them as well, without affecting the park.
The residents also claim that the park is not sufficiently accessible from the direction of Bnei Brak and that, in general, the borders of the built-up area in the park interface with the Yarkon River and leave only a narrow strip of park, which cannot serve as an open public space. They are also calling for speeding up the park's development, fearing that it will be developed in full only at a relatively late stage of the plan.
The INPA, which is also opposed to the plan, points to the severe lack of open green spaces in Bnei Brak. INPA sources believe that a different plan would have opened up more high-standard public areas, which would be accessible to the city's residents. They say that other than the park, the plan for the new area does not mention even the smallest allocation of open green areas. According to a report that was drawn up in 1997 by Arza Churchman and Yona Ginsberg for the development of a master plan for Bnei Brak, there are less than four square meters of green spaces per capita in the city. The Interior Ministry's minimum requirement is seven square meters per person. The INPA notes that the lack of green spaces means the residents of Bnei Brak have to travel to other cities to enjoy open public spaces. They say the plan does not allocate even a minimum amount of open green spaces other than the park next to the Yarkon.
"The entire way in which the plan relates to green areas is very schematic," says architect Guy Nardi, who coordinates the INPA's planning for Tel Aviv. "Green circles are drawn that have no practical significance. The fact that they want to create a green axis and gardened streets is not enough." INPA sources also say the areas that are defined as open public spaces and which are located close to the Yarkon River are too far from the city and do not fit the definition of the Environmental Protection Ministry, according to which the distance between an open public space and a resident's home should not exceed more than 400 meters. "On Shabbat, which mother will walk such a distance with her children?" wonders Nardi. "The Bnei Brak municipality is relying mostly on the development of the Yarkon park, but what can you do if it's too far away?" Nardi says that, in addition, the development will turn the Yarkon park into a metropolitan park, designated for the entire metropolis and not just for Bnei Brak. The park next to the Yarkon, it is claimed, will mainly serve employees of the industrial compound rather than the population of Bnei Brak. In the objection it submitted, the INPA proposes that in addition to the Yarkon park, another open public space be set up in the plan's southern part, the area closest to Bnei Brak.
The objection submitted by another environmental organization - Adam, Teva VeDin - likewise refers to the open spaces and it, too, proposes that an open public space be developed in the compound's southern part, unconnected to the development of the park in the north. "The land is meant for public buildings and therefore it can easily be converted, at least in part, into open public spaces," explains architect Yael Dori, who submitted the appeal on behalf of the organization. "As it is, the new industrial area measures some 150,000 square meters, and therefore it is fitting that they should add as much green as possible close to the homes and existing neighborhoods."
Sources in Adam, Teva VeDin also claim that the plan tends to favor private transportation rather than public transport, that it is not "sustainable" and does not allow for changes in accordance with future needs. They also claim that the extent of building allowed by the plan is enormous and disproportional to the area's size.
The organization raises another question in its objection - it foresees that the compound will be deserted at night and is therefore likely to attract people from the fringes of society. They therefore propose that the area also be designated for hotel space.
"The jewel in the crown from the public's point of view is the park," Asher says. "We are talking about an area of more than 300 dunams - larger than the National Park. Too far, okay. But what can we do? We have finally reached a situation where there is a park, where we will no longer have to go pasture in strangers' fields." Further, he complains about objections by the green organizations: "They don't come from inside Bnei Brak; they don't understand that this is the last alternative we have today. What alternative do we have now - to go to the Ganei Yehoshua park [in Tel Aviv]? To the National Park [in Ramat Gan]? The plan's southern section holds Em Hamoshavot Road, a metropolitan artery, located nearby a strip with railway lines that will join up with the eastern [part of the] Ayalon [highway.] It is not practical to set up a park there. If the park is established as an addition to the development of the Yarkon, then there won't be money for its upkeep.
"If those neighborhoods that bring in a lot of municipal tax are not there," he adds, "there will be nothing to maintain the open spaces and the city itself. The area from Jabotinsky Street to the north is certainly within short walking distance and it can be reached easily. True, from the southern area people will have to travel in buses. So what? A woman with three or four or seven children will go by bus, with organized transportation, but it will still be within Bnei Brak, an internal line. It is our park - without making problems for [Ramat Gan mayor] Zvi Bar, without favors from anyone, even though they sometimes host us nicely, too. From our point of view, it's a dream come true. So the greens will come and object. They oppose almost every plan. I think it has to be done in a positive way. I would have expected them to realize that this is us planning our very own park."
Asher also believes that there is no logic to the claims of the residents of northeast Tel Aviv, who believe the compound will be a burden to their neighborhoods. "I am going to meet the residents. From the transportation point of view, the issue is being examined. Certain aspects of the plan are dependent on a traffic analysis of the entire region. It is the very transportation infrastructures in the compound that will reduce the traffic burden from the Tel Aviv neighborhoods. I am providing them a service, but it can't be that I do that and am not allowed to build. However, we will face up to that challenge and to the objections. No plan in Israel was passed without meeting with objections. The objections are an elementary right. From our point of view, it is either to be or to stop existing - any spoke they put in our wheel is also a spoke in the wheels of Bnei Brak's development - from the plan's development angle and from its green angle, too. I also believe that not everything in this country is good enough, so let's take a D-9 [bulldozer] and tear down entire neighborhoods in Bnei Brak and let's make everything here green. I have no more place for making public spaces. One thing is connected to another. I believe in this plan and I believe it is crucial for Bnei Brak's existence. In any case, it has passed through all the instances."