Jerusalem Compound Combines New High-rises With Restored Historical Structures

Jerusalem planning and building commission approved the construction of the Etz Chaim compound adjacent to the Mahaneh Yehuda market.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

One of the most prominent high-rise building projects in downtown Jerusalem was approved earlier this week, as part of the city's new master development plan.

The Jerusalem planning and building commission approved the construction of the Etz Chaim compound adjacent to the Mahaneh Yehuda market, a plan which calls for the erection of two high-rise apartment buildings, the preservation of four historic buildings and the development of a municipal square and a small park.

The project is in the hands of the well-known American architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, which was established in 1955 by the Chinese-American architect O.M. Pei, a 1983 Pritzker Prize winner. The firm dedicated its first building in Israel about a year ago - the headquarters of the First International Bank of Israel on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.

The Etz Chaim compound spreads over 8.5 dunams (about 2.1 acres ) on Jaffa Road, adjacent to the eastern flank of Mahaneh Yehuda. From the start of the 20th century, it was the site of the Etz Chaim Yeshiva established by Rabbi Shmuel Salant, one of the city's most veteran and important yeshivas. In addition to this historic building, the compound includes a British Mandate police station, a kindergarten and a stone wall that once served as the facade of shops facing the street. A monumental gate at the center of this wall leads to the interior of the compound.

In 2008, the yeshiva sold the property to private developers for $15 million. Although the compound had already been listed by the municipality for preservation about 20 years ago, the developers sought to dismantle the yeshiva building and the kindergarten and rebuild them on a different part of the compound. But after a public struggle, it was finally decided that they would be left standing where they are.

The new plan formulated by Pei Cobb Freed (in cooperation with the Tel Aviv firm of Nir-Kutz Architects ) includes preservation of all the historical structures, the development of a municipal plaza and the reconstruction of the shops facing the street. A new entrance to Mahaneh Yehuda will also be built, leading to the central part of the market.

Jewish American architect Ian Bader, a partner at Pei Cobb Freed, explained to Haaretz that the plan aims to give the inner courtyards of Jerusalem a kind of updated interpretation.

"The two new apartment buildings are situated in such a way that will create both public and intimate spaces," he said. "There is also an opportunity here to create green spaces, inspired by places like the Rehavia neighborhood or the American Colony Hotel."

It should, however, be noted that not all of the green spaces will be open to the public.

The compound's historic buildings will meanwhile undergo comprehensive restoration and renovation. They will include a commercial level for businesses, cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries - facing both Jaffa Road and the inside of the compound. The floors above them will house office space. The stone wall facing Jaffa Road will be integrated into a new residential building, while a building to be used for public purposes will be excavated underground - apparently to include a swimming pool.

The two new residential buildings will each be 24 stories high (90 meters ) and will be characterized by facades with sliding louvers "that will create a varied and changing facade," as Bader defines it.

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