Rehavia Residents in J'lem Take on Developers Changing Character of Neighborhood

One of the first houses in the historical Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia is the focus of a struggle between residents and developers, as local activists claim the quaint character of the area is being lost to irresponsible construction.

The building, known as Lily House, was commissioned by Gad Frumkin, the only Jewish Supreme Court judge under the British Mandate. It was built in 1925, in the then-popular International Style, with oriental influences. Forty years ago it was purchased by Rabbi Yisrael Ze'ev Gustman, and has been used as a synagogue ever since.

Over the last few years, the synagogue and its neighbors have been locked in a dispute over a plan to expand the building and add a small banquet hall. Residents protest that this would effectively double the size of the building. Due to their complaints, and legal advice by city attorney Yossi Havilio, the building permit was canceled halfway through the construction, and now the new annex remains only half-complete.

But residents at a protest outside the synagogue last Friday said the Lily House was only one example of a flawed municipal policy.

The leaders of the protest, Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon, are Ph.D. students at top American universities, who recently returned to Rehavia after several years abroad.

"We were walking around the neighborhood and found ourselves completely appalled," said Inbar. "It wasn't like that when we left."

The two were most surprised by new construction projects. They counted dozens of such projects, all advertising luxurious apartments that alter or damage historical architecture.

"The buildings comprising Rehavia as we know it didn't suit the potential buyers," said Inbar. "So they're ousting the people that make up the neighborhood - students, young people, longtime residents. These are all people who can never come back to Rehavia. They can't even dream about buying the new apartments."

Although the municipality said the new construction is necessary to accommodate Jerusalem's growing population, a general survey conducted by the activists suggests many of the buildings will have only one apartment per floor, as opposed to the old standard of two to four apartments. "A building with nine apartment becomes a building with four apartments," said Sharon.

The new flats are listed for $960,000 to $1.8 million, a local real estate agent said.

But the changes are more than just interior: Although Rehavia was originally conceived as a garden neighborhood, its gardens are also being overtaken by the new projects. Some are being turned into parking lots, while others are being paved over and concealed behind walls.

"Who would hire a gardener if they stay here only on holidays, anyway?" said Ramon.

Another local activist, Yigal Tzur, said that half the flats in his building were bought by foreign residents and stand empty most of the year, along with three entire buildings on his street. Members of the neighborhood committee said entire streets in Rehavia are completely dark for months.

The new municipal master plan regulating construction permits in the neighborhood has not yet been submitted to the municipal planning committee, and is therefore not open to objections, but residents are saying it's already being implemented on the ground. The master plan divides Rehavia into three zones with varying construction standards. In some places, buildings as tall as six stories are allowed.

The municipality said in a statement: "City Hall recognizes the importance of conservation in such a historical city, and we are already implementing unprecedented reforms in the field."

"It should be noted that not a single building in Rehavia was demolished since the mayor took office. The takeover of Rehavia by luxury construction and foreign buyers has been going on for nearly a decade. The municipality is taking steps to make affordable accommodation available for young people and students in Rehavia. As of 2010, a special department in City Hall will develop practical tools to plan and market affordable housing throughout the city."

Shmuel Feingold, who represents the synagogue, said it was breaking no laws and the expansions were necessary due to the growth of the observant population in the neighborhood.

"Some people don't want a synagogue here and are exploiting the conservation issue to attack us," he said.