Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem

`Catastrophic' is how senior municipal figures and contractors refer to the situation of planning and construction in the capital, where there have been just 695 new building starts in the last two years

Arik Mirovsky
Arik Mirovsky
Arik Mirovsky
Arik Mirovsky

The status of planning and construction in Jerusalem has reached a stage that the city engineer and the chairman of the contractors association refer to as "catastrophic." However, while the former accuses those who register opposition to various plans, the contractors' association places the blame on the slow pace at which permits are issued by the city planning bodies and on the sharp drop in land reserves available for construction. But sides both do agree that various procedural requirements reduce the supply of apartments available in the city, increase prices and deter potential buyers.

In the 1990s, when construction flourished in the capital, the number of new construction starts in Jerusalem amounted to some 8 percent of all construction in Israel, approximately 2,000 starts per year. In the wake of the recession and the intifada, construction starts in the city were cut in half. According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) that also includes Arab construction in the eastern part of Jerusalem, a creeping decline in private construction in the city became evident starting already in 1999.

The chairman of the contractors' association in the city, Aharon Cohen, who also serves as vice president of the national contractors' association, claims that the dire situation of construction there goes past the recession and the intifada. The fact is that today, while there are apparent signs of recovery in the center of the country, the downturn continues unabated in Jerusalem.

The large and continuous negative migration of secular people away from the city, says Cohen, worsens the situation of construction in the city. "In just about every Jerusalem family there is a son or daughter who has left for the surrounding cities, such as Ma'aleh Adumim or Modi'in, because he or she has concluded that Jerusalem, as it looks today, is not appropriate."

The municipal engineer, Ori Sheetrit, agrees. "Two-thirds of those leaving Jerusalem are people who could have resided there, but chose, because of the high prices and the limited supply, to settle in the periphery," he says, adding that the limited supply of land in the city has led to increased prices, which are unbearable for most city residents.

There has also been a steady drop in public construction starts since 2000, when there were 1,743 of these in Jerusalem, the overwhelming majority of them in Har Homa. In the last two years, there have been just 695 new public construction starts.

Ostensibly, Jerusalem can benefit from large public projects, such as in Har Homa in the southern part of the city. The fact is that this project as well - which was especially popular in the city in recent years due to the low prices of properties and the massive assistance provided to those moving there - proved to be dependent on government aid. Once the aid ended, the pace of sales there dropped by dozens of percent.

"The massive construction in isolated compounds is misleading," says Cohen. "Before Har Homa, there was Pisgat Ze'ev, which also experienced massive construction. But the fact is that more and more Jerusalem contractors are going down to build on the coastal plain. Of the 300 contractors registered in the city, only about half are active. In Jerusalem, there are no land reserves left."

Via Dolorosa

Many contractors and developers have concluded that it is very difficult to promote a building plan in the city without encountering various objections. Cohen estimates that 20,000 planned housing units are stuck in the various statutory committees for this reason, and most will have to wait in the drawers for many more years.

Sheetrit confirms that the situation today is "catastrophic" in all matters related to planning and construction procedures in the city: "Getting a plan in Jerusalem approved is like Jesus' Via Dolorosa," he says. "Anyone who is able to read and write in this city is working to sabotage and disrupt things by means of objections."

"In addition, there are Knesset committees, such as the Interior Committee, which discuss plans for Jerusalem frequently, even though they have no constitutional authority to do so. Various organizations have already become `experts' on Jerusalem. Every MK who wants a minute or two of air time, has something to say about the city."

The chairman of the Knesset's Interior Committee, Yuri Stern, says of these claims: "The committee handles planning and construction issues in Jerusalem only with regard to two matters: preserving historical buildings and preserving the green spaces around the city. In both these matters, there have been worrisome trends noted. On the one hand, the preservation authorities in the city have not convened for a long time, and on the other hand, the municipality has expressed a desire to spread out to the west of Jerusalem, thereby causing severe damage to the view there."

The ultimate, according to Stern, was the sale of Frumin House, the first home of the Knesset, to the developer Ilan Rejwan, while permits were also granted to raze the building. "The developer, a native Jerusalemite, actually showed far more sensitivity to the historic value of the place than the state did," notes Stern. Today efforts are under way to restore the building and conduct educational activities there.

The plans to expand the city westward by building 20,400 housing units and 575,000 square meters of commercial space provoked the wrath of the "green" organizations and the Knesset Interior Committee to action, because these areas contain green belts and scenic views. Approximately 10,000 objections were submitted to the district committee, which forwarded the matter to the National Council for Planning and Construction. "With the consensus of all MKs, we decided to intervene in the matter. The ease with which they want to destroy the environment is really intolerable," Stern says.

Soon the Knesset's Interior Committee and the city council will meet to review ways of overseeing planning in the city. The municipal master plan will meanwhile be submitted in the coming weeks to the planning and construction committee, and perhaps that will bring some salvation."

The green organizations' objections are not limited to the western part of the city. A project to build 1,200 housing units in Emek Hatzvai'im was rejected due to their objections. A project to build 1,800 housing units in Mitzpeh Naftoah has also elicited hundreds of objections due to the potential damage to the open spaces there.

However, objections are not everything in a city that combines a complex mosaic of history, nature and religion. In the downtown area, plans for the construction of 5,000 units are stuck due to problems related to land ownership and multiple heirs. Sheetrit tells of cases where the registered owners of the land have over 100 heirs who cannot reach agreement on arrangements for their land and cannot advance any plans.

Another project to build 4,400 housing units on Givat Hamatos near the Gilo neighborhood is stuck because the Jewish-owned lands are intermixed with Arab-owned lands.

Another basic problem that Cohen sees in the construction industry in the city is related to the business situation there: "There is no business, the city center is dead. It is true that the intifada brought this about and yet the quiet has not restored the situation to what it was before, because a business that has been abandoned finds alternative locations and doesn't rush to come back. Clearly some of the activity that was here before will not return, unless government incentives are provided."

Sheetrit and Cohen both maintain that improving the situation in the city will not be possible with the aid of market forces and local factors alone. "Government intervention is needed, in the form of decisions that will encourage business activity in the city," says Cohen.

"Everyone, from city residents to the Israel Lands Administration and the Israeli government, must realize that we have reached an emergency situation, leading to the point where the city of Jerusalem will be unable to provide dwellings for construction. Therefore, we have to mobilize to reverse the trend," says Sheetrit.

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