Jerusalem Reaches for the Heavens

A number of new plans for high-rises may change the city's skyline, but could create islands that struggle to fit within the urban fabric.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

A new project to be built in downtown Jerusalem atop the ruins of the legendary Eden Cinema is seeking to recreate the success of the Mamilla Mall. Together with the well-known American Jewish architect, Daniel Libeskind, architect Yigal Levi is now designing a 24-story tower that will include 180 luxury apartments, a boutique hotel, cinemas and a theater, a trendy commercial area and an outdoor public plaza.

The plan for Levi and Libeskind’s curving tower.Credit: Courtesy

The ground floor consists of a series of Jerusalem-style gates and courtyards and the shape of the multi-purpose tower is reminiscent of a vertical wave that soars upward and tops off at a sharp angle.

Eden is one of 10 different downtown Jerusalem high-rise projects now in various stages of planning and permitting. Many of the plans, which will dramatically alter the city's skyline, are largely unknown to the general public.

Located at the intersection of Agrippas Street and Mordehai Aliash, Levi says the project is situated smack in the heart of the city.

"We want to bring to the city center the revolution that Mamilla spurred in its area," Levi says, referring to the high-end mall, hotel and residential area built near the Old City's Jaffa Gate over the ruins of what was once no-man's land. "There are a lot of new projects in the city center, but they don't create a meeting place where people can linger and meet. We are a one-minute walk from the King George Street-Jaffa Road intersection, very close to the Mahane Yehuda market and close to Nahlaot. Daniel (Libeskind ) managed to open up the project in all directions, and created a new network of links to the surrounding streets. If you add to this his unique design, you will see that something very good for the city center is happening."

Libeskind is not the only international architect working in the area today. Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei is now planning a new tower in the Etz Haim complex on Jaffa Road at the corner of Etz Haim Street (together with the firm Nir-Kotz, which also designed with him the First International Bank's administrative headquarters in Tel Aviv ).

In addition to them, four towers are being planned for Jaffa Road, near the old Shaare Zedek Medical Center; a tower on the site of the historic Mapai House near Jaffa Road (designed by Rosenfeld-Arens Architects ), a tower at the Kiah complex in Davidka Square, two 16-story towers, one a hotel and the other for offices, near the Plaza Hotel on King George Street and another residential hi-rise building in the Seidoff Complex on Jaffa Road adjacent to the Mahane Yehuda market.

The turning point for high-rise construction in Jerusalem is the new master plan which was recently given preliminary approval.

After many years of discussions, disputes and planning surveys, the question now under discussion is not whether to build high-rise towers in the heart of the city, but how to design the towers and what their contribution to the urban fabric will be.

The completion of the Jerusalem light rail and a high speed rail link to Tel Aviv are expected to transform the city center into a more accessible area, and the Jerusalem municipality is hoping to use this momentum to strengthen commerce, business and tourism there.

But some are asking to what extent the city can integrate high-rise towers into Jerusalem's one-of-a-kind historical settings. The city's strict building regulations that require Jerusalem stone-covered facades will need to be dealt with, and the hundreds of apartments added to the city center in the end may be only for the well-to-do, as happened in Mamilla, which is largely owned by foreigners who leave the neighborhood a ghost town for most of the year.

Architect Naama Malis’ envisioned high-rises on Jaffa road near the Central Bus Station.Credit: Courtesy

According to the master plan, there are two corridors in downtown Jerusalem designated for high-rise construction up to 24 stories, one along Jaffa Road and the other along King George Street. There are also plans for buildings up to 32 stories at the entrance to the city, near Binyanei Ha'uma and the Strings Bridge.

The Jerusalem skyline is already pierced by several buildings built at different times in the city center when there was no clear policy. For that reason, the spread of future high-rise construction was carefully considered and determined based on clear criteria: visibility, access to transportation and integration into the historical fabric.

Considerable effort was invested in moving the towers away from the vicinity of the historical basin and the Old City.

"The master plan changed dramatically the moment it was decided to cancel the Safdie Plan for Western Jerusalem," said Dalit Silber, the Interior Ministry's Jerusalem District planner. The Moshe Safdie's plan would have expanded the city into the hills around Jerusalem with tens of thousands of low-density units.

"Instead of expanding to the west, we are now talking about converging inwardly and condensing the existing city by make it denser and through renewal," Silber said. "The high-rise construction was really allowed in measured quantity. The decision allowed for construction along just two axes in the historical city and it leaves more than half of the city at a height of five-six stories. I believe this is the necessary balance between the need to preserve the unique urban fabric and the needs of the city of Jerusalem today. We review each project carefully and make extreme efforts to adhere to the policy."

Naama Malis, a veteran architect and urban planner, says the public space at the foot of the high-rise towers is the main challenge of the design process. She is now working on a plan for two new towers on the plot between Jaffa Road and Shazar Boulevard, which in the past was the temporary central bus station.

Along Jaffa Road side there are two historical buildings that will be preserved and renovated. Between them and the towers, an expansive public square will be built with cafes and shops.

"Our project is in the most accessible place in Jerusalem and there is certainly room to expand it. We are located next to the Israel Railways station and along the route of the light rail, near the Knesset and the entrance to the city. It is a place where there should be an urban commercial center," she says.

According to Malis, Jerusalem's romantic skyline of church spires and minarets long ago disappeared, and changing the discussion about high-rise construction.

"What is important today is the creation of a good environment for pedestrians and enriching the experience of roaming the city and shopping there," she said. "Every tower should have an added value for the city, a plaza, a public institution, building preservation. I think that our project creates a very good and pleasant environment."

Another design challenge in planning high-rise towers in Jerusalem is the requirement to have at least 70 percent of the facade covered in stone. Even a variance allowing just 50 percent can be a burden for architects.

In the contemporary typology of high-rise towers in Israel and abroad, glass is an inseparable part of the design and to a large extent defines the building's identity. Stone may create a building that is heavy and massive.

"I think that the decision to build using Jerusalem stone is one of the best building decisions made in Israel, but a lot of work needs to be done to get a good result," Malis said. "You cannot build Tel Aviv-style towers with lots of glass in Jerusalem."

She herself chose to use a different facade for the two towers she is designing. The office tower will have a relatively flat facade with many windows. The other building for residential purposes has a three-dimensional facade with balconies that break up the massive appearance of the building.

Architect Moti Bodek feels the solution lies in designing three-dimensional facades that partially conceal the glass.

Yigal Levi prefers a solution that provides a different look to every part of the tower, setting the stone in part of the facade and in the supporting walls in others. According to him, Daniel Libeskind did not complain about the regulations requiring stone facing.

"Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv. If there are already hi-rise towers in the city center, they should be jewels of superb architectural quality," Levi said. Jerusalem is also not Tel Aviv from a demographic standpoint, but none of the new plans include affordable housing or even apartments that could be appropriate for the middle class, to say nothing of the hundreds of units that will probably be acquired by foreigners and turned into ghost residences.

"I think that the forces in the city should be allowed to run their course," Levi said. "Even if lower buildings of 10 stories go up in the city center, they will still be purchased by wealthy foreigners. In our project, on the top, there are very luxurious penthouses for the world's well-to-do and below, a theater and a public space open to all. It's a matter of balance."

Levi says the city's building restrictions are what lead to the current situation in which towers are built only for the wealthy.

"It's a complex question that is not necessarily related to what is happening in the city center," he said. "Clearly if you build a high-rise on Jaffa Road, it will be very unique and very expensive. The problem is that in many other parts of Jerusalem, there are restrictions on height. We have a huge shortage of simple residential buildings of the kind built in Rishon Letzion or Holon. This is a product that foreign residents will not buy, and could spur a secular demographic revolution in the city. Ironically, the only project that is doing this is the Holyland project. With all the criticism of it, the demand there is very high."

Bodek says the risk of building exclusively for the wealthy is an issue that can be overcome.

"There certainly is a question regarding who would live in these high-rise towers," He said. "If it is a well-to-do population and they drive a jeep into the parking lot and from there go up to the penthouse without moving around in the city, we certainly may lose. The trick is to combine several uses in each tower and let the lower floors work with the street. In the meantime, I find it hard it hard to see the negative impact of the high-rise towers."



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