Historical Jerusalem Religious Site Expected to Become Luxury Housing Project

Project draws strong opposition ■ Greek Orthodox Patriarchate criticized for leasing the land to developers ■ Plan expected to be approved Wednesday

A woman walks past Greek Orthodox Church in Abu Tor, which owns the land which has been leased for development of a hotel and luxury apartments. February 17, 2016.
Tali Mayer

A proposal to build dozens of luxury apartments on a Jerusalem hill with great historical, archaeological and environmental significance has drawn strong opposition from local residents.

The Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee is expected to move on Wednesday to approve the plan for the hilltop in the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, overlooking the Old City.

Criticism has also targeted the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, for leasing the land to developers.

Jerusalem-Project's location

For centuries the hilltop has been identified as the Hill of Evil Counsel, where according to Christian tradition was the site of the home of the high priest Joseph Caiaphus and the place where he and his associates decided to hand Jesus to the Romans. The hill contains archaeological remains from the Second Temple and Byzantine periods, an old monastery and a church that is still active. But most of the area is open, with tall trees. It’s definitely one of the most expensive plots of land in the capital.

The patriarchate sold the hill to the Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and the London-based Israeli businessman David Sofer for 26.8 million shekels (over $7.5 million) plus $2 million in 2013. The plan is for two large six-story buildings and three smaller ones with 61 apartments in all. The development proposal includes a public park on about half of the area.

Some opponents say the work will destroy the hill and spoil the view of the Old City. Others claim the buildings will be visible from afar and spoil the skyline. They also cite transportation issues and say the project will in fact be a gated community, with only limited access to outsiders.

Neighbors say they want any development of the site to respect what they say is a special place and the last area in Jerusalem that hasn’t been destroyed. They say the hilltop is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and that the Greek Orthodox Church does not respect this.

The complex is adjacent to the Green Line, with Palestinian families living on the other side. They’re afraid that the areas they own will be expropriated to widen the road, but they aren’t opposing the plan because they feel that it can’t be stopped.

Opponents of the patriarchate’s property sales include members of Israel’s Greek Orthodox community, who cite the cite’s religious and archaeological significance, including a number of important finds.

The patriarchate says it was forced to sell because it owed $9 million after the collapse of a previous agreement. When Patriarch Theophilos III assumed office in 2005, he discovered that as a result of the debt there were threats to sell 1,000 dunhams, or 250 acres, of church property near the Mar Elias monastery in south Jerusalem. The patriarchate had to find a way to leave the district and to protect church property.

Steinhardt and Sofer offered to purchase land in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbieh and Rehavia in 2007. In the end a different investment group bought the land. They also gave the patriarch a large loan with land in the Hatahana train station complex, not far from Abu Tor, as collateral. They promise to build a hostel and convention center to be used by the patriarchate.

Architect Michael Wind rejects the opponents’ claims, asserting that the area is private property, although those who used the place felt it was public because the gates are open. He said that the developers made an unprecedented decision to donate over half the area for public use. They also had to lower the height to four stories, and therefore the skyline will barely be affected. Much of the construction will also be concealed by a cluster of Jerusalem pines, he said.

Regarding complaints about transportation Wind says that the number of apartments is very small and will barely affect traffic.

The municipality said that the plan is being promoted by owners of private land in a private area, to change the designation of a private open area to about six dunams (around 1.5 acres) of open public space and about four dunams of residential space, and was approved in the various planning committees. The additional traffic is insignificant. The city engineer recommended to the local committee to restrict the construction to four stories.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate responded: “The commercial construction plan at the Abu-Tor facility never included doing any damage to the church complex or to the area around it. On the contrary, a portion of the lease agreement is even conditioned on the construction of structures the entire purpose of which is to provide essential services to the church and its visitors. It is important to note that the current agreement is the unavoidable result of binding legal decisions and previous contracts signed back in the 1990s. We strongly reject the baseless allegation that the church failed in its role to protect its holy sites. The patriarchate’s only interest is what benefits the public of believers by expanding the scope of services that it provides to it.”

Haaretz recently reported about a large number of real estate transactions carried out over the past decade by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III. The transactions involved the sale of hundreds of dunams of church land around the country. The patriarch’s critics in the Orthodox Christian community have accused him of selling the assets cheaply, but he has said that the sales were necessary for the church’s financial survival.