Residents Split Over Planned Light Rail in Jerusalem's German Colony

No historic buildings will be destroyed, but trees will be cut and other changes made that have some locals in an uproar while others say the light rail might give the whole area a boost.

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Israelis stand for two minutes of silence on the light rail in Jerusalem, as a siren sounds for Memorial Day. April 22, 2015
Israelis stand for two minutes of silence on the light rail in Jerusalem, as a siren sounds for Memorial Day. April 22, 2015

Plans for the third route of Jerusalem’s light rail (the “Blue Line”) are dividing residents of the capital’s German Colony, with many saying it will destroy the neighborhood’s picturesque atmosphere, while others believe it will give the entire area a boost.

According to the plans, the line will begin in the northern neighborhood of Ramot, tunnel under the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of central Jerusalem, and then emerge to continue on King George and Keren Hayesod streets to the historic train compound. From there the line will split, with one branch going down Hebron Road, while the other will travel down Emek Refaim Street. It is the second branch that has the neighborhood up in arms.

Originally the line was planned to run along the Ottoman area train lines that to this day run along Harakevet Street. But seven years ago, after a fierce battle by residents, the municipality built the Mesila Park, a green public park, along the old rail line. The plan to run the light rail through the park generated vehement opposition and the city dropped the idea.

Over the past year, architects of the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan Team therefore revamped the route to send the tram down Emek Refaim Street, the colony’s main thoroughfare. This historic street has many buildings that were built by Templar settlers 150 years ago and are marked for strict preservation. Moreover, the road is relatively narrow, such that along part of the route only one line of track can be laid. Along this section, trains can only pass in one direction at a time, and a train coming in the opposite direction will have to wait.

Although no historic buildings will be torn down, many old trees will have to be cut, and dozens of gates, some slated for preservation, will have to be demolished or moved. Residents were only shown the plans three months ago and since then the neighborhood has been in an uproar.

The area is home to several well-known figures, many of whom oppose the plan. “The train requires a total alteration of the urban fabric,” said Hadas Efrat, who received this year’s Israel Prize for theater. “The colony is an urban nature reserve and in this case it needs to be rethought.

A objection is that the tram will force private cars and trucks into the colony’s narrow side streets that were originally planned for horses and buggies. As a result, trees and yards will be destroyed on streets that aren’t even on the train route.

“My street is a street where a car passes every quarter hour,” said journalist Gideon Remez. “Now they want to turn it into a traffic artery.”

Many fear that the construction of the line will deal a death blow to area businesses, which are already suffering from the competition posed by the New Train Compound at the edge of the neighborhood. “All the businesses there will go bankrupt, it will be impossible to restore what’s there now,” said Prof. Jonathan Kornbluth, a Hebrew University business professor and neighborhood resident.

Residents complain that alternatives like electric buses were not considered, but the transport team said that right now there are no such buses that can handle the volume of passengers, the Jerusalem weather, and the local topography. Some are demanding that the train run from Ramot underground along the entire rout, while others suggest routing the train into the Talpiot commercial zone on Pierre Kenig Street. The city rejected these suggestions.

There is, however, a relatively large group of residents who support the train running down Emek Refaim, with more than 200 recently signing a petition to this effect. They claim that opponents are ignoring the transportation needs of other city residents, in particular of the weaker neighborhoods adjacent to the German Colony.

“These people don’t even use public transportation, some of them have probably never been on the light rail in their lives,” said one activist. “We’re the silent majority,” said Edith Rubin, a neighborhood resident. “The train is an opportunity for the neighborhood. It will help both preservation and renewal. It will bring quality of life and tourists, and improve the quality of commerce.”

The Jerusalem Municipality said the planning teams had prepared a special, detailed plan to preserve the special character of the colony. Moreover, lessons had been learned from the construction of the first line, and steps would be taken to minimize disruption of the neighborhood’s routine. “As was proven on Jaffa Road, the light rail contributes to a new, modern façade for the street, brings a lot of traffic that boosts revenues substantially and will benefit merchants, residents, and those who love the German Colony,” the city said.

These differences came to the fore at a meeting on the plans last week that was attended by hundreds of people.

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