Jerusalem to Transform Appearance With Dozens of New Skyscrapers

'Jerusalem had three holy cows – stone building, building only on ridges and not in valleys, and building on the traditional skyline. All three have been slaughtered – and not always in a kosher way,' architecture historian David Kroyanker says.

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A model of the planned buildings in Jaffa Road, Jerusalem.
A model of the planned buildings in Jaffa Road, Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Naama Riba
Nir Hasson
Naama Riba

Many new tower blocks are expected to rise in Jerusalem in the next few years, dramatically changing the city’s skyline, scenery and unique architectural character.

A few years ago an apartment building known as Elad Bayit Vagan was built at the edge of Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood. Although it rose to only 16 floors, it was situated on one the city’s highest locations, dominating the skyline and visible from many kilometers away.

It could be the harbinger of many new towers that will drastically alter the capital, according to several recently approved construction plans.

Longtime arguments against building skyward in Jerusalem appear to have been lost.

In the '70s, '80s and '90s building upward in Jerusalem was one of the burning issues on the city’s public and political agenda.

A model of the planned buildings in Jerusalem City Hall.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In the beginning of the '70s the Wolfson Towers were built over Sacher Park. To this day they are seen as an urban and architectural mistake.

At the end of the '70s the capital’s residents succeeded in thwarting the construction of a row of towers in the Liberty Bell Park area. Later the Clal Center, the Leonardo City Tower and the Rassco Building were set up in the city center – all of them controversial.

Other projects like the observation tower planned on the Armon Hanatziv walkway and Merkaz Hayekum Tower planned by Ram Caspi in the capital’s center were revoked following public campaigns.

The Holyland towers dominate a hilltop between Bayit Vagan and Malcha, and have significantly altered what was once a pastoral view. 

In the previous decade the debate focused on building on the green hills west of the city. The Safdie plan to expand Jerusalem westward was repealed in 2007, after a prolonged campaign.

The Obama administration’s pressure not to build new neighborhoods east of the capital and government pressure to build as many apartments as possible increased the need to build taller and more densely. In recent months several planning decisions have made it clear that Jerusalem is heading for an architectural change.

The most important decision was made at the end of July. The district planning and construction committee together with the Jerusalem municipality set a new policy, enabling the construction of 18-30 floor buildings in plots adjacent to the light rail line.

A model of the planned buildings The City Entrance project, in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Today the light rail operates one line, but four lines will be added in the coming years and the existing line will be extended. This means that already today, before the new lines have been laid down, it is possible to submit plans for high rises in many parts of the city.

In addition to the light train line, three areas in the city are expected to shoot upward in the near future. The City Entrance project, whose a cornerstone was laid six weeks ago, consists of nine 36-floor skyscrapers and 14 24-floor high rises. The second tower cluster is to be built in the city center, along the train line on Jaffa Street.

These buildings’ effect on the landscape will be profound. Unlike most historical European cities, which restrict upward construction, the authorities will allow building up to 24 floors in this area. The Eden Tower project, designed by Jewish American architect Daniel Libeskind in the form of a huge pyramid, is already raising a conflict.

The tower’s design has been changed four times at least. In one version the entrepreneurs demanded to make it tens of meters taller than the height permitted by the master plan. The developers now have to redesign the tower, after the Jerusalem district appeals committee approved the addition of only 15 meters.  

The third high rise concentration is planned in the south west of the capital, in Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menachem. The urban renewal plans drafted for these neighborhoods mean destroying the old buildings, most of them 5-7 floors tall, and replacing them with high rises of dozens of floors.

The Holyland complex in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

The objectors, including the community administration, say the construction will result in 71 housing units per dunam, a higher density than anywhere else in Israel.

They say the towers are intended for poor families that cannot pay the maintenance costs and the buildings will become “vertical slums.”
Architect Doron Hok says “it’s not clear that they looked at the whole picture.

Apartment towers create underground parking lots and elevators and sprinklers and when you have to pay hundreds of shekels maintenance a month it could be a problem.”

Another problem is the high rises’ suitability to ultra-Orthodox families. “As far as they’re concerned the fifth floor is questionable and the sixth is off limits,” he says.

The district committee says real estate developers won’t build high rises in ultra-Orthodox or poor neighborhoods anyway, as there will be no demand for them there.

Other architects say Jerusalem’s unique scenery hasn’t been taken into account. Architect Professor Alona Nitzan-Shiftan of the Technion, who has been studying construction in Jerusalem for many years, says that although there was never an explicit statutory plan, the upward building rules were clear.

“The urban scenery was seen as a public resource, and it was agreed that developers or public bodies couldn’t do with it whatever came to their minds,” she says.

Jerusalem has another problem, beyond its historic status. Due to the famous regulation requiring that its buildings are coated with stone, the towers are massive and have a powerful effect on the view, like the notorious Holyland Towers, for example.

“The good buildings that have been built upward in the world are usually made of glass, because it’s a light material,” says architect David Kroyanker. “Stone, by nature, doesn’t rise up well. There isn’t a single attractive tower in Jerusalem.”

This insight is now spreading and many of the new towers will be built from iron and glass, for better or worse. Jerusalem will thus lose its unique architectural character. 

Kroyanker, a historian of Jerusalem architecture, says “Jerusalem had three holy cows – stone building, building only on ridges and not in valleys, and building on the traditional skyline. All three have been slaughtered – and not always in a kosher way,” he says.