Tower Boom Threatens to Render Jerusalem Unrecognizable

High-rises are going up in Jerusalem in big numbers, and critics say the City Of Gold could soon become the city of bland

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
The Dome of the Rock in central Jerusalem and high-rise construction sites beyond it, March 20, 2020.
The Dome of the Rock in central Jerusalem and high-rise construction sites beyond it, March 20, 2020.Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Since the early ‘90s and during the first two decades this century, high-rises have sprouted up in Jerusalem. The most famous – or infamous – is the Holyland complex, which mars the city’s southwestern entrance with its monstrous presence. But Jerusalem can be considered almost high-rise free compared to the coastal cities, especially skyscraper-laden Tel Aviv.

Still, over the past year and a half, plans for residential towers in Jerusalem have made progress at a startling pace; dozens have been approved over the past year.

There are two reasons for this. In 2017, a strategic plan for Israeli housing in 2020 was approved, and in 2019, Moshe Leon was elected mayor. In cooperation with the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, he green-lighted a clutch of projects.

The Old City of Jerusalem and high-rise construction in the background.
The Old City of Jerusalem and high-rise construction in the background.Credit: C.K. Tse

The city’s plans include buildings going up along the light rail, both the existing red line and the future green and blue lines, as well as urban renewal projects. Because land prices in the city are modest, the most recent projects have included five times the number of apartments typical for the city, some topping 30 stories. If you visit these older neighborhoods you can’t help but worry that the towers will quickly produce slums.

Also, some projects aren’t connected to any municipal policy. Many of them are going up alongside buildings slated for preservation and often mar key landmarks.

According to Shira Talmi Babay, the Jerusalem district planner at the Israel Planning Administration, the flood of construction plans stems from the city’s housing needs, which are detailed in the state’s strategic plan for 2040.

Air force planes flying over Jerusalem – and its skyscraper construction sites – while rehearsing for Independence Day, April 27, 2020.
Air force planes flying over Jerusalem – and its skyscraper construction sites – while rehearsing for Independence Day, April 27, 2020.Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters

She says the construction lull during the era of the previous mayor, Nir Barkat, “stemmed from a perception that a poor city, or one that belongs to a low socioeconomic status, doesn’t need a lot more housing, but workplaces. The problem with this policy is that you’ll have to wait until your grandmother dies to buy an apartment. I know people who couldn’t buy a place in the neighborhood they wanted.”

She says one reason towers are being planned near existing ones or near the light rail is a lack of space for the city to expand.

“The city can’t expand westward because of ecological values and can’t expand eastward, either,” she says, referring to Jerusalem's Jewish-Arab split. “So the only way to create more housing units is through urban renewal, and we’re seeing initiatives alongside the light rail lines.”

30 floors high

Based on the initiatives’ pace, scope and variety, it looks like Jerusalem will suffer a future of a chaotic skyline. “We tried to create some order in the chaos. The rail lines on top of the ridge, like on King George Street or Hebron Road, can get 30 stories, but where the rail lines run through lower places, the towers can only be 18 stories,” Talmi Babay says.

Israel Air Force planes flying over Jerusalem – and high-rise construction – in preparation for Independence Day, April 27, 2020.
Israel Air Force planes flying over Jerusalem – and high-rise construction – in preparation for Independence Day, April 27, 2020.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

“There are also neighborhoods, like Beit Safafa, where construction will be lower. There can’t be high-rises around the Old City and there are height restrictions in the whole Old City basin and in neighborhoods whose fabric must be preserved.”

The new city engineer, Yoel Even, adds that “no plan in Jerusalem is shown to me without showing what the skyline will look like. In every plan thought is given to the skyline, and we’re aware of the views toward the Old City. There were hours of discussions with me about the Diskin compound” in the city’s far west overlooking the highway to Tel Aviv.

So how is a high-rise in Jerusalem different from one elsewhere in Israel?

“When you’re talking about towers, construction with stone becomes less relevant from both a construction and design perspective,” Even says. “I wouldn’t want to see towers covered with stone the way low-rises are. We’re trying to draw up an orderly policy like the one for the commercial towers at the city’s entrance.”

One problem in Jerusalem is maintenance of buildings. The neighborhoods that are candidates for urban renewal are in terrible shape, raising concerns that new projects will create Israel’s next slums.

Even takes a deep breath. “We're talking about this all the time,” he says. “Israel is going in the direction of urban renewal and we’re aware of the problem.”

It’s clear that both Even and Talmi Babay are making sure every project includes plans for public buildings, green spaces and transportation.

Still, two things are worrisome. The first is a lack of an overall conception, with the construction too concentrated and too plentiful. Jerusalem is en route to becoming another Hong Kong.

The other problem is that the buildings’ design doesn’t dovetail well with the street. Some of the simulations feature intimidating support walls and a lack of proportion between the towers and the neighborhood. The road from there to disasters like the Clal Center on Jaffa Road is short.

The tracks of the Jerusalem Light Rail and high-rise construction alongside them, March 22, 2020.
The tracks of the Jerusalem Light Rail and high-rise construction alongside them, March 22, 2020.Credit: Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters

Nothing unique

Architect David Kroyanker, who has written a number of books on Jerusalem, shares this concern. “Most of the buildings being planned for Jerusalem look like the towers scattered all over Israel, and they have nothing unique about them,” he says.

“Another problem is that when you adorn a tall building with stone, it doesn’t look delicate. The urban picture you get from all these towers is neither good nor interesting. It will lead to a loss of the city’s unique identity.”

So how does Kroyanker think a Jerusalem tower should look? “The best towers in Israel are the Azrieli Towers [in Tel Aviv] because they have a combination of a circle, triangle and square. These are the most basic of shapes, so there’s calm along the skyline,” he says.

“That’s how it needs to be in Jerusalem, too. Also, part of the bottom of the towers has to have commercial activity that will support the people who live there.”

Yoram Ginzburg, the architect who supports controversial plans to build a Third Temple, teaches at Ariel University in the West Bank. He also supports the building of skyscrapers in Jerusalem – and even mentions the controversial Wolfson Towers, designed by Yitzhak Pearlstein, as a project he likes.

“This is the most important gateway to the city,” Ginzburg says. “I like significant towers that create an urban skyline that creates orientation in the entire space.”

Still, Ginzburg says “the skyline must be hierarchical and represent all the city’s historical layers. We can’t allow ourselves prominent elements that don’t accommodate the city.”

He also fears that many of the high-rises are for the well-connected. “Many times in Israel, the towers are coercion by the rich. Rich people or corporations. We don’t see towers in Florentin,” a trendy neighborhood in south Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem of both stone and skyscraper.
Jerusalem of both stone and skyscraper.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ginzburg says Jerusalem lacks centralized planning for its urban profile. “The tall elements must be soaring, not dwarfish,” he says. “There has to be a public committee to establish a manifesto for the city’s image in 2100 ... so that the towers won’t be for the rich but will have a public function.”

The head of a neighborhood council in the city, Netanel Fisher, says he has found a sympathetic ear at city hall since Leon took office. “There are attempts to make the most of the complex situation. At the same time, a high level of creativity is needed and I still don’t see it,” he says.

“Jerusalem isn’t just any city. It’s a problem to throw towers everywhere without thinking about the skyline and how the city will look in 50 years. We need a holistic view. We need to bring in Israel’s best brains to do urban renewal in a more integrative way, and with the thinking that Jerusalem isn’t like a city in the center of the country.”

He also has criticism for the activists in the city. “Civil society is busy largely with battles over culture and the city’s character,” he says. “But there isn’t not enough interest in urbanism and the city’s appearance.”

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