When your train pulls into the Netivot station, you can see the Statue of Liberty from the platform. Not the American one, of course, but a replica, situated in the parking lot of the Manhattan Project commercial center only a few minutes’ walk away.
The city in Israel’s south has mainly been known as the location of the grave of the Baba Sali, a Moroccan-born Kabbalist of high renown. Like China or Las Vegas, both of which have copies of world-famous structures, Netivot now has two recently erected monuments – the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. The replica of the French landmark is located in the Oded Shriki Paris Center, which was completed earlier this year.
As the name suggests, both the Manhattan and Paris projects are the vision of developer and contractor Oded Shriki, owner of the Arzey Hanegev construction firm. He has garnered some publicity in recent years for, among other things, his automobile collection and his palatial home, which has served as a backdrop for wedding photos and television sketches.
Shriki also designed his Netivot mansion, which stands out in the neighborhood of relatively modest single-family homes. It has everything – ceiling paintings, a staircase reminiscent of the one from the movie “Titanic,” huge chandeliers, Corinthian columns, railings with curved fittings, a fountain, a pool, lion sculptures, urns, glass curtain walls and lots of gold.
Shriki’s architectural taste is also evident in the city’s two newer projects. He stresses that he is the one who outlined the design’s particulars, aided by architects who were responsible for the blueprints and execution. Both of the Netivot projects were the work of architect Ron Golan.
An atomic choice
The unfortunately-named Manhattan Project comprises 15 15-story residential buildings, with some of the apartments sold under a reduced-price program for first-time home buyers. Unlike the commercial center, the residential towers look like typical Israeli buildings with a 15-dunam (3.7 acre) park being developed at its center. The Statue of Liberty is, of course, painted gold.
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“I wanted the commercial center to be half-American, half-European,” Shriki tells Haaretz. His office, where he met with this reporter, also reflects his ostentatious taste. The chair he sits on is ornate, and at the entrance stands an enormous wooden statue. The railings that surround the offices are similar to those in the new commercial complexes. “I was in Manhattan and I saw some beautiful buildings there. All the buildings there are tall,” he says, explaining his inspiration for the project that also gave it its name. “This is the first time such tall buildings are going up in Netivot.”
Shriki, a Netivot native, stresses that the Statue of Liberty is just another “motif.” What’s important is the city, in which he’s building other projects as well. “I built thousands of units for young couples in the city where I grew up, and the fun for me is in seeing the project. My goal is unique projects that do something good for the soul.” At the time of our interview, all except a few of the 5-room apartments had been sold. For interested parties: it’ll just set you back by 1.1 million shekels (about $342,400).
The 47-year-old father of four grew up in a crowded apartment in a modest housing project. He dropped out of school at the age of 13 and worked in a bakery, as a wedding photographer and later in construction. His first project in Netivot was 100 apartments in six-story buildings. He makes a point of stressing that he builds all over the country, and not just in Netivot. His company is building in Be’er Sheva, Be’er Yaakov, Bnei Brak, Bat Hefer and Ramat Hahayal.
The Paris Center, on Netivot’s Baalei Hamelakha Street, is not far from Shriki’s office. To get into the mood, visitors are greeted by a large clock, styled after the ones found in European train stations – four round clock faces with Roman numerals joined together on one narrow pole. The project is full of ornaments, details and materials, and it has retail chain shops at street level, along with numerous eateries. Above the stores are several floors of office space.
The center’s underground parking allows for a stronger connection between the project and the street, via a plaza located on top of the parking lot. Descent to the parking lot is through a pavilion decorated with photos of the Champs-Elysees and topped by a gabled roof.
The 32-meter-high replica of the Eiffel Tower stands in the center of the project. It is lit up at night by color-changing lights. The floor of the project is made of black and white checkboard tiles. The fronts of the shops are decorated with gilded, snake-shaped frames, and the stores are fronted by an avenue of beige Corinthian columns. In the center of the project are other stores with awnings in black and gold, and columns also coated in gold paint, reminiscent of an inverted cake. The place is lit by huge chandeliers and black light posts, like in Europe.
Every floor of office space is wrapped in beams whose design was inspired by classical elements like friezes and architraves. They are adorned with cornices and medallions and bound by a wrought-iron railing, decorated with a symbol reminiscent of a lotus or an urn. To analyze the architecture of Shriki’s buildings one is advised to open a dictionary of classical architecture terms. There has been great attention to detail, even if it may not be to one’s taste.
One might be tempted to make fun of the heavy, kitschy design of Shriki’s projects, but they have become pilgrimage sites. Even under the coronavirus restrictions, when the stores weren’t yet open, people were coming to the Paris Center to gawk and be photographed there. Some make it clear that they’re not fans of the design, but acknowledge that it will draw visitors to the city.
Costs for the project were relatively high and it is unclear how long it’ll take for it to be profitable. “I’m not looking at the profit right now,” Shriki said. “I built it because I know that Netivot will get to very high places in the future. Most commercial centers are built along the same model, and I wanted the country to get some innovation.” He imported the Eiffel Tower replica from China, which is also where most of his workers come from. “The Chinese are honest people and top-class professionals,” he says. “The Chinese are like artists.”
His design ideas, as expected, he pulled from Paris. “When you get to Paris, your soul opens,” he says. As to why the Eiffel Tower instead of focusing on some local icon, he said, “People like it. I was in Las Vegas and Macau, and saw that it attracts tourists. I knew it would draw a crowd. I’m also planning for a hotel.”
Shriki is far from finished; he has other projects planned for Netivot. At the city’s entrance he is planning to build a structure in his unique style for his company; another commercial project is to be situated near the Paris Center and include a replica of London’s Big Ben. And there’s another 10-story residential project in the works. He says that in his own city he builds in a style that he likes, “But I also want to do special things in the rest of the country.”
Will there be a pyramid? He says he’s not interested. And what does the municipality think about your having become a design influence in the city? “The mayor [Yehiel Zohar] likes what I do. I’m not responsible for the city, there are a lot of developers. Every developer who chooses can build their own fantasies. My fantasy is that people should have a good time.” Shriki says that he knew people would be interested in the project, and that people send him pictures that they’ve taken at the site.
Lead you through the streets of Netivot
Paris Center is situated in an area with lots of potential that’s easy to walk through. It’s not far from the city’s main thoroughfare, Jerusalem Street, which connects to the entrance to Netivot. A plan in the area is being advanced by the National Planning and Building Commission for Priority Residential Areas, planned by architect Erez Ella. The plan encompasses 867 dunams (214 acres) in an L-shape adjacent to Route 25, and includes City Hall.
The new plan provides a tenfold increase in building rights for business and commerce, and a significant hike in the space allowed for public buildings, and creates a new urban avenue. The municipality is also seeking to include residential buildings in the area, and the plan combines low-rise construction with a few towers. Illustrations of the plan include the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, along with a huge Ferris wheel. Inspired by Las Vegas, Baalei Hamelakha Street is dubbed “The Strip.”
In 2017, Netivot signed an agreement with the government to enlarge the city, and it is now one of the fastest-growing cities in Israel. The city looks like one huge construction site; new neighborhoods are going up alongside commercial compounds. There’s also an urban nature strip, and a number of new parks have been built.
Zohar is one of the country’s longest serving mayors, having been in office since 1989. “I came when I was six years old and I will stay till the end of my days,” he says. He is unmoved by the fact that his city has become an attraction due to Shriki’s icons. “That’s one man’s craziness; it’s fine for him to do with his money whatever he wants. He builds crazy things of quality. There are 14 developers and contractors building here and our dreams are starting to come true.”
The city has 42,000 residents and, according to its master plan, could grow to 100,000. The plan is being updated to allow up to 150,000 people. Since the agreement was signed with the state, some 6,000 apartments have been sold. “Three thousand people move here every year,” says Zohar. “It’s a green city, and by marketing land we are getting funds that enable us to improve the older areas.”
Do you think it’s proper for a developer to be delineating the city’s icons? “I have no problem with it. He’s a colorful person. In the residential neighborhoods there are rules, and the contractors work according to the urban building plans. With commercial buildings, we are more flexible, and his construction adds something to the city.”