Jerusalem Mayor Comes Out Against Housing Plan at Heart of Environmental Battle

Environmentalists split over Mayor Moshe Leon’s alternative proposal to limit environmental damage in Lavan Ridge

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Lavan Ridge
Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon has begun promoting an alternative to the major construction plan at Lavan Ridge with a new proposal that includes about one third the area of the original design, but more housing units than the initial scheme that was already approved. The new plan will prevent the chopping down of thousands of mature trees, greatly reduce the risk to the area’s springs and significantly reduce the neighborhood’s development projects, say municipal sources.

The Lavan Ridge, which has passed all planning committees, is at the heart of Jerusalem’s greatest environmental battle in recent years. The project includes a new neighborhood of 5,250 housing units descending from Moshav Orah toward Refaim Stream. The plan has drawn widespread opposition from environmental organizations, who say it will cause irreparable harm to rare green spaces, the cutting down of 11,000 mature trees and almost certain harm to the water flow in several important springs in the Refaim Stream. Opponents further argue that continued expansion of the city westward will cause suburbanization, increased use of private cars and harm to old city neighborhoods.

The design is also intended as the first of many large-scale construction plans in the area, changing the landscape dramatically. A year ago, the appellate board of the National Planning Council rejected some 6,000 objections in approving the design. Leon has often expressed dissatisfaction with the project and the harm it causes to green spaces and springs, but when asked directly has said that since it has been approved by all relevant committees, he cannot stop it.

“I received the plan baked-in,” Leon told Haaretz last July. “It has passed all the committees and there’s complementary land here that can release evacuation and reconstruction plans in many neighborhoods. But we’re seeking a creative solution to square the circle.”

But at that time Leon was already working vigorously to “square the circle.” Last April, he asked city planning authorities to reexamine the project and propose a new one. The city turned to architect Moti Kaplan, one of Israel’s foremost architects and the author of NMP 1, a national master plan collating most other specific master plans. Kaplan presented a new design, suggesting building more housing units than originally planned at a higher density, on about one third the area designated for the original scheme. According to sources, it includes over 6,000 housing units as opposed to the current 5,250.

According to the Kaplan plan, most of the construction will take place in the Orah Junction area and near the moshav, where there are already large “violated areas,” which is to say areas already constructed, mostly old warehouses and poultry coops, so that the damage to the landscape and nature will be significantly smaller, and most of the trees designated for chopping down under the current design will be spared.

Another significant difference between the two schemes is the new neighborhood’s transit plan. According to the plan already approved, a light rail line is to be built through the neighborhood, which will require massive dirt and quarry works to bridge the valleys that bisect the neighborhood. Furthermore, opponents pointed out that laying a rail track in a neighborhood of several thousand residents makes no sense, so the rail line is likely to later aid in creating additional neighborhoods, preliminary planning for which has already begun – Lavan Ridge B, C and so on. This, despite Leon’s firm opposition to additional neighborhoods.

The new project has no light rail station, and the neighborhood is to rely upon the train station currently being constructed at Orah Junction regardless. According to a source, most houses will be constructed within walking distance of the station. The new design also enables cancellation of the multi-level barrier project at Orah Junction – a giant transportation project including widespread tunneling, which has drawn broad opposition from green groups.

A city hall source explained that one of the principles enabling the concentration of the plan’s area and the saturation of the neighborhood is the fact that the original design, in addition to its light rail line and broad roads, also included green public spaces – parks and gardens. The new project cancels most of these, with the source noting there is no sense in creating parks in a neighborhood surrounded by a national park and natural green spaces. The new plan also includes mixed usage of commerce, employment and leisure, with a small amount of parking, due to the proximity of the train.

The creation of an alternative design, after an original plan has already been approved, is unusual. Work on the design went forward despite opposition from the planning administration, which promoted the original project. The new plan has been presented to the Israel Land Authority, which initiated the original scheme, to the planning administration, the Housing Ministry, and senior city officials. According to sources, most of these bodies have agreed to reconsider and examine the new plan, although some strenuously opposed reopening the approved design. To complete the planning process, the Jerusalem municipal finance committee is supposed to approve an 800,000-shekel ($260,000) budget to expand planning. Explanatory notes to the finance committee say that in recent months, the mayor has ordered the advancement of a reduced planning alternative to preserve as much high-value open spaces surrounding it.

Haaretz has learned that Lavan Ridge opponents are split on the new scheme. Some wish to give it a serious look, while others have determined that it too constitutes unreasonable harm to nature and landscape.

Yossi Havilio, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and an opponent of the original project, says, “The mayor’s very willingness to examine alternatives to the Lavan Ridge plan is a great achievement,” but that “it’s too early to rejoice. The details must be examined to see if it takes nature and landscape values into proper account.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, among the leaders of the opposition, said it “will continue using all means at its disposal to ensure protection of as much open space in the Jerusalem Hills region as possible, and to promote their protection by declaring them a national park, while reducing as much as possible the areas allocated for construction.”

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