‘Jerusalem’s Burj Khalifa’ Will Reshape the City's Urban Landscape

Thousands of new apartments are planned for Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel – most notably a futuristic glass tower from the makers of Dubai's Burj Khalifa. Social activists are especially unhappy

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An illustration of the planned 'Burj Khalifa of Jerusalem'
An illustration of the planned 'Burj Khalifa of Jerusalem,' designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.Credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

For years, Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood has been identified with “The Monster,” Niki de Saint Phalle’s massive sculpture located in Rabinowitz Park. At first, it was hard to ignore the strange creature with a split tongue that serves as a children’s play structure. The bizarre shape once dominated the landscape amid the trees and low residential buildings. Recently, however, the beloved monster has been dwarfed by the four 23-story apartment blocks that have been built next to the park.

Now, another icon of the neighborhood – Alexander Calder’s large stabile, known to Jerusalemites as “The Red Sculpture,” at the summit of Mount Herzl – will face a similar, and even more extreme, fate.

General view of the Burj Khalifa and the downtown skyline in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Calder’s sculpture is set to be overshadowed by “Jerusalem’s Burj Khalifa,” as it has been called in press releases. The city’s Regional Planning Commission is currently discussing the planning and construction of a huge glass building, expected to soar 40 stories high. If the building is approved, the project will be led by celebrated American architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. The duo's vast portfolio includes Central Park Tower in New York City, the Al Wasl Plaza in Dubai and the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which is currently under construction. Smith is known worldwide as the architect who designed the original Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

Concerned residents of Kiryat Hayovel have begun organizing to try and block the move. The planning system is running amok in its drive to build new apartments, they say, without any consideration of the destructive impact on the current residents. Opponents of the project are concerned about crowding and neglect that could result from the high cost of maintaining the tall, new building. The residents argue that the neighborhood already suffers from serious accessibility and transportation issues, along with a lack of public spaces. The leaders of the Regional Planning Commission, however, claim that the discourse around the plan is being blown out of proportion, and are promising a splendid urban future for the neighborhood.

Central Park Tower, left, in Manhattan. Another major project by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture firm.Credit: AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Slums for our children

Decision-makers and planners are well aware that urban renewal and increasing the density of existing neighborhoods are the only available solutions to the housing shortage in Israeli cities – especially Jerusalem. Even those who advocate for expanding city limits at the expense of natural open spaces understand that this trend cannot continue. Nevertheless, constructing thousands of new apartments in existing neighborhoods is a challenging task that arouses considerable opposition.

A group of activists called Yuvalim 2041 has been spearheading the opposition. Activists have been drawing attention to Finance and Housing Ministry policies, whereby all renewal plans must justify themselves financially. In less-desirable neighborhoods that are already crowded, it becomes necessary to build a larger number of apartments in order to justify the plans financially. In some cases, four new apartments must be built for every old apartment that is demolished.

A man takes selfie under the dome of Al Wasl Plaza, a Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture project, at the Dubai Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File

In the long-established housing projects on Olswanger Street, for example, 320 apartments will be demolished and 1,359 new apartments will be built in their stead. The opponents claim that this is a population density unprecedented in Jerusalem and in Israel.

“It’s a re-run of the 1950s,” says Adi Amit, a Yuvalim 2014 activist. “They are making the same mistakes, except this time there’s no wave of new immigrants. These plans make no sense and can’t be implemented. It would be urban destruction. The best-case scenario is that the state comes to its senses and the worst-case scenario is that these plans are actually carried out,” she says, “and we will leave our children ‘slums’ that will be impossible to rectify.”

"The Monster" dwarfed by one of the new high-rises.Credit: Emil Salman

On the other side of the debate, Jerusalem District town planner in the Planning Administration Shira Talmi Babai holds that there is no real alternative. “I hear the people who say just let these neighborhoods be, they say we should wait until the state gets involved and invests, wait until an earthquake comes along. They’re telling us to not take responsibility – but we can’t not take responsibility,” she says.

Another problem with the housing projects on Olswanger Street is access to public transportation. Located at the bottom of a hill, below the light rail line, residents need to climb 170 steps to reach the train. This makes public transportation inaccessible for many residents. The planning commission aims to install escalators operated by the municipality. According to Talmi Babai and her deputy, architect Dan Keinan, similar solutions have been successfully implemented in cities around the world, including Naples. However, there is no precedent for public street escalators that serve thousands of residents, and protesters remain skeptical.

"The Red Sculpture" by Alexander Calder, on Mount Herzl.Credit: Emili Salman

High-rises against Haredim

High-rise construction in Jerusalem has long been tantamount to a taboo, out of a desire to maintain a unified skyline. Today, it’s clear that the city cannot remain low-slung. Tall buildings along the horizon line are no longer a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, no neighborhood has grown skyward with the speed planned for Kiryat Hayovel.

Some say that the high-rise construction is actually aimed at preventing the neighborhood from becoming ultra-Orthodox. For many years now, Kiryat Hayovel has been a point of tension between secular Jerusalemites and Haredim, as ultra-Orthodox communities moved into the neighborhood. They argue that Haredim will avoid living in tall buildings due to the prohibition on using elevators on the Sabbath. Others argue that the ultra-Orthodox will find solutions in Jewish law for how to manage living on higher stories – or else they will live on the lower floors.

Another question is who will be able to afford to live in the new high-rises. Buildings of that sort require maintenance and substantial building committee dues, which many Kiryat Hayovel residents will not be able to afford.

An illustration of planned construction on Colombia street, Jerusalem. Credit: Bitman Ben-Tzur Edri
An illustration of planned construction on Israel Zangvill street in Kiryat Hayovel.Credit: Carlos Prus Architects
A mock-up of planned construction on Uruguay street in Kiryat Hayovel.Credit: Carlos Prus archicts

Keinan, Talmi Babai’s deputy, argues that the high-rise construction is not as dramatic as opponents argue. Sixty percent of the buildings will be up to 12 stories high and 25 percent will be above 18 stories,” he says. “The notion that it’s all high-rises is part of a demonization campaign. It’s incorrect, misleading and confusing.” He adds that high-rises do not necessarily result in unpleasant streets. He points to examples where new buildings include commercial space at ground level.

In any case, the tension surrounding the “Burj Khalifa of Jerusalem” has reached a boiling point. Activists are shocked and dismayed at the idea of an ultra-modern skyscraper of luxury apartment buildings in the neighborhood, which will mostly serve foreign residents.

Urban planner Itamar Shahar agrees with the locals. He says the skyscraper, which includes a large plaza around it, is a missed opportunity to create a functioning street that serves pedestrians. “Going high is the easiest thing,” he says. “In this case, creating a scenic outlook has overridden the value of creating a street, but whom does it serve?”

Kiryat Hayovel.Credit: Emil Salman

Talmi Babai argues that the unique location, near Yad Vashem and the military cemetery, warrants a monumental building. “This city shouldn’t be ashamed to be seen from afar,” she says. “Right here, on the axis of the national institutions, the skyscraper represents the rebirth of Jerusalem and all the new things it can offer.”

As the arguments and demonstrations wage on, cranes are already visible in the sky. Their appearance has sparked anxiety among the residents. Entrepreneurs are already favoring projects near the new construction, further neglecting areas that are more difficult. “The moment they let the market lead, the market takes the easy route,” says Asaf Speiner, chair of the Physical Resources Committee at the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood administration.

Kiryat Hayovel, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

Moreover, residents know that life will become unbearable as the renewal projects multiply. “It will be like living your whole life inside a construction site,” one activist saids.

“This is the first case of building a new neighborhood on top of an existing one,” says Ofer Berowitz, a member of the municipal council from the Hitorerut party and a member of the regional commission. “I support urban renewal, but you can’t dump this entire burden on Kiryat Hayovel.”

Keinan has a reply of his own to the nay-sayers: “Contrary to what people are saying about us, we don’t get up in the morning looking forward to Excel sheets containing the number of housing units. We’re aiming to make Jerusalem more interesting, more varied, more mixed-used and denser.”

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