East of Beit Shemesh, in the heart of a forest rare for its rich, diverse wildlife and archaeological sites, is a new community in the making. A dirt road has been cleared, trucks come and go, and the roar of bulldozers is heard in the nearby moshav Neveh Michael. But the work is proceeding slowly. Over the past two years, since the first work permits were issued, a building for the site’s guard and workers has been constructed and roads have been created in anticipation of construction, but no building permits have been issued.
It’s here that an American businessman hopes to build the Israeli equivalent of Beverly Hills – a tony community with amenities and a standard of housing that would attract rich American Jews to Israel. Even its name, Gva’ot Eden (Eden Hills), echoes the iconic city carved out of Los Angeles with a twist of paradise to boot. Despite delays, the developers are optimistic it will happen.
The community is currently slated to contain 450 single-family, semi-detached and row houses, but that number may grow to 800, creating a much denser community than originally planned. According to the developers, pressure to increase the density came from the planning authorities. The latter decline to comment on the matter, saying that no expansion plan has yet been discussed.
Gva’ot Eden’s setting is in a beautiful natural forest and its land is full of historical sites from the time of the Kingdom of Judah to the Second Temple. The last obstacle on the way to final approval is the planning of the entrance bridge to the community. The planning authorities have already approved the bridge’s huge span – 400 meters long and 14 meters above the Gidron Stream. The bridge is meant to ensure that wildlife in the stream isn’t harmed by construction of a road.
But the developers have told the authorities that the cost of the bridge has made the project economically unfeasible. And so a plan has been submitted to the District Planning and Building Committee for a more modest, conventional road, built on a berm through which passages will be opened for animals to cross.
The Jerusalem District Planning Committee was persuaded to approve the project pending discussion of objections in the next few weeks to replace the bridge with a road having wildlife passages. The main opponents to the plan are the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which has for quite some time now been lodging objections to construction plans at Gva’ot Eden because of the undeniable harm it would do to the environment.
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The main concerns of the green organizations are for wildlife, as the new community would block the last remaining corridor they have between the separation fence and nearby Moshav Neveh Yair.
“We objected as much as we could but no one understands the sensitivity of the place,” says Avraham Shaked, the representative of the environmental organizations on the District Planning and Building Committee.
“The fact that a permit was given is a failure for which the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is to blame; it should have realized the sensitivity and stopped the project in time. The economic problems of the developers should not matter to the committee. If they approve increasing the number of residents, we will demand that the area of the community be reduced and additional areas be given to nature. Even now there are estates planned on lots of two dunams [half an acre].”
Gva’ot Eden’s developer is the veteran contractor Zvi Fuchs, who went into partnership with the originator of the idea and its main proponent, the American businessman Jack Leibowitz, who lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia.
At the end of the 1980s, Leibovitz launched a plan to build “Beverly Hills” in Israel. His vision called for a wealthy neighborhood of spacious homes to be built near Jerusalem, similar to the palatial residences of its California namesake. Leibovitz, who was initially backed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then a government minister, bulldozed his way to getting the plan approved, justifying the establishment of the neighborhood as the only way to attract wealthy American Jews to Israel.
According to the plan, the neighborhood is to have a religious character and its residents carefully chosen by a committee that he would head. It would be a quiet community with high-quality services, hiking and cycling trails where the rich could escape the city’s madding crowds and get close to nature, which they would find right at their garage doors.
Today, there is strong opposition to new communities, even in less environmentally sensitive areas in the Judean Hills. But even a decade ago, the decision to put the land at Leibovitz’s disposal was a controversial one. “Today the establishment of a community wouldn’t be allowed in such a place,” says a planning official in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council.
Gva’ot Eden is to be part of a series of communities built along the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 border with Jordan) between Palestinian and Israeli communities. Most of the plans were struck down for various reasons, mainly having to do with nature protection. The site that would become Gva’ot Eden was to have been an expansion of the nearby moshav Roglit, which was eventually to become Neveh Michael, named after an American Zionist activist.
When Leibowitz was looking for a site for his wealthy American-style community, he breathed new life into the plan. But even after the plan was authorized in principle, Leibowitz had trouble launching the project. The area he chose was one of the most beautiful and unspoiled natural sites in the country, full of historical sites and a magnificent mountain view. The Israel Lands Administration (now the Israel Lands Authority) put the land at Leibowitz’s disposal after a tender was issued, to which only Leibowitz applied.
The American developer was not asked to pay in cash, but to submit to the Lands Administration 89 lots ready for construction, including infrastructure. This unique plan made the lands administration a partner to establishment of the community but did not strike down its legality. However, the planning authorities did not approve the plan he submitted, mainly for environmental reasons.
Ups and downs
Work on the project was full of ups and downs. Architects and planners came and went. For a time, planning was in the hands of the architectural firm of Gal Naor, the daughter of businessman Yitzhak Tshuva. At one low point Leibowitz and his partners sued the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council for tens of millions of shekels, claiming that the council was delaying the project for ulterior motives, hinting at bribery during the time of the previous council chairman, Moshe Dadon. The suit was rejected after the plaintiffs were unable to prove their allegations.
The developers received a permit for infrastructure work, which began two years ago. They built the first building and a road, but disputes persisted over the planning. The developers wanted to build a bridge on pylons so wildlife could roam unharmed below. They then claimed that the bridge that was approved was too high and unsuitable for the scenery, and proposed building a low road, much cheaper to construct. “The landscape footprint of the road we propose will be smaller and animals can cross beneath is by means of special openings,” Fuchs says.
The planning difficulties did not deter Leibowitz, but they did cause him to recalculate his path. The wealthy American Jews he had planned to bring to the new community did not wait for the saga to end. Leibovitz agreed to reduce the size of the houses and limit the number of houses except for a few on the outskirts of the community.
In recent years, Leibowitz has withdrawn from active management of the project and has passed the baton to his partner, Fuchs. The CEO of their company is Ran Yannai. It is believed that Fuchs has invested an estimated 40 million shekels ($11.6 million) in the partnership, which, when completed will have seen an investment of 150–180 million shekels more.
The original plans, which called for 450 homes to be marketed in April 2020 (assuming permits are issued), now call for only 270 single-family homes on lots to sell for about 2.2 million shekels, with an occupation date set for 2026. The row houses and semi-detached homes, which will have two stories, will have a built area of 150–180 square meters. Each home will have two parking places. The community will not be religious and purchasers will not have to be vetted by a committee. With all due respect to the environment, the fate and character of the place will be determined by the people who buy houses there.
People close to the project say the partners have quite a few disputes, and Leibowitz was not happy about the decision to build an open Israeli community at Gva’ot Eden instead of the Beverly Hills the original plan had called for. Leibowitz – who declined to be interviewed for this article – might be able to realize part of his dream on the lot he received, for which a hotel project is slated.
The possibility of selling the homes to an association affiliated with the national religious (knitted kippa) community is not off the table, but according to the planners it is not the preferred option.
“We are dealing extensively with the social makeup of the community,” says Fuchs. “Our initial research shows that the best way to market the homes would be to an organized group from the national religious community. However, we aren’t interested in establishing a Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community. The idea is for a community open for everyone, secular and religious, left and right. We are planning to appoint a social coordinator to develop the social life of the community.”
Fuchs expects that most purchasers will be local, people seeking to fulfill their dream of a single family home at a sane price, which at least at first would not exceed the cost of a four-room apartment in an outlying area near Tel Aviv. The morning commute to Tel Aviv might be relatively lengthy, via a winding mountain road to the comfortable Route 38, but not far from there, at Beit Shemesh, will be a train station with adjacent parking.
According to Fuchs, the quality of life in the heart of an area considered a nature reserve will compensate for the commute to and from work.
At this point the future of the community is unclear. A look at the map of the region shows that chances are good that the little community will expand considerably beyond the approved plan of 450 homes. Widely spaced homes are not the norm among plans approved these days, even in small communities. The potential for greater density has not escaped the developers.
“The state is pushing us to increase the number of homes because that’s the No. 1 national priority now,” Fuchs says. “We certainly don’t oppose changing the plan, and neither does the Israel Lands Authority, which has lots in the community that it plans to market to developers to build on.”
Fuchs says he has checked with the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council regarding the possibility of increasing the number of homes in Gva’ot Eden from 450 to between 600 and 800, and has received positive feedback. The developers intend to add area to the homes without increasing the size of the community by building two stories or terraced homes on the slopes. More residents will mean more public buildings and commercial space, kindergartens and elementary schools.
Since the plan has not been submitted or discussed, it has still not been presented to the public to file objections, but the developers’ declared goal is to increase the number of residents to 3,500. This figure has already been mentioned in a document filed by the SPNI that objects to the lowering of the entrance bridge to the community.
“More residents also mean more cars and more traffic, more pollution and invasive plants and animals, which harm the flora and fauna in the area. This insight must also be before the committee when it decides on the plan in question,” the SPNI wrote.
The planning administration of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council confirmed that the developers have spoken with planning officials about the possibility of changing the plan, but say no official change of plan exists.