Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road: All Dressed Up and No Place to Shop

City’s main commercial thoroughfare looks as dowdy as ever, despite new light rail and stone pavement.

Seven minutes each hour − that’s the total time the Jerusalem light rail spends on downtown Jaffa Road. Otherwise the street is devoid of vehicular traffic. The city’s main commercial thoroughfare is just shops and hordes of pedestrians crossing the tracks.

They promised it would be like Europe, but at midday in July it is hard to conjure up Rome or Paris: At best, amid the throng of black coats, with a little effort the scene might be reminiscent of Warsaw from an earlier era.

“They promised it would look a little more European, that there’d be a little more foreign flavor to the street, but the boom they talked about hasn’t occurred: The street speaks for itself,” says Ofer Ben, owner of a hair salon on Jaffa Road. “We want to see more tourists here, more coffee shops, more entertainment spots.”

Lined on both sides by impressive old buildings, the stone pavement and elimination of traffic have brought an immeasurable improvement to the street, which stretches from the city’s entrance all the way to the Old City walls. It has boosted real estate prices and contributed to increased turnover for businesses that just a year and a half ago − upon completion of the light rail project − could breathe a sigh of relief following a decade of construction work.

But it turns out that the NIS 300 million invested here by the municipality and national government are just the first stage of the revolution. Now begins the hard part of forging a new and refreshing commercial presence befitting a street that has undergone a massive facelift.

While this is being completed, Jaffa Road continues to project dissonance: It has the trappings of a European boulevard, but the businesses are old and unsophisticatedly Middle Eastern, a clammy mash-up of small cheap stores selling shoes, housewares, appliances and fast food, with a sprinkling of kiosks.

Now and then a sign crops up featuring a familiar-sounding name, but no trace can be found of any of the major chains, Israeli or international, that have opened large stores in the city’s malls or at the trendy Mamilla shopping complex.

Passersby don’t even bother to stop for a moment to enjoy the European atmosphere. The steady and purposeful flow of pedestrian traffic makes it clear that Jaffa Road is still a street for routine shopping and chores, not a place to hang out and enjoy the surroundings.

Not giving up

The Jerusalem Development Authority isn’t prepared to give up on the European vision for downtown. Eden, a subsidiary of the JDA established in 2001 for developing the downtown area, intends to invest another NIS 150 million after receiving the go-ahead from Mayor Nir Barkat to continue operating 10 more years. The company has responsibility for 1,200 businesses and thousands of offices in the downtown core, an area that still hasn’t come close to fulfilling its potential.

One of Eden’s goals is to bring in large retail chains and leading brands that until now have preferred air-conditioned malls rather than downtown sites. Last week it organized a Segway tour for 30 representatives of chains like Super-Pharm, Opticana, Castro, Fly Foot, Toys “R” Us, Mifal Hapayis, Mango, Adidas, Bug and Hamashbir 365.

“There’s no substitute for the shopping experience on the streets,” says Moti Hazan, head of the JDA. “It’s true that most shopping is done in malls, but the trend is changing. The Mamilla complex, for example, indicates the craving for open-air shopping areas.”

Hazan isn’t talking through his hat. He comes armed with data from the RIS research firm, also presented to the retail chains, indicating that the center of Jerusalem is a proverbial goose that lays golden eggs for the street’s retailers. Retail sales didn’t just go up after the restoration project was completed − they skyrocketed.

According to RIS, daily sales per square meter in downtown Jerusalem are 75% higher than for city centers throughout Israel, averaging NIS 92 as against NIS 53 nationally. This compares with NIS 83 for the center of Rishon Letzion, NIS 81 in downtown Netanya, NIS 66 in the center of Bnei Brak and NIS 50 per square meter in Ramat Gan.

The research firm also says that after years in which Jerusalem’s Malha Mall enjoyed the highest sales per square meter anywhere in the city, the trend is changing. The NIS 86 in sales per square meter it found for the mall in the second quarter of this year didn’t measure up to the NIS 92 for downtown, and neither did the NIS 63 at Mamilla.

“The high sales per square meter in downtown Jerusalem are partially due to the opening of more stores in the Jaffa-King George-Ben Yehuda triangle of streets, and the grasping by retail chains of the potential in downtown Jerusalem,” according to RIS.

Year-round holidays

Adi Regev, CEO of Toys “R” Us in Israel, says Jerusalem is definitely a city suited to toy stores because the calendar is chock-a-block with gift-buying seasons. “There is the Jewish population with its holidays, the Christian population with its holidays and the Muslim population with its holidays,” he notes. “We have the best of all worlds, all religions, and aim to open a store downtown.”

Vendors and business proprietors on Jaffa Road aren’t going out of their way to show any enthusiasm for the city’s plans. Despite their street smarts, it could be that they’re fearful of having to contend with chain stores on their home turf.
“It won’t work because there isn’t any floor space of the right size,” says Boaz Rahimpour, owner of the Ta’am Va’Rayach ‏(Flavor and Aroma‏) shop on Jaffa Street. “For chains like Zara or Castro to locate on the street, they need stores with huge amounts of space.”

Rahimpour is right. The JDA is aware of the problem and is talking about developing projects that will add new commercial space in the area. But the small and crowded storefronts on Jaffa Road are populated by oldtimers − many of whom own the property their stores operate from and others already representing the third generation of merchants. It won’t be easy to merge floor space and create spaces for the fashion chains.

Without the real possibility of opening large, impressive stores like those at the malls or in new shopping complexes, any chain rising to the challenge would have to get by with a subdued presence, which would be submerged by the street’s overwhelmingly down-market atmosphere.

“The government’s take increased, not ours,” says Ofer Ben in his salon, getting his hair cut by his assistant. “They take all the money we earn: All the taxes, rents, value-added taxes − everything went up and prices have stayed the same. So we do feel there’s more work, but the bottom line is that less remains in our pockets than before. In the distant future I see things developing, but it’s a pity. We want to speed things up.”

Emil Salman
Ariel Jerozolimsk