Jerusalem Suburb Readies to Battle Plan for High-rise Housing

Mevasseret Zion immigrant absorption center was acquired by developer with the aim of building up to 900 homes on the site

Immigrant absorption center in Mevasseret Zion, May 15, 2019.
שלומי שטרית

An immigration absorption center that served as the first home to thousands of new arrivals to Israel is poised to become a battleground over the character of the quiet Jerusalem suburb where it is located.

The land under the Mevasseret Zion Absorption Center was acquired last week by Reality Investment Funds for 266 million shekels ($74.5 million) from the Jewish Agency. Reality plans to build up to 900 housing units and a neighborhood shopping center on the site, Dan Menachem, a partner in the fund, told TheMarker.

But the plans quickly elicited strong opposition from the town’s local council. “I won’t let them building 1,000 apartments or 500 apartments,” said Mevasseret’s local council head Yoram Shimon. “No tycoon is going to go wild here at the expense of Mevasseret’s residents.”

The town today numbers about 24,000 people. Adding hundreds of new homes would not only expand the population but put pressure on local infrastructure and facilities. The 50-dunam (12.5-acre) site is zoned for high-density housing that threatens to change the town’s character, many residents complain.

The town today is mostly single-family homes surrounded by woodland. It’s popular with government officials, business people, politicians and professionals, all of whom are ready to mount protests and lawsuits in a bid to block unwanted development.

But Menachem said Mevasseret and the surrounding area is in high demand. It offers a good quality of life and because it straddles the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway boasts easy access to both cities for work, shopping and entertainment.

In a sign of the growing interest by property developers in the quiet towns west of Jerusalem, Reality sold an 80-dunan site in nearby Neveh Ilan to the building company Rassco last year for 255 million shekels, just two-and-a-half years after it acquired the land for 180 million shekels.

The absorption center had been operated by the Jewish Agency since the 1970s as a place for new immigrants, including many from English-speaking countries, to start their lives in Israel before finding their own homes. In recent years its 266 single-family units had been home to about 700 Ethiopian Jews.

The sale of the site took time. One reason was the difficulty in finding alternative housing for the Ethiopian families there, a process that was only completed at the start of 2018. Since then squatters have taken over some of the houses, which the Reality Fund will now have to address.

Another delay was caused by the objections of The Movement for the Quality of Government, which argued that the land should revert to the government. The land was initially transferred by the state to the Jewish Agency for use as an absorption center. In turn, the agency transferred the land to a pension fund for agency employees for use as an asset to cover pension obligations. If the land were turned over to the government again, pensions would have been harmed financially.

The land itself has already been rezoned for residential use, but the Jewish Agency began the process of getting approval for boosting the number of housing units that can be built on it from the current 600.

The process was never completed due to local resistance and will now be left to the Reality Fund to handle.

The fund specializes in buying under-utilized property and then winning planning approval for higher-density building. Its founder and chairman, Michael Vardi, was previously head of the government’s Israel Lands Administration (now Israel Lands Authority) and knows the ins-and-outs of the country’s planning and building regime.

Only days before the Mevasseret deal, it bought a site on Tel Aviv’s Herzl Street for 96 million shekels where a five-story building now stands but is due to be rezoned for a 15-floor structure.

In Mevasseret, the Reality Fund’s skills will be tested. The local council issued a statement over the weekend saying it would oppose any measures to change local planning restrictions and had the backing of the regional planning and building council.

“We will use all the tools at our command and devote all the resources necessary to prevent megalomaniacal building that will overwhelm the area’s aging infrastructure,” the council said.