Caesarea Residents Fight Plan to Build Hotels on Their Sandy Shores

The people of the tony coastal town, where Benjamin Netanyahu has a home, aim to preserve their low population density.

Caesarea, with the ancient port in the foreground.
Ofer Vaknin

A new master plan for the seaside town of Caesarea features a 50% increase in the number of housing units and a hotel strip along the beach. The blueprints are about to be submitted to the local planning and building committee, so well-heeled Caesareans are gearing up to defeat it.

The plan envisions the construction of 2,650 hotel rooms, 10,000 square meters of commercial and tourism space, and 3,000 residential units. Today the town has only around 5,000 residents and 1,900 approved residential units; the plan would allow the population to climb to 9,500 people.

Followers of Caesarea's construction planning in recent years know that behind the calm, rival groups are doing battle. On one side are the people, including powerful ones like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a home there. This side wants to reduce development to a minimum and preserve the town’s exclusive character.

Facing them is the Caesarea Development Corporation, which owns the town’s land. Caesarea is unique among Israeli municipalities: It’s the only town owned and run by a private organization, in this case a subsidiary of the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation, which was established by the government and the Rothschild family in 1962.

After the founding of Israel, the Rothschild family and its charities turned over most of the Israeli land it owned to the state. It kept only around 35,000 dunams (8,750 acres) in the Caesarea area, which it gave to the government; the foundation then leased it back for 200 years.

But the government and the foundation, which reaps the town’s profits, have a clear interest to develop the area and sell land for housing and other uses.

Tal Cohen

Despite these conflicts of interest, the two sides manage to get along, even though the Caesarea Development Corporation is the authority that runs the community’s affairs and provides municipal services.

Still, every once in a while something brings the clashing interests out in the open. The new master plan for the community, the first in 50 years, is such an event. Around a decade ago, when a preliminary version was presented to the residents, the shouting at the meeting at the local country club could be heard all over the city, Caesareans say.

300 meters from the sea

Since then, the plan has gone through a number of incarnations, with the current version the product of a large steering committee headed by the Planning Administration’s chief for the Haifa district, Liat Peled. The firm Naama Malis Architecture and Urban Design produced the plan and sits on the committee.

The area near the sea is separate from the residential neighborhoods; the hotel strip would be less than 300 meters from the water, accompanied by the likes of cafes, restaurants, bars and shops.

According to the plan, all new construction in town would allow for a minimal population density: four residential units per dunam (quarter acre) of land. For Caesarea, this is unprecedented urban crowding: Many private homes in older neighborhoods are built on a full dunam; in newer neighborhoods they’re re built on half a dunam.

Itzik Ben Malki

Most of the new homes would be semidetached houses (known as cottages in Israel) on plots of a quarter dunam, as well as apartment buildings up to three stories high. In this way, the plan is another major step in transforming Caesarea from an exclusive community into a real town.

But there’s good news for Caesarea’s residents. The two main pillars in the master plan, residential housing and tourism, get two separate road systems. Today’s major north-south axis, Rothschild Street, would continue to serve local residents, while a new road would serve visitors to the beach, hotel area, national park and archeological site, including the Roman amphitheater.

Another Eilat?

“Caesarea is on its way to turning into Eilat,” the residents council warned in a leaflet they distributed to every home in town, referring to the southern resort city. The council also highlighted achievements such as the acceptance of its demand for the separate tourist road, and the reduction in the number of hotel rooms to 2,650 from the 3,000 in the original plan.

But “it’s still an unacceptable number of hotel units,” the residents council says in the leaflet. “The plan threatens the quiet and rural character of the community we’ve chosen to live in. Caesarea’s future is on the agenda, so we call on all residents who want to preserve their quality of life and children’s future to join us.”

The Caesarea Development Corporation rejects the criticism. The company’s chief executive, Michael Karsenti, says the residents council supported the plan in most of its phases and only recently changed its position.

The plan provides an answer for the community’s structural problems, Karsenti says, noting the separation between the tourism and residential parts of town.

“In complete contrast to the disinformation being spread by the interested parties in the community, the master plan reduces the number of hotel rooms by hundreds compared to the existing master plan, reduces the general commercial space by about half, and removes about 1,000 square meters of tourism commercial space,” he says.

“As of today there are [building] rights for 3,000 hotel units, and they are in the heart of residential areas. The owner of the rights, the Caesarea Development Corporation, has never acted on them, out of an understanding that this is a distorted situation. That’s why the criticism of the renewed planning, which creates the tourism area separate from the residential environment ... isn’t clear to us.”

Karsenti adds that the new housing would go up over 30 years. “We’re not going to be marketing neighborhoods 14, 15 and 16 tomorrow morning,” he says, adding that the Caesarea Development Corporation didn’t get everything it wanted in the deal either.

“We wanted to minimize the areas defined today as national parks,” Karsenti says. “As far as we’re concerned, the scope of the areas defined as having nature and historic value is a bit excessive, but the steering committee’s position was different and we accepted it. From this standpoint, Caesarea is expected to resemble the French Riviera much more than Eilat.”