Tel Aviv’s Old Central Bus Station to Go From Grit to Glory

The long-neglected site will one day house offices, apartments and even the Batsheva Dance Company. Let's get the tender underway first.

Daniel Tchetchik

Even in its best days, Tel Aviv’s old central bus station had a down-at-the-heels feel to it. From World War II until the early 1990s, it bustled with traffic and business, a gritty gateway into Israel’s largest city.

But bus traffic was directed even further south to a new indoor facility, and for more than two decades the old place has been a neglected backwater. The station is still standing but its long rows of bus shelters are collapsing. And watch out for the litter.

But take heart: In the next few years the area is due for a complete makeover. It will become a business center with housing and cultural offerings galore.

A receiver appointed to oversee the sale of all land around the station has been appointed; he will soon announce a public tender for about 70 dumans (18 acres). The building itself and the land immediately around it will remain under the control of the Tel Aviv municipality for a college to go up at the site. Sources in the real estate industry say the land up for sale is worth about 1.5 billion shekels ($387 million).

The complex is currently used for parking, fruit-and-vegetable stands, merchandise stalls and small businesses. At the site stand about a dozen buildings, whose ownership is split among 30 or so people and entities, including the city itself.

Also on the list are the Meshulam Levinstein Contracting & Engineering Group, which bought about six dunams there about three years ago, and the Dan bus company, which was one of the station’s biggest users.

The Egyptians bombed it

The old bus station began operations in 1942, during the British Mandate, and quickly earned a place in Israel’s history. During the War of Independence, a bombing raid by the Egyptian air force killed 42 people waiting aboard London-style double-decker buses.

Two iconic Israeli videos were made there — one for the song “Hatahanah Hayeshanah” (“The Old Station”) by the group Teapacks, also known as Tipex based on the Hebrew pronunciation. That classic was filmed in 1995.

The other was "Ani Ma'amin" (“I Believe”) by the group Hadag Nahash in 2010. Over the years the crowds and confusion made the station an ideal target for terrorists, who staged six attacks between 1968 and 2003.

Even when it opened to serve a much smaller city than now, it was clear the facility was too small. But it took more than 50 years for a replacement to be developed; the old station stopped operating in August 1993, when the new central bus station, no Taj Majhal itself, opened.

During the old station’s five decades of life, it created a huge environmental hazard for the adjoining Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood. Buses belched fumes and caused a racket from early in the morning until late at night as they made their way through the narrow streets. As the local people aged and gradually moved away, the place deteriorated even further.

Ironically, the final blow came when the bus station was relocated, removing the noise and pollution but also the tens of thousands of people who passed through the area every day and supported a plethora of small businesses. No plans were made for the future and the site’s commercial core became desolate and dirty. It became Tel Aviv’s ripped backsides.

Lots of labor migrants

As the area was abandoned, rental rates for stores and apartments there dropped, while crime and violence grew. As foreign workers began arriving to Israel in big numbers, it became home to one of the largest populations of African and other migrants and asylum seekers.

After the multitude of owners failed for years to reach an agreement to develop the site, the Central District Court appointed attorney Mordechai Gluska to take over as receiver. Gluska thus has been preparing for the tender. He has ordered the necessary appraisals and legal opinions on ownership, while surveying the place and ridding the parking lots of loiterers.

At the site are owners, renters, tenants with protected status and people who over the years have simply grabbed land illegally. All of them need to be dealt with in a long process. The tender will make clear that the property is being sold “as is,” which will make dealing with the people on the northern and southern ends of the complex problematic indeed.

To get things moving, the municipality is working on a detailed city plan for the site that will coordinate with the city’s master plan. The place will become a major business center with high-density building.

The site provides a potential 450,000 square meters (4.8 million square feet) of built-up space, most of which will be designated commercial. There will be an estimated 1,000 housing units.

Adding an art college

Architect Danny Kaiser has noted that no master plan has been approved, and existing plans are not yet ready, but plans will be presented to the local planning committee in about two months.

The city is also working to make the core of the site, the old bus-station building and the former platforms around it, a mini Mecca for cultural institutions. In the first phase, the Minshar art college is expected to locate there, to be joined by the Batsheva Dance Company.

In 2011, Meshulam Levinstein bought 5.8 dunams at the site for 20.2 million shekels. Based on old master plans, which were modest, the company paid not much more than 550 shekels per square meter. The forecast, however, is 3,000 shekels to 3,500 shekels, but these estimates don’t include the cost of evicting the current tenants.

In any case, it’s no secret that the old central bus station is considered one of the worst sites in Tel Aviv, at least for now. The place and the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood reflect the difference between today’s blight and a five-minute walk from sleek office buildings, not to mention easy access to the busy Ayalon Highway.

The heart of the problem is in the area bounded by Solomon, Fein and Erlinger streets, a place frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes — it’s where much of the area’s crime takes place. And beyond that core there are still problems, even if the lawlessness is less severe. The area is home to many foreign migrant workers, some with children.

In the middle of everywhere

Despite everything, many experts realize the huge potential for the site due to its  location near upscale Rothschild Boulevard, the Ayalon Highway and Begin Road, a wide, if gritty, thoroughfare. In recent years, investors, mostly small ones, have begun gravitating to the streets around the abandoned station, which has boosted the prices of the old apartments there.

Most of the apartments were built in the 1950s. Just after the turn of this century, units in the area were going for 120,000 to 130,000 shekels, or about 2,000 to 3,000 shekels per square meter. Now they're going for 850,000 to 900,000 shekels, or about 15,000 to 16,000 shekels per square meter.

And not far from the old bus station, some new projects have been built, where three-room apartments are going for 1.3 million shekels to 1.4 million shekels or more. The expectation is that the area will be developed in the foreseeable future.

Kaiser, the architect, said the plan for the site and one for nextdoor Harakevet Street, where office buildings will go up, will greatly improve the place, which he called a black hole.

But if the area is to change, more than real estate plans are needed. The fact that Gluska, the receiver, announced his intentions for the public tender four months in advance reflects the complexity of the situation. A detailed plan doesn’t yet exist, though the master plan that was filed promises maximum building density.

There is no final commitment regarding building rights, and developers will have to deal with squatters and protected tenants. As a result, the current situation is still far from the emerald city envisioned.