Hadera's Man With a Plan

Mayor Haim Avitan is confident he can remake the seaside city into the next Tel Aviv.

Raz Smolsky
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Raz Smolsky

The plan: to turn Hadera into a town people want to visit and live in, and not just another exit on the coastal highway. "It has everything it needs to be the next Tel Aviv," says Haim Avitan, mayor of the seaside city. "It's actually bigger than Tel Aviv," he says, refering to the size in square kilometers.

Avitan's seven-year plan is an ambitious one. Tel Aviv stands alone: no city in Israel has ever posed as a true alternative. Even cities with rather more fortuitous starting points, better employment opportunities, better location vis-a-vis the central Dan region, with better schools than Hadera and a higher standard of living, haven't come close.

A simulation of the plan to rebuild government housing blocks in Givat Olga.Credit: Fintzi-Raveh Architects

But Avitan is confident because he believes a strong mayor can mean all the difference for a city's future. "Good mayors advance their cities," he says.

Hadera is perfectly situated to be the next Tel Aviv: it's the country's navel, says Avitan. All coastal traffic passes through it.

When he took the reins seven years ago, Hadera was a dull, colorless place, "unbranded," as Avitan puts it, that did not attract businesses or the educated. The city has already undergone a revolution regarding development, employment and most importantly - education, he says, noting that last year the city won a national education award.

"I received a city with an accrued deficit of more than NIS 250 million," Avitan says. The city was running in the red, adding NIS 25 million to NIS 30 million a year to that hole.

"I made several moves. I replaced the entire management, narrowed the deficit to NIS 70 million and end each year with a balanced budget. At the same time, we consolidated plans to develop the city," he says.

The plans include building thousands of housing units along the beach, in Givat Olga and in new neighborhoods, as well as hotels, and building a boardwalk.

Houses, jobs and hotels

The master plan for the city calls for the addition of 29,700 housing units, of which 18,500 are to be erected by 2020. If the plans come to fruition, Hadera's population of more than 90,000 will double. The city also plans to allocate thousands of dunams of land for businesses which will employ 45,000 workers, a stadium, three sports centers and 10 to 15 hotels, with 2,600 rooms total. You talk of the property development you brought to the city, and the rise in housing prices, but you can't disassociate the increase in Hadera from the rising housing prices in the rest of Israel. With all due respect to your achievements as mayor, housing prices started rising in Tel Aviv and spread outward.

"Property prices in Israel have been rising for decades, but it didn't happen the same way in Hadera because there were no foundations of education, infrastructure and quality of life," Avitan answers.

If the city hadn't changed so much in the last eight to 10 years, he adds, it wouldn't pay for contractors to build there. "It takes more than a year or two to build a city. It takes years," he adds. "There are short-term plans and long-term ones. I approved a master plan for the city after maybe 30 or 40 years [that there had been none]."

What does the city need? What challenges does it face?

"Hadera lacks nothing. We do everything. I have 1,000 dunams by the shoreline, where we plan to start developing a business and high-tech park with half a million square meters of built-up area, between the railroad track and the coastal highway." The real estate company Azorim owns 80 dunams of land in the area, making it one of the biggest local landowners: it should be submitting its plan for its land soon, he says.

The city is working on beautifying the exits and entrances to Hadera. A 22,000-square meter mall has been erected at the eastern exit, built by a company called Polygon, Avitan says. Shari Arison's Shikun & Binui is building a project called Dreams Park with 2,000 housing units in the city's southeastern corner, he says.

"Hadera could be an alternative for young people and families. It's 40 minutes from Tel Aviv," he adds.

The Israeli real estate market seems to be cooling, and developers are holding off starting new projects, just as the wave of development reached Hadera.

"We can't ignore the uncertainties in Israel and around the world," answers Avitan. "It affects buyers and investors. But the slowdown is temporary, and hasn't been felt in Hadera."

To drive home his point he says the city's population has increased from 60,000 residents seven years ago to more than 90,000 today.

Developing a city by building new neighborhoods is easy. What about renovating old neighborhoods, the old city center? Are there any urban renewal plans?

"We have an urban renewal plan jointly with the Housing Ministry," says the mayor. "The dimensions of construction have passed the approval process of the district planning and building committee. We're now working on the paperwork for the plan, which hasn't been approved by the local planning and building committee yet. The plan for Givat Olga includes razing nine decrepit public housing buildings, that were built 60 years ago. Most of the apartments there are privately owned and some belong to Amidar," he says, referring to the government-owned public housing company.

The plan for Givat Olga will put 900 apartments where there were 200, says Avitan. High-rises 25 to 30 stories will be going up by the sea, and some of the existing apartment buildings will be replaced with open space. The land on which the new buildings will go up belongs to the city of Hadera: in exchange for allowing its development, the city will take possession of the land occupied by the doomed public housing buildings.

"We win twice: a new neighborhood and park," says Avitan. Whichever contractor undertakes the project will be responsible for negotiations with the residents, he says.

Out of the transit camps

Avitan's personal story is inspiring. He was born in 1954 to a Moroccan father and Libyan mother and grew up in the transit camps in Hadera among 10 younger siblings.

His mother, a child during World War II, suffered back wounds during an Allied bombing raid on Tripoli. Her injuries were not adequately treated and today she is considered 100% disabled. As if that weren't trouble enough, his father was injured in a work accident when Avitan was 15 and spent a year in a coma. Later his parents divorced.

"I had to take the lead and take care of my brothers and sisters. When I was 13, I washed dishes at night, after all my siblings had gone to sleep. At seven in the morning, 11 children had to get up for school, with a sick mother at home. I studied electricity and electronics, and joined the army even though I had an exemption because of the state of the family."

It was hard for him, Avitan admits. He had no help from the authorities: they never noticed him or his family, he says. He became a success because he believed he could.

"There's a reason that a man who grew up in the transit camps - not an officer in the army or a professor - has driven this city to achievements," Avitan says.

Does the summer protest feel to you like spoiled children crying, given your background?

"I accept the protest. It's right about a lot of things," says Avitan. "But who is leading it? Is it really a cry for social justice, or politics? I say that the protest is genuine, but we have to investigate what the interests of the people behind it are. Generally, progress is made at the expense of the needy."

In his younger years, Avitan had played soccer and even joined the young league team. After his discharge from the army, he played for Hapoel Beit Eliezer and Hapoel Hadera. But he couldn't afford to just play soccer: he had to make a living, he explains, so he began working for Bezeq. He married at age 22 and had his first child, a daughter, at age 23, followed by three boys.

"In soccer they say, it was the game of my life," says Avitan. "I have had the privilege of being mayor of the city and I feel like I'm playing the game of my life in developing Hadera. If I reached the heights I have, it is by virtue of the city. I owe Hadera. I'm in love with it."